The court is not spared anything, including this cross-examination on the subject of cannibalism.
Question: "How do you prepare a human being for a pot?" The witness: "We lay you down, slit your throat und butcher you and throw your head away, your intestines."
This is more than the court wants to hear. The audience turns away in disgust.
"With pepper and salt," the witness adds.
These are scenes from a nightmare that never seems to end. The trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia, before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague has been underway for more than three years -- without palpable results.
Crimes against humanity, mass murder, rape, mutilation, the blame for the massacres that took place during the civil war that raged in neighboring Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002: the charges against the African politician are as massive as the prosecutors' ambition to force a murderous head of state to atone for his crimes for the first time in history. But the more unbearable the details of this bloody African conflict become in the neon-lit courtroom, the more agonizing is the game of guilt and atonement, and the more untouchable this former president, in his silver-gray tie, gray suit and white pocket handkerchief, becomes.
Nothing seems to stick to this defendant. Cannibalism? Taylor feigns disgust. What does he have to do with such atrocities, he asks?
More than 90 witnesses have already testified. The International Criminal Court in The Hague is currently in the process of hearing the last of the oral evidence, and the man who was almost certain of taking his place in history as the " Butcher of Monrovia" appears to be emerging as a winner, at least for now.
In Freetown, the devastated capital of Sierra Leone, where the ravages of the civil war continue to shape the misery of everyday life, and where the country's war crimes tribunal has its headquarters between NATO barbed fire fences, mutilated victims follow the Internet broadcasts from faraway The Hague with trepidation. Musa Mewa, a journalist, senses that a catastrophe is unfolding in Europe. If Taylor is not punished for the suffering that the people in his native West Africa still endure today, it will be "the end of justice," says Mewa.
Gangsters of World Politics
Peace through justice: Using a formula established in 1945 during the Nuremberg trials of the surviving perpetrators of Nazi atrocities, international courts have been trying for almost 20 years to make the worst gangsters of world politics, tyrants and war criminals alike, accountable for their crimes.
In 2006, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia failed in its attempt to convict former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. The defendant died of a heart attack before the court could fully process the completely overloaded indictment against him. The prospects of bringing Omar al-Bashir, the president of Sudan, before the International Criminal Court are also slim. Although the court has issued an arrest warrant against the tyrant, he remains untouchable in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, where he continues his dictatorial rule.
Now the Taylor trial, seen as the most promising of such cases to date, threatens to fall apart in The Hague. In the worst case, the Taylor trial could reveal to the world that it's impossible to measure national leaders by the yardstick of the law.
Stephen Rapp, the chief prosecutor in the Taylor trial until a year ago and now an advisor in the United States State Department, must already regret the bold statement he made after the defense had submitted its evidence: "It has been demonstrated that it is possible to prosecute a former chief of state in a trial that is fair and efficient, even where the indictment covers wide-ranging crimes."
Rapp's self-praise was "overstated and entirely premature," experts at the University of California, Berkeley, who have monitored and analyzed the trial for years, said recently. In a study, the international law experts accuse the judges and prosecutors in the case of making serious mistakes. They characterize the often insensitive treatment of victims who were willing to testify as "surprising and disappointing" and the prosecutors' financial payments to key witnesses as irritating.
According to the Berkeley study, the "excessive delay" of the apparently overwhelmed court in reaching important interim decisions can be attributed to the "apparent violation of the defendant's fair trial rights." The defendant as a victim of an overly zealous judiciary? The gray-haired man, wearing cufflinks in the shape of the African continent, can lean back and relax.
The prosecution's biggest challenge has not been to provide the court with evidence of the horrors of the civil war in Sierra Leone. No one doubts that the 1990s uprising by the "Revolutionary United Front" (RUF), under its bloodthirsty leader Foday Sankoh, claimed far more than 100,000 lives. The death squads that mowed down entire villages for the RUF referred to their operation as "No Living Thing." The gruesome details are collected in 42,000 pages of evidentiary material. They include accounts of children butchering their own parents on Sankoh's orders, mass rapes and ritual bloodbaths.
Amputees Living in Misery
The rebels chopped off the arms, legs or all the limbs of thousands of people. A population of amputees lives a life of misery in the slums of Freetown today. In a degrading procedure, some were even forced to parade their mutilations before the court in The Hague. Mothers broke down in tears when called upon to describe to the court how their children were murdered.
RUF ringleaders were convicted and imprisoned for these crimes in other trials in Freetown. Only the most important of the trials was moved to The Hague, for security reasons.
It is unsettling enough for the victims, after being put through the ordeals of traveling from the broken end of the world to the high-tech courtroom in the Netherlands, to arrive there and be told that the suffering they endured is not the central issue in this trial. In The Hague, far away from the scene of the crime, the unspeakable things that were done to the witnesses at home are reshaped into the cold, hard facts the legal experts call the "crime base."
In The Hague, all of this is nothing more than background noise for the "linkage," or establishment of a legal connection between the distant catastrophe and the ultimate responsibility being attributed to a polite man sitting in the corner who sometimes flips through Newsweek when he's bored.
Charles Taylor, who has been held at the tribunal's prison in The Hague's Scheveningen district for the last four years, was allegedly the mastermind of the carnage in neighboring Sierra Leone. After seizing power in Liberia with no less brutal means in 1996 and having himself elected president, he allegedly fueled the civil war in Sierra Leone with arms shipments. For years, politicians and legal experts alike were convinced all of this was done out of pure greed. Taylor, whose reputation as a swindler had already preceded him as a young man, was allegedly trying to gain control over the hugely productive diamond mines in Sierra Leone.
Taylor's lust for diamonds is the link prosecutors have tried to establish. So far, however, they have not managed to offer convincing proof of this crime story in public court hearings. The most important witness, former RUF commandant Foday Sankoh, one of Taylor's comrades from the wild days, died of a stroke years ago.
His successor in the RUF, Issa Sesay, testified as a witness for the defense in The Hague. Despite days of cross-examination Sesay, who has already been sentenced to a 52-year prison term and therefore has nothing to lose, continued to insist that Taylor had had nothing to do with the arms shipments to the RUF.
Now much will depend on whether the court believes the man telling the cannibal stories.
The witness, who goes by the nickname Zigzag, spent days describing the gruesome massacres and acts of torture in which he had been involved. He also insisted that Taylor had given the orders to commit these atrocities himself, and that he had had no choice but to obey. If he had refused, Zigzag claimed, Taylor would have had him and his family killed. "It is the truth. Before God and man, that is what I am telling you," he told the court.
It didn't take much effort for the defense attorney to expose Zigzag as a cynical blusterer who was unable to name specific numbers, dates and places. He had killed so many thousands of people, he said, that he could hardly be expected to remember the individual cases.
Zigzag's testimony was shaped primarily by the desire to save his own skin. The defense submitted investigative files that suggest that the prosecutors had used excessive pressure when describing the legal situation to the witness. If he did not assign the full blame for his crimes to former President Taylor, the files read, he could expect to receive the worst possible sentence.
If it was a ploy, it worked. Zigzag left the courtroom a free man, but not before his testimony had prompted the frustrated defense attorney to ask him whether he couldn't speak a sentence that didn't include the words "on the instructions of Charles Taylor."
"No, I can't," he replied.
With the exception of Zigzag, the prosecution was unable to call any witnesses publicly who could credibly confirm, based on their own experiences, that Taylor was in fact the source of the weapons that were supplied to the RUF in Sierra Leone. Zigzag is also the only one who claims that he brought home a diamond from Sierra Leone ("a large passport-sized shaped like a human head") and gave it to Taylor.
Dealing with Bribery Accusations
Other witnesses could only report indirectly on the diamond-weapons link to Taylor, but the credibility of some was damaged by the claim that they received payments from the prosecutors. "We have never paid a witness for his testimony," says Chief Prosecutor Brenda Hollis, noting that all funds were paid in the form of reparations.
But the defense believes that it can prove that the investigators in Sierra Leone and Liberia used substantial financial promises in an attempt to convince witnesses to make false statements. Only a few weeks ago, Taylor's attorneys presented the court with at least a dozen secret payment orders to potential witnesses, coupled with the spectacular motion that the prosecutors themselves should be prosecuted for "contempt of court."
The judges are apparently struggling with how to deal with the bribery accusations. A decision, which is expected in the next few days, could result in the trial being taken back to square one.
The difficulties the prosecution has had in finding credible witnesses are reflected in the attempt to turn the stuff of gossip columns into evidence. When Woody Allen's former partner Mia Farrow said that she remembered how British supermodel Naomi Campbell had told her about an uncut diamond Taylor had given her in South Africa in 1997, Campbell was summoned to appear in the courtroom in August.
But Campbell could not confirm that the messengers who had knocked on her door at night and given her the small bag containing the diamond were in fact coming from Taylor. "It is not abnormal for me to get gifts. I get gifts all the time. Sometimes in the middle of the night," Campbell said.
The prosecution was getting nowhere. With tears in his eyes, the former president complained about a web of "diabolical lies" against him. He told the court that this is what happens to the leader of a "small country" who becomes trapped in the slander mills of international politics. He said that he had acted as a responsible president and had tried to promote peace in neighboring Sierra Leone. "We heard that people were being killed and women were being raped there," he said. "We couldn't understand it."
This angel of peace has always liked playing the desperado. The politician always wore a white suit with an ornate silver-plated walking stick as he strolled through the Liberian capital, Monrovia. If enough people were watching, he would sometimes throw himself into the dust and beg God to forgive him for his sins. He once declared Jesus Christ to be the ruler of Liberia.
Taylor, whose private fortune is estimated at up to $3 billion (€2.1 billion), even managed to plead poverty and collect legal aid. The prosecution deployed a task force to find Taylor's hidden assets.
The team managed to find one account with the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment. Some $24 million (€17.1 million) were deposited into the account between 2000 and 2003, but when the investigators discovered the account, it was empty. Millions in cash had been withdrawn a short time earlier.
The Taylor case shows that condemning a politician politically and doing so in a fair trial are two different things. Convicting someone "several levels above the direct perpetrator" of a crime, says prosecutor Hollis, requires "more time and more evidence. We have a very complex mix."
Many problems stem from the fact that the prosecution relied on the UN's political verdict. A 2000 UN report had drawn the investigators' attention to the Liberian president in the first place. According to the document from New York, there was "unequivocal and overwhelming evidence that Liberia has been actively supporting the RUF at all levels."
But there was actually no evidence. For example, the UN report cited, as evidence of Taylor's alleged personal involvement in the arms trade, the fact that weapons that were -- presumably -- bound for Sierra Leone had been flown to Liberia on a plane belonging to one of Taylor's business associates. This is certainly suspicious, but it isn't evidence.
The impression that the UN sometimes bases its case on dilettantes was reinforced when, in the courtroom, Taylor's lawyers quoted from an internal letter written by the UN special envoy for Sierra Leone, who complained to headquarters in New York about the "amateurish" research being done by UN investigators in the Taylor case. According to the letter, compiling "chatty cocktail gossip" about the president was downright "journalistic."
The prosecution made the problem even worse by declaring the story of the diamond-hungry warmonger Taylor disseminated worldwide by the UN to be the equivalent of a crime under international law. Taylor, according to the 2003 indictment, was the head of a "joint criminal enterprise" with the aim of gaining "political power and control over the territory of Sierra Leone, in particular the diamond mining areas."
But the lawyers became entangled in their attempt to define the savage bloodbath as a major political crime. The defense pointed to a hole in the prosecution's case: It is still not a crime under international law to seize the natural resources of another country. But what was Taylor's criminal objective? "This very important element has led to some confusion," Chief Prosecutor Hollis concedes.
Reinterpreting the Indictment
For almost a year, as the trial continued, the court pondered over how it should respond to the objection raised by the defense. Finally, in February 2009, the judges rescued the prosecution, after heated debate, with a creative reinterpretation: In a second indictment, written in 2007, the prosecutors also charged Taylor with having systematically terrorized the civilian population of Sierra Leone. The terror itself, the judges explained, and not the diamonds, was the objective for which Taylor was in fact being charged with a crime. One of the judges who was against his colleagues' sleight of hand called it "brain-twisting."
But if the issue was terror, not diamonds, what was to become of the charges that the president of Liberia had procured diamonds? And what was the purpose of the RUF's attempt, allegedly ordered by Taylor, to assume power in Freetown?
Several studies by British experts do not attribute the carnage to Taylor's influence as much as to the rage of young, violent fringe groups against the corrupt post-colonial regime in an African country with such abundant natural resources.
Introducing all of this information into the case is no longer possible. The taking of oral evidence was long complete by the time the court had decided to reinterpret the indictment. Prosecutor Hollis is trying to rescue the case from a verdict of a lack of fairness. "The defense was on notice of what they had to defend the defendant against," she says.
But some insiders in The Hague believe it is only a question of the judges' courage as to whether the trial will end with an acquittal.
Peace through justice? In the Liberian capital Monrovia, where there is now a democratic government, the many supporters of the former president now in detention in Europe still go into raptures over the thought that he could return to Liberia one day. Bars throughout West Africa still show the video that Taylor's revolutionaries made when they assumed power. It shows them cutting off the ears of Taylor's ousted predecessor, Samuel Doe. Taylor's former brother-in-arms Prince Johnson is also in the video, as he sits at a table covered with beer cans and gives the torturers instructions.
Johnson is back in the limelight in Monrovia, where he is running for president.