Trial in Africa is apparently too risky for a man accused of fomenting war across west Africa – and believed to have the support and money to create more trouble.
International prosecutors today requested that Charles Taylor’s trial for crimes against humanity be moved to The Hague.
“Yes, it is true that the Special Court of Sierra Leone has made a request for Charles Taylor to be tried at The Hague,” the Netherlands, Peter Andersen, spokesman for the UN-backed Special Court convened in Sierra Leone to try those held most responsible for the horrors of this nation’s civil war.
“But I wish to stress that it would be the Special Court of Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague,” Andersen said.
Taylor’s first court appearance, during which he would hear the charges against him and be asked to plea, was still expected to be held in Sierra Leone, perhaps as early as tomorrow.
He is set to become the first-ever African head of state tried for war crimes before an international court.
Andersen did not elaborate and no official announcement on the possibility of moving the trial was made in Sierra Leone, where emotions and the desire to see Taylor brought to justice run high.
Taylor, a former Liberian president, has been indicted on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity charges for allegedly supporting a brutal rebel movement in Sierra Leone, Liberia’s neighbour to the north.
In the Netherlands, Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Dirk-Jan Vermeij said the Sierra Leone court had contacted the Hague-based International Criminal Court to make its facilities available for the trial.
“The request mentions the other tribunals in The Hague and says that holding Taylor’s trial outside Sierra Leone could help stability and peace in the region,” Vermeij said.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf also raised concerns about stability today, saying in an address to her nation that the Hague international court would be a “more conducive environment” for Taylor’s trial than so close to Liberia, where many still support him.
“The government wishes to make it abundantly clear that those who would try to use these circumstances as an excuse for insurrection to undermine the stability of the nation will be dealt with harshly, without mercy,” Sirleaf said.
David Crane, Desmond de Silva’s predecessor as chief prosecutor of the Freetown court, said security in Freetown was ample.
“It’s just that there are probably some political considerations,” said Crane, who drew up the original Taylor indictment. “The host country is probably nervous.”
Taylor had spent nearly three years in exile in Nigeria as part of a peace deal to end fighting in Liberia, keeping him out of reach of the Special Court.
From exile, he was believed to have continued to steal money from the Liberian treasury through loyalists to use to undermine attempts to create a new political order there.
When he was captured trying to flee transfer to the Sierra Leone court, he reportedly had two 110lbs sacks filled with US dollars and euros.
The Netherlands said it was willing to work with the court trying Taylor, but that it wanted the sanction of a UN Security Council resolution.
A spokesman for the Hague-based ICC, Ernest Sagaga, said if the UN asked it to host the trial, “the authorities of the ICC will have to consider it.”
In a case comparable to Taylor’s, the Netherlands hosted the trial of two Libyan intelligence agents for the 1988 mid-air bombing of Pan Am flight 103 which killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland.
A UN resolution paved the way for a Scottish criminal court – guarded by Scottish police – to hold the trial at a former Dutch military base near the small town of Zeist.
Taylor’s arrival in handcuffs at the Sierra Leone court yesterday represented a watershed moment for West Africa, a region long shaken by a man once feared across the region for fomenting violence in his homeland, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and elsewhere.
Most of Sierra Leone’s newspapers carried photos of Taylor, his handcuffed hands at his waist and wearing a bullet-proof jacket, on their front pages today.
“West Africa’s wars catch up with Taylor,” one newspaper headline blared.
Last week, under pressure from the United States and others, Nigeria agreed to hand Taylor over for trial, but made no move to arrest him or arrange for his arrest.
On Tuesday, Nigeria announced that Taylor had disappeared, just a day before Nigerian President Oluesgun Obasanjo visited the United States to meet with President George Bush.
Nigerian police captured the exiled ex-Liberian president yesterday morning. 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 sacks filled cash, Nigerian police official Alhaji Mohammed Aminu Bello said.
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.