THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Former Liberian President Charles Taylor boycotted the opening of his war crimes trial and his assigned lawyer walked out of the courtroom in a dramatic opening to the landmark first international tribunal of a former African leader.
Lawyer Karim Khan said Taylor had fired him and wanted to act has his own defense attorney. Khan walked out even though Presiding Judge Julia Sebutinde of Uganda repeatedly directed him to continue to represent Taylor, if only for the opening day.
Apologizing and defying threats of contempt of court, Khan gathered his files and left the room.
"This is not defense counsel making some cheap trick," Khan told The Associated Press outside the courtroom. Taylor "thought this was a railroad to a conviction and in those circumstances, he exercised his right to terminate my representation and to represent himself."
The court ordered the trial to continue, and Chief Prosecutor Stephen Rapp began his opening statement.
Taylor, 59, who has pleaded not guilty to 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.
The prosecution was making a four-hour opening statement Monday, after which the case was to adjourn for three weeks. It was unclear who would be sitting on the defense bench when it resumes June 25. The trial was expected to last 18 months.
Taylor was not in court Monday, but in a letter read to judges by Khan, he claimed he had been prevented from seeing a court official mandated with making sure he is properly defended and that his one court-appointed attorney was heavily outgunned by the prosecution team of nine.
"At one time I had confidence in this court's ability to dispense justice. Over time, it has become clear that confidence has been misplaced," Taylor's statement said. "I will not receive a fair trial."
Taylor's supporters say he has been unfairly targeted by prosecutors and that his defense team has not had enough time to prepare. "He's taking the blame for what others did," said his daughter, Charen Taylor, who grew up in the United States and dropped out of college to help organize his defense.
Rapp told the court Taylor had been assigned a lawyer, assistant attorneys, a special investigator and court funds.
Sebutinde, the presiding judge, repeatedly interrupted Khan's reading of Taylor's letter, demanding a to-the-point explanation for Taylor's absence.
"We are not interested in political speeches," she told the lawyer.
The trial had been expected to be difficult and complex even before Monday's developments raised more questions about how the process would work. Despite the difficulties, though, the trial has been hailed as a watershed for war-torn western Africa.
"It's a time in the history of Africa that the leaders ... go on notice that they just cannot destroy their own people for whatever purpose," said David Crane, a former chief prosecutor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
The atrocities in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war are well-documented. Fighters — often children drugged and turned into merciless killers at brutal rebel training camps — murdered thousands of men, women and children and mutilated more by hacking off hands and limbs with axes and machetes. Women were raped and abducted to become sex slaves.
Many victims had the initials of rebel groups carved into their skin with burning-hot bayonets. Children were sent out with burlap bags to hack off and collect limbs and were punished if the bags were not full when they returned.
When witnesses begin testifying, survivors, including amputees, will take the stand along with former allies from Taylor's inner sanctum who will be critical to proving he controlled rebels responsible for atrocities in another country.
Many will testify anonymously for fears of reprisals from Taylor supporters, and some will be put in witness protection schemes after giving evidence.
"Prosecutors will have to prove that the linkage exists between Taylor's alleged participation in the crimes and the crimes themselves," said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch. "There is no question these kinds of cases are difficult, they are complex."
While the charges he faces refer to events in Sierra Leone, Liberia's neighbor, Taylor also is linked to brutality in his own country.
At the Liberian capital's largest cemetery, where most of the tombstone dates are from the period of the country's 14-year civil war, four gravediggers listened to radio reports of the start of Taylor's trial Monday.
One gravedigger, Flomo Tokpah, 54, said his older brother was killed by Taylor's forces, and that he was glad Taylor did not address the court himself.
"I don't want to hear that wicked man's voice anymore," he said.
But his co-worker, Teddy Taweh, 42, said Taylor "should face the court and tell people why he did what he did."
From 1989 to 1997, Taylor led the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, whose aim was to unseat then-President Samuel K. Doe. Taylor is believed to be one of the first warlords to recruit children, who were organized into a Small Boys Unit and christened with names like "Babykiller." Taylor was elected Liberia's president in 1997.
Taylor was indicted in 2003, accused of sponsoring Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front in exchange for diamonds. Taylor agreed to give up power and go into exile, but was arrested in Nigeria in March 2006.
He was transferred to The Hague a year ago amid fears his trial in Sierra Leone could trigger fresh violence in the region. His trial will take place in a court room rented from the International Criminal Court by the U.N.-backed court that usually sits in Sierra Leone and was established to try those held most responsible for the Sierra Leonean war.