Charles Taylor trial of brief interest to celebrity mags

The Special Court for Sierra Leone does not usually feature in tabloid headlines nor does it attract the attention of supermodels and Hollywood stars. The Court’s purpose is try those who bear the greatest responsibility for violations of international humanitarian and local law in Sierra Leone since it was overrun by rebels in 1996. Its most famous case is Charles Ghankay Taylor, former President of neighbouring Liberia, accused of 17 crimes against humanity including murder, rape, mutilation, sexual slavery and conscription of child soldiers by arming RUF rebels during the 1991-2001 Sierra Leone civil war.

Taylor’s trial went surreal with the conflicting testimony of a Hollywood star and a supermodel. In the last month the Court heard testimony from actress Mia Farrow which contradicted that of British model Naomi Campbell. Prosecutors had called the model to provide evidence Taylor had handled blood diamonds used to purchase weapons during the war.The prosecution said Taylor gave Campbell a gift of diamonds at a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela in September 1997 to raise funds for the Mandela Children’s Fund. Campbell attended with Farrow and Campbell’s former modelling agent Carole White. Campbell gave evidence on 5 August which attracted headlines, partially because she told the Court her appearance was a “big inconvenience” (she would later apologise to the Court) and partially because a supermodel was giving testimony at a genocide trial. The Washington Post found it hard to believe these two worlds could ever collide. “That they did, however, is testament to beauty as both valuable currency and irresistible narcotic,” said the Post.Campbell said she was woken up by two unknown men who handed her a pouch saying it was a gift. Because she was sleepy she didn’t ask who they were or who gave her the pouch. She said she did not open the pouch until the following morning and was disappointed to find a few “very small, dirty looking stones”. She said either Farrow or White suggested the stones were from Taylor and she believed so herself.

With Campbell’s testimony giving Taylor a lifeline, the Prosecution looked to White and Farrow. But they complicated the picture by contradicting Campbell and each other. Farrow said she heard Campbell say Taylor had given her a “huge diamond” at the dinner. She said Campbell told the story to guests at breakfast the following morning. Carole White said it wasn’t a huge diamond but five separate pieces. She said Campbell and Taylor were seated near each other during the dinner and started flirting. White said Campbell whispered to her Taylor was going to give her diamonds and she was very excited.

Campbell told the court she later gave the diamonds to Jeremy Ractliffe, a representative of a Mandela charity. Ractliffe said he worried the gift would damage reputations and might be illegal, so he kept the diamonds and did not tell anyone. He issued a statement last week saying he had now handed over to authorities three alleged “blood diamonds” Campbell gave him. South African police confirmed their authenticity.

The appearance of beautiful, wealthy western women and their precious stones overshadowed other testimony. Former RUF leader Issa Hassan Sesay, who was convicted by the Court for his part in the atrocities, has been on the stand for three weeks. He refuted claims Taylor directed the rebels when they entered the capital Freetown in 1999. The prosecution hammered him on his statements Taylor had directed the 1998 attack on diamond-rich town of Kono. Sesay’s testimony concludes this week.

Proceedings now head towards the seven year mark. Charles Taylor was indicted on 7 March 2003, when still president. The indictment was announced three months later on his first trip outside Liberia.  Taylor resigned as president and went into exile in Nigeria. Nigeria transferred him to the Special Court in March 2006. Due to Sierra Leone security concerns, the Special Court arranged for the trial at The Hague where he was transferred to in June 2006. After legal wrangling, the Prosecution re-opened witness testimony in January 2008. They closed their case 13 months later after having presented testimony from 91 witnesses. The defence opened their case on 13 July 2009. The Prosecution also reopened its case to call Campbell, Farrow and White. While the trial briefly reached the women’s magazines, it will now once again retreat into international law journals, until the final decision.

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