When supermodel Naomi Campbell testifies this week in the trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, nobody quite knows what she is going to say. But one thing is certain: her testimony will bring global attention to a bizarre and brutal tale of celebrities, diamonds, and intense human suffering which has largely unfolded in a courtroom devoid of spectators.
Naomi Campbell is one of three high profile witnesses that prosecutors have called to testify as they re-open their case at the Special Court for Sierra Leone this Thursday. The actress Mia Farrow and Campbell's former agent, Carole White, are due to take the witness stand on Monday next week. Prosecutors say that the evidence these three women may provide could be crucial in helping them shore up a theory that ties Taylor to brutal crimes committed during the civil war that raged in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002.
Taylor has been accused of supporting and controlling rebel forces in neighboring Sierra Leone as they unleashed mayhem on a terrified population, using drugged-up child soldiers to rape, loot, and murder their way across the country, hacking off the limbs of men, women, and children to mark their path. Prosecutors say Taylor not only made no effort to stop or punish these crimes when he was in a position to do so, but actively helped plan the atrocities with rebels in order to terrorize the population, destabilize the country, and benefit financially from Sierra Leone's diamond wealth. Taylor has dismissed the charges as "lies."
Campbell's testimony is important, prosecutors say, because she may be able to link Taylor to a central allegation in the case: that he provided rebels with weapons in exchange for diamonds. They claim that in 1997, Sierra Leonean rebels (who by then had ousted their government) visited Taylor in Liberia and brought him a stash of diamonds, which they hoped he would use to buy them arms and ammunition during his trip to South Africa the following month.
And here is where the president of Liberia and the three ladies’ paths intersect: when Taylor traveled to South Africa in September 1997, he attended a dinner hosted by Nelson Mandela, at which he met Naomi Campbell, along with Mia Farrow and Carol White. This meeting is undisputed.
But the story of what happened in South Africa is not. According to the prosecution’s story, Taylor was smitten with the supermodel and had his men wake Campbell up that night and give her some of the rebels’ diamonds. The rest of the gems were allegedly used to buy a shipment of weapons which arrived in Sierra Leone in October 1997.
Mia Farrow has said that Campbell told her of the encounter the next morning; White claims that she was there when the men arrived and saw six small uncut blood diamonds given to Campbell on a crumpled piece of paper.
The prosecutors hope that Campbell’s testimony will not only to connect Taylor directly with these blood diamonds, but also to undermine his credibility. During his time on the stand, the former president consistently denied ever owning, much less trading, diamonds, save for a few pieces of personal jewelry.
Taylor has derided the prosecutors' story about that night as "total, total nonsense."
His witnesses have gone even further in challenging the prosecutors' theory. This month, defense witness Issa Sesay, a former rebel leader serving a 52-year jail sentence for his role in the Sierra Leonean atrocities, denied that the rebels gave Taylor diamonds, and said that Taylor had nothing to do with the arms shipment that arrived in Sierra Leone after his trip to South Africa in 1997. Instead, Sesay testified that the rebels used money given to them by Libyan leader, Muammar Ghadaffi, to buy the weapons that arrived in October; other rebel commanders transported them, and Sesay then traveled to pick them up.
Ultimately, the judges will have to decide which version of events they believe, given the evidence presented by both sides since the trial began in 2008.
Over 13 months, the prosecution presented amputation victims, who told how rebels had mutilated them. A traumatized mother described the horror of discovering that the bag of severed heads, which rebels had forced her to carry, contained those of her own children. One of Taylor's fighters has told of eating human livers, burying pregnant women alive, and placing the heads of vanquished enemies on pikes at roadblocks while working in Taylor's employ. Witnesses have described deliveries of mayonnaise jars full of diamonds from rebels and recounted orders that Taylor radioed through in response, to attack or fortify certain towns in Sierra Leone.
Taylor, meanwhile, has denied all the allegations against him. He presented an alternative version of events in which he, as a statesman and a peacemaker, fell victim to a Western conspiracy to make him a scapegoat for Sierra Leone's woes. While admitting to early contact with neighboring rebels during the country's 11-year war, Taylor has denied any relationship with them after 1996 (which is when the crimes for which he's been indicted allegedly took place) except to negotiate peace—which contact he made at the behest of other West African leaders.
No matter what Naomi Campbell says on Thursday, her appearance will doubtless ensure that more people know about this trial, find out about the horrific crimes and suffering in Sierra Leone, and perhaps are surprised that even presidents can be called to account before the law—and get a fair trial—if they are suspected of war crimes.
For daily reports on the Charles Taylor Trial and further background, see www.charlestaylortrial.org.