Former Liberian President Charles Taylor pleaded not guilty today to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery, mutilation and sending children into combat.
Taylor at first said he could not plead on the charges, which stem from his role in Sierra Leone’s civil war, because he did not recognise the court in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
But after Justice Richard Lussick insisted, Taylor said calmly: “Most definitely, your honour, I did not and could not have committed those acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone.”
Lussick accepted Taylor’s that as a plea of “not guilty”.
Taylor betrayed little emotion during the hearing, though at one point he shook his head as his indictment was read.
Many hope the trial of Taylor, the first former or sitting African president to face such charges, will firmly establish the principle that Africa’s despots are not above the law.
At his arraignment today, Taylor’s defence lawyer also asked that the case stay at the headquarters in Sierra Leone of an independent international court established to try those held most responsible for atrocities during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Court officials have asked that the trial be moved to Europe because of fears Taylor can still spark unrest in West Africa. Taylor, accused of backing a particularly brutal Sierra Leone rebel group, said through his lawyer that he feared for his safety in Sierra Leone, but wanted to be tried in the region, in part because it would be easier for defence witnesses to appear.
After accepting Taylor’s plea, Lussick instructed aides to set a date for the trial to begin. No date was immediately set, and Lussick said nothing about where the next hearing might be held.
While most reporters watched on closed circuit TV from elsewhere in the complex, the audience area in the court chamber was filled with more than 100 people – among them Liberia’s ambassador and members of Taylor’s family. The courtroom was largely quiet, but there was a murmur when Taylor’s lawyer said he wanted to be tried in Sierra Leone.
As the hour-long hearing ended, Taylor stood, smiled and blew kisses to relatives who were in the courtroom.
Security was tight. Taylor – and court officials who have received death threats – were protected by bullet-proof glass and by dozens of UN peacekeepers from Ireland and Mongolia.
Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with alleged backing of Sierra Leonean rebels. He has repeatedly declared he is innocent of charges that include mutilation, sexual slavery and sending children into combat.
A Liberian lawyer had said the defence strategy would be to argue that the Sierra Leone court had no jurisdiction over Liberia or its head of state and so had no right to try Taylor, who was president when he was indicted in 2003.
Taylor appeared to allude to that today. The court’s appeals chamber had rejected a similar argument made soon after the indictment was filed.
The court’s newly-appointed principal defender, Vincent Nmehielle of Nigeria, appeared for Taylor at this initial appearance because the former president’s own lawyers have not completed procedures necessary to appear before the court.
“He wants to be tried in Sierra Leone and nowhere else,” Nmehielle told the judge after Taylor pleaded. “The accused wants to inform the court that he fears for his life.”
Nmehielle cited the fate of Sierra Leone guerrilla leader Foay Sankoh, whose group Taylor is accused of backing and who was brought before the same court now trying Taylor. Sankoh died in UN custody in 2003 of natural causes.
Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor of the independent, UN-backed war crimes court trying Taylor, had dismissed such concerns, saying in an interview last week: “We don’t go around killing people.”
De Silva also said it would be difficult for anyone who might want to harm Taylor to get to him in detention in the court complex in Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. Taylor is accused of helping foment Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Court officials have requested that an international court in The Hague, Netherlands, host the trial, which would remain under Special Court auspices.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has expressed fear that Taylor’s supporters could use a trial held in the region as an excuse to mount another insurgency in her country.
Taylor won a disputed election in Liberia in 1997. Many former allies in an insurgency he had launched in 1989 took up arms against him in 2000 and attacked Monrovia in 2003.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo helped broker peace in Liberia by offering Taylor exile in Nigeria. The former president travelled to Nigeria in August 2003, five months after his Special Court indictment, as part of a deal to end fighting in Liberia.
Nigeria, under pressure from the United States and others, said last week it would hand over Taylor, but made no move to arrest him. Taylor fled and was captured within a day by Nigerian police who found him trying to slip across the Nigerian-Cameroonian border on Wednesday.
Taylor’s spiritual adviser Kilari Anand Paul said yesterday that Taylor had told him in a phone call from jail that Nigerian security forces had encouraged him to flee, and that he felt betrayed by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Nigeria vehemently denied the allegation.
“He (Taylor) should stop telling tales. The story is a far-fetched figment of his jaundiced imagination,” a spokesman for the Nigerian leader said.
“He must have been reading too many James Bond novels.”