Model Naomi Campbell denies accepting blood diamonds from Charles Taylor at war crimes trial

By Toby Sterling, AP
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Naomi Campbell denies receiving blood diamonds

LEIDSCHENDAM, Netherlands — Fashion icon Naomi Campbell countered allegations that former Liberian ruler Charles Taylor gave her a fistful of diamonds as a flirtatious gift, telling his war crimes trial Thursday that a pouch of “very small, dirty-looking stones” was delivered to her room in the dark of night.

The famously petulant supermodel’s testimony did not provide the smoking gun prosecutors had sought to show Taylor traded in so-called “blood diamonds” to arm rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone. But her appearance drew attention to Africa’s deadly conflicts and the illegal use of resources to finance war.

Campbell was calm and composed as she denied knowingly receiving a gift of diamonds from Taylor after a celebrity-studded 1997 dinner at Nelson Mandela’s presidential mansion in South Africa.

Instead, she said she was awakened later that night by a knock on her door.

“I opened my door and two men were there and gave me a pouch and said, ‘A gift for you,’” Campbell said, adding she did not know the men or what was inside the bag.

When she opened it the next morning, she said she found a few stones.

“They were kind of dirty-looking pebbles,” she said, adding: “When I’m used to seeing diamonds I’m used to seeing them shiny in a box. If someone hadn’t said they were diamonds I wouldn’t have guessed … that they were.”

Campbell said that over breakfast fellow guests Mia Farrow and Carole White, Campbell’s former agent, said the rocks must be diamonds and were probably a gift from Taylor.

“So I just assumed that they were,” she said, adding: “I had never heard of Charles Taylor before, never heard of the country Liberia before, had never heard the term ‘blood diamonds’ before.”

Prosecutors had hoped Campbell would testify that Taylor gave her the diamonds, which would back up their allegations he traded guns to rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in exchange for uncut diamonds — known as “blood diamonds” for their role in financing conflicts — during the country’s 1992-2002 civil war, which left more than 100,000 dead.

It would also have undermined Taylor’s credibility, since he has denied ever trading in diamonds.

After fighting for months to avoid testifying, Campbell arrived at the courthouse fashionably late Thursday shielded by a police escort.

In contrast to her usual cutting-edge fashion style, she wore a demure cream-colored silk two-piece outfit, her dark hair piled into a classic chignon, and a silver “evil-eye” necklace around her neck.

She answered questions from prosecutor Brenda Hollis for nearly two hours as Taylor, his blue pinstripe suit accented with gold cuff links and a diamond-studded gold ring, looked on.

The 40-year-old supermodel said she hadn’t thought much of the incident 13 years ago — “I get gifts given to me all the time, at all hours of the night,” she said.

Campbell said she gave the bag of stones to a friend, Jeremy Ratcliffe, then director of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund and asked him to donate them to charity. However, a spokesman for the Children’s Fund said Thursday the agency never received the stones and it would have been unethical to accept them. Ratcliffe could not be reached for comment.

Taylor, 62, says he is innocent of the 11 war crimes charges he faces, including murder, rape, sexual enslavement and recruiting child soldiers.

Prosecutors allege that from his seat of power in Liberia, Taylor armed, trained and commanded Sierra Leone rebels who murdered and mutilated thousands of civilians across the border.

Campbell said she resisted testifying in part because she feared Taylor. “This is someone that I read up on the Internet that killed thousands of people supposedly and I don’t want my family in any danger in any way,” she said.

Although summoned by the prosecution, Campbell often seemed happier answering questions from Taylor’s defense attorney, Courtenay Griffiths.

Under defense questioning, Campbell asserted that statements Farrow and White gave to prosecutors were wrong, including White’s claim that Campbell flirted with Taylor while sitting next to him at dinner.

Campbell denied that Thursday, saying she was seated between Mandela and music producer Quincy Jones .

Noting that White is enmeshed in a legal dispute with Campbell, Griffiths asked: “This is a woman who has a powerful motive to lie about you?”

“Correct,” Campbell responded. Both White and Farrow are to testify Monday.

Frustrated by Campbell’s answers, Hollis said the model appeared to be downplaying her friendliness with Taylor, pointing to a photograph in which they were standing together at the dinner.

But Griffiths said it was wrong for the prosecution to challenge the credibility of its own witness, and Judge Julia Sebutinde agreed. Hollis then argued Campbell should be considered a court witness, given that she had stonewalled prosecutors ahead of Thursday’s testimony.

“You subpoenaed her and it was a prosecution witness,” Sebutinde retorted.

Taylor, sitting in the defendant’s chair, smiled at the exchange. In custody in the Netherlands since June 2006, he is the first former African head of state to stand trial in an international war crimes court.

Media turnout was extremely heavy, with more reporters and television crews attending than at any time since the trial began in January 2008.

“This whole episode with Naomi Campbell being called to testify, what’s welcome about that is that it’s thrown the international media attention back on to the issue of blood diamonds,” Global Witness spokesman Oliver Courtney told AP Television News. “This is a problem that hasn’t gone away.”

Campbell became one of the world’s highest-paid models after being discovered while shopping in London at age 15. The hot-tempered fashion icon is no stranger to courtrooms, having faced a series of lawsuits and criminal cases over the years.

In June 2008, she pleaded guilty to cursing, kicking and spitting at police at London’s Heathrow airport in a rage over a missing piece of luggage, and was sentenced to 200 hours of community service.

Campbell also did a week of community service scrubbing toilets in a Manhattan garbage-truck depot after pleading guilty in 2007 to misdemeanor assault for hurling a cell phone at her maid. That followed a 2000 guilty plea to assault for hitting an assistant on the head with a phone in Toronto.

A few of Campbell’s former aides and maids have sued her, accusing her of violent outbursts. Some cases have been settled on undisclosed terms.

Still, the only moment a touch of irritation entered Campbell’s voice on Thursday was when Hollis asked why she refused to cooperate for a year and came to court only after facing a possible sentence of up to seven years for contempt.

“I didn’t really want to be here,” Campbell said. “I just want to get this over with and get on with my life, this is a big inconvenience for me.”

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