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Crimes of War: Former Liberian Leader on Trial

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotted the beginning of his war crimes trial today in The Hague. In a statement read by a defense attorney, Taylor denounced the court and said I cannot participate in the charade that has no justice to the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Taylor stands accused of numerous human rights violations for his rule in the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone. That conflict devastated the country, leaving thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced.

In a moment, we'll hear from Emira Woods, an Africa policy expert at the Institute for Policy Studies. And we'll also speak with David Crane, the former prosecutor who pursued human rights charges against Taylor.

But with us now is Steven Rapp. He is the current prosecutor for the special court for Sierra Leone. He joins us by phone from his office at The Hague. Welcome to the program.

Mr. STEVEN RAPP (Prosecutor, Sierra Leone Special Court): Good to be on today.

MARTIN: Would you please tell us what was Charles Taylor's role in the civil war in Sierra Leone and how that led to his prosecution?

Mr. RAPP: Well, he, in essence, was the author of the civil war in Sierra Leone. He developed the plan, together with others. And the evidence shows from the beginning that he was providing the - not only some soldiers for that battle, but also the key arms.

MARTIN: What was Taylor's motivation?

Mr. RAPP: Well, first of all, he wanted power in Liberia. He wanted a friendly government joining Liberia and Sierra Leone. He also wanted to have the benefit of the resources, the abundant natural resources - particularly diamonds that were available in Sierra Leone.

MARTIN: He was indicted on these charges back in 2003, as I understand it. Why is the trial going forward now?

Mr. RAPP: First of all, because he was not arrested until 2006. You have David Crane on later, and he'll describe the valiant efforts to obtain his arrest and transfer that continued for a period of three years. And now, we commence the trial, a trial that we believe we can conclude in about 18 months.

MARTIN: Are you going to be able to secure witnesses to testify?

Mr. RAPP: They are willing to come - understand that they are often frightened. Many of them are worried about efforts to come after them for retribution if they testify. Particularly challenging is the issue of the insider witnesses, those are so key to holding a leader responsible because he's not, and they have never alleged the man that's out there are shooting people himself or hacking off limbs with a machete, that he's at distance from the crime. And it's, of course, necessary to have people that are close to him to prove his involvement.

MARTIN: Taylor is the first former African head of state to be brought before an international court, as I understand it. Is that significant? And if so, why is it significant?

Mr. RAPP: The transfer of Taylor, the arrest of Taylor and the trial of Taylor I think makes everything new. And I think it sends this clear signal to those that might be committing atrocities in Darfur or elsewhere that their day, too, will come.

MARTIN: I hope we'll have an opportunity to speak again as the trial proceeds.

Mr. RAPP: I'm sure there will be those opportunities during the next 18 months and thereafter.

MARTIN: Steven Rapp is the prosecutor for the special court for Sierra Leone. He joined us by phone from his office at The Hague. Thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. RAPP: Very good - very good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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