The World

May 2, 2008 3:41 PM

Clifford Chance Tracks Charles Taylor

Posted by Brian Baxter

Update: Chief prosecutor Rapp told the BBC today that Taylor has billions stored in U.S. bank accounts.

When Charles Taylor went on trial in The Hague on charges that he engineered the deaths of thousands in the ten-year civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone, Clifford Chance—which has made Africa a focus of its pro bono efforts—wanted to be sure the people of West Africa were apprised of developments in the trial.

So last summer the firm and two nonprofit legal organizations—the Open Society Justice Initiative and the International Senior Lawyers Project—set up a Web site dedicated to providing updates on Taylor's war crimes trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague. Lawyers from Clifford Chance and its pro bono partners rotate so that at least one of them is in the courtroom daily when it's in session to provide updates for the site's coverage.

"Some of these proceedings are closed, or the identity of the witness cannot be divulged, because they tend to be victims of Taylor's atrocities and fear retribution," says Joel Cohen, a litigation partner in Clifford Chance's New York office working on the project. "[The Web site] is a way of summarizing the developments in a more user-friendly way."

Cohen says partners and associates from various Clifford Chance offices—particularly Amsterdam, Paris, and London—take turns covering the trial. There is a live courtroom feed from the tribunal, Cohen says, but the transcript is often incomplete because the court reporter is overburdened. Clifford Chance lawyers assist their pro bono counterparts in compiling complete transcripts, posting pleadings, and writing blog items that, Cohen says, "help provide a forum for dialogue."

The firm's involvement with the trial grew out of its pro bono work for victims of Taylor's brutal dictatorship, Cohen says. (Fictionalized versions of Taylor's barbarous regime can be seen in the films Lord of War and Blood Diamond.) The firm, which has an associate stationed in Liberia doing pro bono work, has helped victims bring tort claims in Liberian courts. (U.S. legal precedent is valid in Liberia, which was founded by freed American slaves.)

"[It] touches a chord," says Warren Feldman, a litigation partner in New York who serves as Clifford Chance's pro bono coordinator. Lawyers at the firm, Feldman says, are interested in "issues arising from the international courts of criminal justice."

Cohen says Clifford Chance lawyers involved with the Web site try to remain objective and obtain information from both the defense and prosecution. Clifford Chance hosted an event in New York for chief prosecutor Stephen Rapp, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Iowa, and Cohen says the firm plans to do the same for Taylor's team of barristers from Garden Court Chambers in London.

Clifford Chance considers its Taylor Web site to be such a success that both Cohen and Feldman say the firm is considering expanding its coverage to war crimes tribunals elsewhere, such as Cambodia.

Moreover, says Cohen, the firm may also look for opportunities to assist tribunals more directly. "We might be able to offer help in tracing assets or helping in other ways to bring some of these perpetrators to justice," he says. "It's just a fascinating area of law to work on."

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