Nicholas Jahr has written the most interesting article I’ve seen on the Charles Taylor trial. (h/t to Dan)
“My name is Dankpannah Dr. Charles Ghankay Taylor, the 21st President of the Republic of Liberia.” Taylor’s first words on the witness stand [...]
“Ghankay” [...] means “one who is strong.” Taylor picked up the doctorate after he was elected president, while visiting Taiwan, a gift from the Chinese Culture University for granting the country diplomatic recognition.
He first claimed the title “Dankpannah” back in 1997, when he married Jewel Howard (now a senator in Liberia, and the chair of Taylor’s National Patriotic Party). Nobody had heard the honorific until it was used in their wedding vows, which raised some eyebrows. Despite its indigenous ring, its origins are unclear. It suggests Taylor was recognized as the leader of the Poro, the initiation societies of Liberia’s bush, except historically the Poro didn’t have a single leader, certainly not before the mid-20th century, when the Americo-Liberian elite began trying to centralize control over the tradition. On cross-examination, the prosecution argued Taylor wasn’t even the rightful possessor of the title.
More telling is what Taylor left out of the equation: His full given name is Charles McArthur Taylor, a fact he himself mentioned in passing the following day. That makes him sound more like one of the aforementioned Americo-Liberians, a descendant of the freed slaves who “founded” Liberia. [...] By dropping “McArthur,” Taylor downplayed his Americo-Liberian origins [...], and played up the image of the African leader under interrogation.
On Taylor taking the stand in his own defense for weeks:
As Taylor continues to hold forth uninterrupted day after day, week after week, it’s hard to escape the sense that an implicit deal has been struck: the prosecutor won’t object, Griffiths will appear to ride herd, and Taylor will say his piece. No one will be able to say he didn’t have the chance to make his case; no one will be able to challenge the orderliness, the legitimacy of his prosecution.
On a strange discussion of a camera:
Taylor’s one lunatic moment on the stand comes out of nowhere [...]. Griffiths is questioning him about his government’s arrest of documentarian Sorious Samura and his crew nine years earlier on charges of espionage. Taylor says that the interview Samura had scheduled was “an attempt to kill me.” But he goes further: “A major Western intelligence source” informed his government that the camera Samura would use to tape the interview “contained some beam or something that fired at me would, over a period of time, lead to cancer.” As Taylor was told: “The camera is going to be your demise.”
Griffiths did not follow up. Of course, the source might simply have meant that Taylor was liable to betray himself on film, or that mere reporting was more of a threat to his rule than any rebellion. Then again, Fidel Castro has claimed that in 1971 the C.I.A. designed a camera with a gun inside to take him out. In 2001, two men posing as documentary filmmakers assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan; their camera was packed full of explosives (Taylor would later claim he’d been briefed about this, although it occurred a year after Samura’s arrest; the prosecution seized on that as evidence of perjury). Cancer-beams aside, the claim wasn’t quite as crazy as it might seem. Or maybe it was simply an attempt to stoke Taylor’s paranoia. It was one of the few hints of the Taylor so often portrayed in the international media: a man enthralled by superstition and dark portents.
There is a justifiably damning critique of former prosecutor David Crane, who Jahr shows was unqualfied (before the Taylor trial, he had no courtroom experience) and made bad prosecutorial decisions (e.g. the decision to indict Hinga Norman). Jahr quotes an official who suggests no one could fight Bush’s nomination of Crane because of US financial support to the Special Court.