Naomi Campbell testimony to war crimes tribunal: not clear gift was diamonds

Supermodel Naomi Campbell gives her testimony as to whether she accepted 'blood diamonds' from former Nigerian leader Charles Taylor at his war crimes trial.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; 12:13 PM

THE HAGUE -- At stake was the fate of Charles Taylor, 62, the first 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, then, since 2006, as a defendant at the U.N. Special Court for Sierra Leone and a ward of the Dutch government at the Hague Penitentiary.

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, the New York-based celebrity sneaked in the back door to avoid waiting photographers and, wearing a demure cream-colored dress with a knitted top to cover her elegant shoulders, 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."

(Photo gallery of Naomi Campbell)

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 story that he trafficked in uncut diamonds "nonsense" and insisted he played no role in arranging arms shipments to the rebels.

(Previous coverage of Charles Taylor)

Against that background, 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 recounted what had happened to 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 tribute by Taylor.

Taylor had been a guest at the dinner the night before, she said, but aside from idle table talk 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, however, she said she assumed it was true, having grown used over the years to receiving gifts from admirers of her beauty.

Later that day, Campbell said, she handed the pouch to Jeremy Ratcliff, whom she knew as the administrative head of Mandela's Children's Fund. Her intention, she explained, was that Ratcliff would sell the diamonds and use the proceeds for the helping poor South African children.

"I didn't want to keep them," she said.

(Video of Naomi Campbell)

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. Moreover, she said, her lawyers last year learned that Ratcliff still has the diamonds in his possession. She did not explain why, nor did she say 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 differing version of events. According to their depositions, the two men came to Campbell's room under an arrangement made between Taylor and the famous model at the dinner. And when she approached them 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 that White, having sued Campbell in New York on a separate issue, has an interest in portraying her in a bad light. Running down the differences between White's assertions and Campbell's testimony, he induced Campbell to qualify White's version as a lie.

"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."

What this phase of the trial comes down to is whom to believe, said Alpha Sesay, a Sierra Leone lawyer monitoring the trial for the Soros-funded Open Society Justice Initiative. "It's, is this credible or not?" he said in a post-testimony interview.

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

(Five myths about diamonds)

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