15 June 2012

Libya: Detained ICC Lawyer Tireless Advocate of Fair Trials

There is something about Melinda Taylor that makes her stand out from the many other sharp, intelligent and enthusiastic lawyers she rubs shoulders with in The Hague.

She shares their belief in and encyclopaedic knowledge of international justice. But it is the way she puts this into practice that makes her stick in your mind after you've met her.

What sets Taylor apart is her deep conviction that in order for justice to work, the defence needs to be as robust as the prosecution.

Taylor is not in The Hague at the moment, walking the corridors of the International Criminal Court, ICC, where she works.

Instead, she is detained virtually incommunicado in Libya.

The authorities there allege that she smuggled documents to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, son of the late Libyan leader. The ICC has accused Saif al-Islam of committing crimes against humanity during last year's popular uprising, but the Libyan authorities are reluctant to hand him over.

Since she and three colleagues from the ICC - Helene Assaf, Alexander Khodakov and Esteban Peralta Losilla - were detained in the town of Zintan on June 7, there has been no direct contact except for a brief visit from a small ICC delegation

ICC officials cannot confirm where Taylor is being held, by whom, or exactly what she is suspected of having done. They are liaising with Libyan officials on the case.

Rewind back to an ordinary day in The Hague and you will find Taylor behind a computer in the Office of Public Counsel for the Defence, OPCD, an independent office set up by the ICC to ensure an "equality of arms" between legal teams.

When I met Taylor six years ago, there was a lot of excitement about the first trial coming up before the ICC, the world's first permanent international war crimes tribunal. Stories were flying about the "Congolese warlord" Thomas Lubanga Dyilo and the atrocities for which he would have to pay at the ICC.

I made the mistake of buying into this kind of language during my interview with Taylor. She patiently pointed out that such terminology should never be used in reference to accused persons before judges have ruled on their innocence or guilt.

It was clear that Taylor relished the opportunity to speak about the importance of defendants' rights, when all the attention usually goes to the prosecution.

The OPCD was conceived as an additional resource to support defence teams in cases before the ICC by providing legal research and analysis.

Insisting on the right to a fair trial for individuals suspected of committing terrible crimes is an unenviable task.

During our interview in the ICC café, Taylor seemed to me to be quite alone in this vast institution. Most other lawyers were there to bring an end to impunity - to ensure that those responsible for the gravest crimes imaginable were dealt with by the might of international law. Taylor's thirst for justice had taken her along a road less travelled - supporting suspects and ensuring they had everything necessary to build a strong defence case to rival that of the prosecution.

But Taylor's enthusiasm was unbridled and unapologetic.

It was clear to me that the health of international justice was in the hands of people like her, who were willing to be thorns in the side of the establishment.

She had taken on the unglamorous, bookish and thankless task of trawling through motions, decisions and judgements to make sure that, in her words, everything single thing the court does "factors in the presumption of the innocence of the accused". Nagging, petitioning and nitpicking - and all to ensure that justice was delivered fairly.

During Taylor's tenure, the OPCD has grown in size. It is now headed by Senegalese lawyer Xavier-Jean Keita, and has a handful of staff.

Taylor has remained at the front line throughout, doggedly ensuring that the jurisprudence of the court develops in the right direction.

Now she finds herself in Zintan, detained on suspicion of unprofessional conduct.

Taylor's role was to represent Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in the ICC case against him and to ensure his rights as a suspect were observed until he appointed a lawyer of his own choosing.

In detention, she and her three colleagues have not been formally charged and to date have not had access to a lawyer - in other words, the basic rights Taylor has dedicated her career to championing for others.

Katy Glassborow was formerly senior IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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