April 4, 2006

War crimes suspect Taylor hunts for defense lawyers

By Nick Tattersall

FREETOWN (Reuters) - Former Liberian leader Charles Taylor
is hunting for lawyers to defend him after pleading not guilty
to war crimes at a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone, his
advisors say.

Africa's most feared warlord pleaded innocent on Monday to
11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for his
role backing rebels who raped and mutilated civilians and
recruited child soldiers during Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil

From his heavily-guarded cell in the Special Court
compound, nestled among the shanty-covered hills of the capital
Freetown, Taylor has been receiving legal advisors from around
the region but has yet to decide who should defend him, lawyers

"We were able to see him and give him our advice. He will
consider it and act on it but he has not yet chosen his own
defense team," said Azanne Kofi Akainyah, a lawyer from Ghana
who came to Freetown at Taylor's request and met him on Monday.

"He was resolute, not downhearted, fully aware of the
political machinations behind everything," Akainyah told
Reuters late on Monday.

Taylor's aides have said he would like Harvard law
professor Alan Dershowitz to lead his defense.

Taylor was defended at Monday's hearing by a staff lawyer
from the tribunal, Vincent Nmehielle, who told the court the
former Liberian leader did not currently have sufficient funds
to employ his own defense team.


"Mr. Taylor has made it clear that he has no money,"
Nmehielle said after the hearing. "But he has not hidden the
fact that if he is able to raise the necessary money, he would
love to defend himself with a legal team of his choice."

The former warlord was flown, handcuffed and surrounded by
UN peacekeepers, to the Freetown tribunal last Wednesday, after
nearly three years in exile in Nigeria.

He was arrested trying to leave Nigeria in a car with a
trunk full of banknotes.

The U.N.-backed court has asked the Netherlands to hold his
trial in The Hague, citing fears keeping him in Sierra Leone
could provoke unrest there and in neighboring Liberia, where
some of his supporters have threatened violence if he is

Taylor told the court he did not recognize its right to try
him, an appeal based on his status as a head of state at the
time the indictment was served, which has already been
dismissed once by the tribunal in 2004.

"This is just a sort of pathetic attempt to reassert this
head of state immunity that has already been rejected," the
tribunal's chief prosecutor, Desmond de Silva, told Reuters
after the hearing.

"He does not have head of state immunity any more than
Milosevic did," he said.

The prosecution now has 30 days to present the defense with
the evidence on which it relies before Taylor's legal team
prepares its case, a process expected to take several months.