Naomi Campbell testifies in war crimes trial of Liberia's Charles Taylor

A pressroom TV at the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone shows Naomi Campbell as she testifies about crossing paths with Charles Taylor.
A pressroom TV at the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone shows Naomi Campbell as she testifies about crossing paths with Charles Taylor. (Vincent Jannink/associated Press)
By Edward Cody
Friday, August 6, 2010

THE HAGUE -- At stake was the fate of Charles Taylor, 62, the first former African president brought before an international war crimes tribunal. Although he looked like a London banker with his gray hair and pinstripe suit, the U.S.-educated Taylor stood accused of murder, rape, sexual slavery, cruelty, enslavement, pillage and recruitment of children to fight in one of the world's most atrocity-filled wars.

The unlikely star witness was Naomi Campbell, 40, a sleek British supermodel who for two decades has been an international icon of glamour, style and jet-set indulgence. Her testimony seemed to come from another universe, far from the steamy battlefields of West Africa where Taylor first made his name as a rebel warlord and Liberian president. Since 2006, he has been a ward of the Dutch government at the Hague's penitentiary, as a defendant at the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Campbell's reluctant court appearance Thursday brought a sudden splash of attention to a judicial proceeding that has been droning on for three years in a wooded suburb of The Hague. After an unsuccessful legal battle to be excused because of fears for her family's safety, the New York-based celebrity sneaked in the back door to avoid waiting photographers. Wearing a demure cream-colored dress with a knit top to cover her shoulders, she answered questions for two hours without so much as a glance at the defendant.

"I didn't want to be here," she responded when asked why she appeared so tense. "I was made to come here, and I just want to get this over with and get on with my life. This is a big inconvenience to me."

What brought Campbell and Taylor together in the courtroom were "blood diamonds," the precious jewels mined in Sierra Leone that helped finance that country's anti-government forces in a brutal conflict a decade ago. According to U.N. estimates, several rebel armies killed or maimed more than 100,000 people, sent pubescent boys into battle high on drugs and reduced young girls to sex toys for guerrilla chiefs who often enforced discipline by cutting off limbs.

A smitten Taylor, the prosecution sought to prove, gave Campbell a gift of uncut diamonds in September 1997 after a dinner in Pretoria, South Africa, hosted by President Nelson Mandela to fete donors to his Children's Fund. The diamonds were in Taylor's hands, prosecutor Brenda J. Hollis charged, because he had brought them to South Africa to buy arms for the Sierra Leone rebel groups that, as president of neighboring Liberia, he sponsored and helped direct.

Establishing Taylor's role in arranging the arms purchases was key to prosecution charges that he aided and exercised influence over leaders of the allied Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, some of whom he had trained with in Libya. Taylor, denying all charges against him, has called the assertion that he trafficked in uncut diamonds "nonsense" and insisted he played no role in arranging arms shipments to the rebels.

Campbell testified that two men showed up at her door after the dinner with Mandela and handed her a cloth pouch, saying only: "A gift for you." Groggy from lack of sleep after several days of bouncing between modeling assignments in London, Milan and New York, she said, she put the pouch aside and went to bed. Only the next morning did she look inside, she recalled.

"I saw a few stones in there," she told the court after prodding from Hollis, "a few small, dirty-looking stones." She was unsure what they were, she added with a smile, because "I am used to seeing diamonds shining in a box."

A few minutes later at breakfast, she said, she recounted what had happened the night before for her agent at the time, Carole White, and Mia Farrow, the American actress who also was a Mandela guest. One of the two, Campbell said, suggested the stones must be uncut diamonds offered as a gift from Taylor.

Taylor had been a guest at the dinner, she testified, but aside from idle chat she did not know the Liberian leader and had not even heard of his country before he described it to her. When White and Farrow suggested the pouch must contain diamonds from Taylor, she told the tribunal, she assumed it was true, having grown used to receiving gifts over the years from admirers of her beauty.

Later that day, Campbell testified, she handed the pouch to Jeremy Ratcliffe, whom she knew as the administrative head of Mandela's Children's Fund. Her intention, she explained, was that Ratcliffe would sell the diamonds and use the proceeds to help poor South African children. "I didn't want to keep them," she said.

Since then, Campbell acknowledged under questioning from Hollis, she has learned that it is illegal under South African law for individuals to possess or sell uncut diamonds. She did not explain why Taylor was immediately assumed to be the source of the diamonds during the breakfast-table conversation.

White and Farrow, who are scheduled to testify beginning Monday, have given the prosecution a sharply different version of events. According to their depositions, the two men went to Campbell's room under an arrangement made between her and Taylor at the dinner. And when she approached the other two women at breakfast, they said, Campbell seemed to know the stones were diamonds presented as a gift from Taylor.

Taylor's defense counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, noted that Campbell and White have since fallen out and asserted that White, who has sued Campbell in New York over a separate issue, has an interest in portraying the model in a bad light. "This evidence was worthless in the first place," he said at a news conference afterward. "But it is even more worthless now." The idea that Taylor gave Campbell the diamonds, he added, "is pure speculation."

Campbell's appearance marked a special effort by prosecutors to prove Taylor's involvement in the rebellion. Otherwise, the prosecution rested its case in February 2009; the defense has been calling its witnesses for more than a year. A verdict is expected next year. Eight people have already been convicted by the tribunal and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 15 to 52 years.

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