Judges in one of the world’s most controversial war crimes trials have been deliberately slowing down proceedings, senior US officials believe, causing significant delays to proceedings.
Secret cables reveal US doubts about the trial in The Hague of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, amid allegations that one of the judges has manipulated proceedings so that she can personally give the verdict in the case.
“[Sources] speculate that Justice [Julia] Sebutinde may have a timing agenda,” one senior US diplomat states. “They think she, as the only African judge, wants to hold the gavel as presiding judge when the trial announces the Taylor judgment.”
The cable alleges that Sebutinde, from Uganda, had slowed proceedings while she waited for her turn at the court’s rotating presidency, which finally came up in January. Experts say such moves are common in international criminal proceedings.
“It is certainly the case that the identity of the presiding judge is a factor that those involved in an international trial pay careful attention to,” said international law expert Philippe Sands QC. “That has been very clear in my experience.”
Taylor, who was the president of Liberia but is on trial for alleged crimes relating to the conflict in Sierra Leone, remains in custody in The Hague, where the trial continues in the premises of the international criminal court. Sierra Leoneans have expressed anger at the slow proceedings.
“People are frustrated that this case is taking so long,” said AB Jalloh, a Sierra Leonean journalist. “Sierra Leoneans are really frustrated that they have not been able to reach the final decision at the set time, and that they have kept on extending proceedings. Many feel that the money could have been better spent elsewhere in Sierra Leone.”
The court denied that proceedings had been deliberately slowed down, stating that the judges had tried to speed up proceedings. “Since she became presiding judge last January, Justice Sebutinde has worked to expedite the Taylor trial,” a spokesperson said. “All of the judges of the trial chamber have worked tirelessly, and made personal sacrifices, to expedite the Taylor trial. The allegations that any or all of the judges have sought to slow down the proceedings is untrue.”
But the cables reveal America’s lack of confidence in the proceedings, as officials at the court explored possibilities for eventually putting Taylor on trial in the US.
“The best we can do for Liberia is to see Taylor is put away for a long time and we cannot delay for the results of the present trial to consider next steps,” another high-ranking US official stated in a cable.
“All legal options should be studied to ensure Taylor cannot return to destablise Liberia. Building a case in the US against Taylor for financial crime such as wire fraud would probably be the best route. There may be other options, such as applying the new law criminalising the use of child soldiers or terrorism statutes,” the cable adds.
Americans were so keen to see Taylor’s trial begin quickly that they were willing to ignore reports that a senior official at the court was being abusive towards employees, the documents also reveal.
The Taylor trial has been dogged by controversy from the outset. It had originally been anticipated that proceedings at The Hague would have concluded by the end of this year.
Earlier this year the model Naomi Campbell was summoned to give evidence at the court, amid allegations that she had received a “blood diamond” from the former Liberian leader, which prosecutors said proved Taylor’s connection to the conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone.