17 July 2008

Crime and punishment

Last week, m'learned friend Miss K suggested we go to visit the international criminal court in The Hague. It was the last sitting before summer break, and her being a student of international law, environmental law, human rights, this was a last chance while in the region to get this first hand learning experience. Okay, I said, finding the post-holiday life of a "freelancer" drag a little slowly on these rainy summer days. Maybe I can write something about it.

We went to the trial of Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia and accused of 11 counts of crimes against humanity and war crimes, including murder, rape and recruiting child soldiers.

We got to the courtroom by taking the regular commuter train from Amsterdam and a tram. At the public entrance, we had our handbags x-rayed but we didn't have to leave them in locker. Cameras and tape recorders were banned, but we weren't carrying those. The gallery was like a high-tech lecture theatre. We were separated from the proceedings by a glass wall, judges facing the public, prosecution to the right, and defence the left. Charles Taylor was sitting behind his defence counsel.

The witness had his back to the gallery, the central panels of windows were screened, and he apparently had a sound proof booth. His testimony was relayed through CCTV, his voice altered and image pixcellated. Our headphones had a simultaneous translation to English on Channel 1.

That morning, the defence lawyer went through an administrative matter requesting more time on some aspect of the trial preparation. Then, the prosecution started questioning the witness. Essentially, she was trying to get him to acknowledge that he had previously seen and was aware of the contents of a series of documents relations to specific actions of a militia group. She then wanted him to say whether his memory of actual events verified what was in these documents. At every opportunity the defence tried to discredit the documents themselves, the witnesses' ability to understand them, whether the witness only understood the documents after being read their contents, whether he was literate or able to read the English at the time of the offences,... etc. I guess that's his job.

The prosecution was a North American woman in her 50s, short steely grey hair. She looked exhausted, but she was keeping a poker face. The defence lawyer an British guy, not as senior, with a honey-coated upper crust voice probably from Cambridge, who couldn't help smirking a little as he said things like "if it please the court" when pointing out that his copy of the evidence wasn't copied correctly and had lines missing from the bottom and the sides.

We were only in the room for about an hour of a trial that started in January and will probably go on for several months more. A group of lawers are running a detailed blog, and the special court of Sierra Leone is screening the trial in their local court room to allow greater access.

It was fascinating to see international human rights law in operation like this. You can only imagine how tedious it must be to have to plug away into all the evidence for years, interviewing people over countless horror stories. But for the people sitting on the other side of the glass, this is their day-job. They are full time agents of justice, and they have appropriately impassive faces and a dry manner to go with it.

It was alternately chilling, especially when the witness was being questioned about some associates, namely one called Rambo and one called Van Damme. Who does this document refer to where it says Van Damme? Why was he called that? What was his role that day?


meririsa said...

Oooh! Facelift!

Meririsa said...

How interesting. I imagine cases like this are very hard to prosecute, with all the language barriers and distance from the scene of the crime etc.