Liberia’s one-time warlord Charles Taylor was in the hands of Sierra Leone’s tribunal today, where he is set to become the first-ever African head of state tried on war crimes charges by an international court.
Taylor has been indicted by the UN-backed tribunal on 11 counts of crimes against humanity stemming from his support for brutal rebels in Sierra Leone. His arrival in handcuffs at the court yesterday represented a watershed moment for West Africa, a region long shaken by Taylor’s warmaking.
“Today is a momentous occasion, an important day for international justice, the international community, and above all the people of Sierra Leone,” said Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor of the tribunal called the Special Court.
“His presence in the custody of the Special Court sends out the clear message that no matter how rich, powerful or feared people may be, the law is above them,” de Silva said.
Nigerian police captured the exiled ex-Liberian president late on Tuesday as he tried to leave Nigeria, where he has lived in the south since stepping down from power during a 2003 rebel attack.
He was caught trying to slip across the northern Nigerian border with Cameroon with his son, an aide-de-camp and a local guide, along with two 50kg sacks filled with US dollars and euros, Nigerian police official Alhaji Mohammed Aminu Bello said.
UN peacekeepers ferried Taylor by helicopter to the court, where de Silva said he was read his arrest warrant and would make his first court appearance by the end of this week.
Taylor joined nine other defendants, also charged with crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s brutal 1989-2002 civil war. Taylor, a bombastic speechmaker during his time in the bush and as Liberia’s president, made no comment.
The charges against Taylor stem from his support of the Revolutionary United Front rebels that terrorised civilians in Sierra Leone for years, chopping off the arms, legs, ears and lips of their victims.
On March 3, 2003, Taylor was indicted on 17 counts alleging war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law for backing the rebels during the war.
De Silva said that on March 16, 2006, the judge of the Special Court approved an amended indictment of 11 counts, which he said “will ensure a more focused trial”.
The court began trials in 2004, but Taylor was their highest-profile defendant and the first African head of state to face trial on war-crimes charges.
Nigerian police said they found him in a vehicle with diplomatic plates. He was wearing a safari suit and was in possession of sacksful of dollars and euros, they said. His journey to the UN court then went through several African countries, after Nigeria deported him to his native Liberia, which handed him over for extradition to Sierra Leone.
Nigeria had granted asylum to the fast-talking, US-educated economist under a 2003 agreement that helped end Liberia’s 14-year civil war.
But on Tuesday, Nigeria announced that Taylor had disappeared from his home in exile and admitted that his whereabouts were unknown, just a day before Nigerian President Oluesgun Obasanjo visited the US to meet with President George Bush.
Bush congratulated Obasanjo on the capture yesterday, saying: “The fact that Charles Taylor will be brought to justice in a court of law will help Liberia and is a signal, Mr President, of your deep desire for there to be peace in your neighbourhood.”
During a speaking engagement yesterday, Bush said that the US wants Taylor tried in The Hague, where the International Criminal Court, the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, and the International Court of Justice are based.
Secure facilities at a nearby Dutch prison have housed war crimes suspects from the former Yugoslavia, and most recently for the International Criminal Court from the Congo.
“There is a process to get Charles Taylor to the court in the Netherlands,” Bush said. “Such a process will require a United Nations Security Council resolution.”
Bush said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had told him ”she thought that might happen relatively quickly. And so, therefore, I think he is headed for where he belongs, which is trial”.
Nigeria had resisted calls from the US, human rights organisations and the war tribunal in Sierra Leone to arrest Taylor to ensure he would stand trial. Taylor in 1985 had escaped from a US jail in Boston.
Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has said Liberia wanted Taylor tried in the Sierra Leone tribunal, rather than in Liberia, where it was feared his presence could destabilise the country’s as it attempts to rebuild after installing the new leader in January.
Some 15,000 UN peacekeepers are in Liberia, and the last UN soldier of what was once a 17,500-strong force in Sierra Leone left in December. Another 10,000-strong UN and French peace force remains in Ivory Coast, where many former child soldiers that fought for Taylor are now believed embroiled in that conflict.
While the Sierra Leone tribunal’s charges refer only to the war there, Taylor also has been accused of backing rebel fighters elsewhere in West Africa and of harbouring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people.
“I think his capture and being put on trial does not only close a chapter but it also sends a powerful message to the region that impunity will not be allowed to stand and would-be warlords will pay a price,” said UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said at UN headquarters in New York.