Date set for former Liberian President Charles Taylors defence at UNbacked trial

18 June 2009The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone today announced that lawyers for the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, will begin their defence against charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity on 13 July. Mr. Taylor’s lawyers will make their opening arguments on that day in The Hague, where the Court is based, and the preparatory hearing is slated for 6 July. In 2006, the Security Council authorized the trial to be held in the Netherlands, instead of its usual venue in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, citing security reasons.The Prosecution rested its case against Mr. Taylor in February after presenting 91 witnesses to provide testimony.The former President has pleaded not guilty to the 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which include pillage, slavery for forced marriage purposes, collective punishment, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The charges relate to his alleged support for two rebel groups in neighbouring Sierra Leone, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and the Revolutionary United Front, during that country’s civil war from 1996 to 2002. The Special Court for Sierra Leone was established in January 2002 through an agreement between Sierra Leone’s Government and the UN. It cannot impose a life sentence, but it has already sentenced two defendants in another case to 50 years in jail. Britain has said it would be willing to imprison Mr. Taylor if he is found guilty. read more

UN ramps up relief efforts as huge MidEast snowstorm threatens Syrian refugees

Heavy snowfall, rains, high winds and freezing temperatures are forecast to continue over the next several days and are expected to further disrupt the lives of the most vulnerable Syrians. Flooding has already become a problem in some low lying areas and is expected to get worse once the snow melts, said the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The longer the low temperatures continue, the more difficult life becomes for everyone, UNHCR’s Adrian Edwards warned today as he briefed journalists in Geneva. UNHCR teams and partners have been working over the past few days to replace damaged tents, provide repair kits, deliver emergency supplies and offer alternative shelters to those who have been forced to abandon their homes. The response was timely this year as winter operations in the region began ahead of time and included cash vouchers to help the most vulnerable refugees. However, despite the best efforts of governments, local authorities, and UNHCR, the situation across the region remains precarious for most refugees, particularly given the poor conditions in which many people already live and the scattered nature of the population. Especially concerning is the situation in Lebanon, where refugees are spread out in some 1,700 different locations. Reports say that more than 100 shelters and tents have been damaged and that flooding and standing water is a serious concern in places hit by heavy rains and high winds. In coastal areas in the south, high waves had flooded some settlements, Mr. Edwards explained. In hard to reach areas, including inside Syria and some parts of Iraq, temperatures have dipped. In Za’atari – Jordan’s largest refugee camp with nearly 85,000 Syrians – dozens of families, as of today. remain in emergency shelters after their tents collapsed under the weight of snow.More funds are needed to meet these critical challenges and to help some of the most vulnerable people, Mr. Edwards added, emphasizing that needs continue to outpace money coming in. At Za’atari, UNHCR has established several shelters in advance of the storms for those with nowhere else to go. The shelters are equipped with heaters, mattresses and blankets, and food and water are also provided.But heavy rain and melting snow have caused flooding, damaging belongings and turning streets into quagmires of water and freezing mud. Electricity in several parts of the camp has been cut.Once conditions improve, UNHCR teams will be sent out to assess the damage to individual shelters and carry out repairs or provide replacement equipment.Also at today’s Geneva briefing, Tarik Jasarevic, from the World Health Organization (WHO), expressed concern over the spread of infectious diseases in Aleppo, Syria.He said WHO had managed to bring medication including for chronic diseases and antibiotics for infections – enough for 240,000 people – to Aleppo but is now waiting to distribute to hard-to-reach areas. WHO is also providing vaccines against measles, rubella, mumps and polio to hard-to-reach areas, including Aleppo governorate. read more