Diamond testimony absorbs Liberia

People reading newspaper headlines at news stands in Liberia's capital, Monrovia (left) and someone holding the New Democrat newspaper which has the headline "Campbell's Huge Diamond" (right)
Image caption Over the last week the Charles Taylor trial has been headline news

The latest testimonies at the trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor have, not surprisingly, generated a lot of interest back in the homeland of the man who is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Newspaper pages have been replete with highlights from the courtroom in The Hague and details of the contradictory stories from the British supermodel Naomi Campbell, her ex-agent Carole White and Hollywood actress Mia Farrow.

Radio talk shows have devoted most of their air time to views about whether Mr Taylor gave so-called blood diamonds to Ms Campbell at a charity dinner hosted by South Africa's former President Nelson Mandela 13 years ago.

And the celebrities' accounts have dominated talk on the streets of Monrovia, the Liberian capital, too.

But, like most things to do with Mr Taylor, who is accused of backing rebels in the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone, it is a polarised debate.

On Tuesday, people gathered atnewspaper stands in the morning to catch the latest headlines.

Amongst them was Clarence Farley, an academic and commentator, who gave his thoughts on the court appearances.

"The witnesses were selected to contradict Taylor's claims of not offering diamonds to the rebels; but unfortunately they failed to do so," he said.

'In God's hands'

When the prosecutor from the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, Brenda Hollis, visited Monrovia last month, she raised expectations that these testimonies would seal Mr Taylor's fate.

But Mr Farley said, in his opinion, this was not the case.

"If it is a case of law where the admissibility of evidence is a determining factor, then Taylor should be a free man," he said.

A student at the University of Liberia, who did not want to give his name, felt, however, that the former Liberian president's future still hung in the balance.

"Until the final whistle is blown, no-one can draw a conclusion that there are no facts in what Mia Farrow and Carole White have said to contradict Naomi Campbell's testimony," he said, holding a newspaper in his hand.

Mr Taylor is accused of receiving diamonds from the 1990s rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone and in return supplying them with arms.

The rebels of the Revolutionary United Front are notorious for hacking off the limbs of civilians.

While some in Liberia are glad to see their former leader on trial, he does still have supporters in the country.

And there are others who regard his indictment as a purely a matter for Sierra Leone.

"What can we say or do here in Liberia to change the situation in The Hague?" said Comfort Smith, a restaurant owner.

"For me, just as the former president said on leaving Liberia in 2003, if God wants him to come back, he will."

Photo outrage

Yet what seems to have caused more of a fuss in Monrovia than the actual celebrity testimonies, has been the publication last week of a near-naked photo of Ms Campbell.

The picture, showing her bare-backed and looking over her shoulder towards the camera, appeared with a separate photo of Mr Taylor on the front page of the New Democrat newspaper under the banner headline: "Blood Diamonds Moment of Truth Today".

There was a public outcry with many saying the photo was "obscene".

Sando Johnson, a spokesman for the Taylor family, said the paper had "disgraced womanhood".

"This is not about Charles Taylor, this is about the pride of Liberian women and our children, and I call on women to condemn it," he said.

Even Information Minister Cletus Sieh got involved, saying the government would withhold the prize of a digital camera prize it had promised to give the newspaper after winning the Press Union of Liberia's award a few weeks ago.

In the end the newspaper was forced to apologise and was fined $250 (£160) by the Press Union of Liberia.

But the paper can be assured that as the trial enters its final stages it will have plenty of readers eager to read the fate of their deposed leader.

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