Africa, Headlines

WEST AFRICA: Mixed Feelings Over Charles Taylor’s Transfer to The Hague

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jun 20 2006 (IPS) - Former Liberian head of state Charles Taylor was flown to The Hague, Tuesday, to face trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity associated with the conflict that took place in Sierra Leone during the 1990s.

The ex-president was previously held in that country’s capital, Freetown, where a United Nations-backed war crimes tribunal has charged him on 11 counts. The Special Court for Sierra Leone is still responsible for trying Taylor, even though he will now be housed at the detention unit of the International Criminal Court in Scheveningen, near The Hague.

Taylor was transferred on the authority of the U.N. Security Council, in a bid to maintain regional stability.

“It is clear to us that Charles Taylor still does command massive support in the sub-region. We need to build on the hard-won peace here rather than prepare its collapse,” a British diplomat in Freetown told IPS, Tuesday.

The former leader was indicted while still in office on charges that include unlawful killings, recruitment of child soldiers, sexual violence and attacks on U.N. staff in Sierra Leone.

In the face of international pressure and renewed civil war that had seen rebels close in on Liberia’s capital of Monrovia, he accepted asylum in Nigeria in August 2003 – but was handed to the court in Sierra Leone in March of this year.

Taylor stands accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities that occurred in Sierra Leone towards the end of the last century.

The war crimes tribunal is specifically concerned with the period beginning Nov. 30, 1996.

This was the day that a failed peace agreement was signed by government and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) which had launched its rebellion in March 1991, going on to kill, rape and mutilate thousands of civilians in the course of an 11-year war. RUF combatants became notorious for their practice of amputating the limbs of victims.

The rebels entered Sierra Leone from Liberia with the alleged backing of Taylor, who is accused of supplying them with weapons in exchange for so-called “blood diamonds”. His activities have reportedly also posed a threat to security in neighbouring Guinea, and Cote d’Ivoire.

“Taking Taylor for trial in The Hague is good. He is powerful and if tried here, his supporters may resurface and come finish us off,” said Lamin Jusu-Jaka, chairman of Sierra Leone’s amputee association, who had both his arms cut off by machete-wielding rebels.

A government spokesperson agreed. “This is a welcome relief,” the official said of Taylor’s transfer. “At least the people of Sierra Leone and the entire region (can) now go to sleep in peace.”

But these sentiments are not shared by everyone.

“The victims of the war, and for that matter all Sierra Leoneans, would have been delighted to see Taylor put on trial here (in Sierra Leone),” said John Caulker of the Freetown-based rights group, Forum of Conscience.

“He was indicted here and the alleged crimes were committed here. So the people have been deprived of seeing their number one tormentor being publicly tried.”

The Special Court for Sierra Leone, headquartered in Freetown, commenced operations in 2003.

To date, it has indicted 11 people. They include leaders of the RUF, the Civil Defence Force militants who fought alongside government during the civil war, and three commanders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council – the military junta which toppled the government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1997, and joined forces with the RUF.

The starting date for Taylor’s trial is still unknown, and he has made just one appearance before the court in Freetown, when he pleaded not guilty to charges against him.

Officials of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and several hundred witnesses will travel to The Hague to enable Taylor’s trial to be conducted. If convicted, he will be jailed in Britain.

Taylor’s rule in Liberia was also characterised by violence.

He won presidential elections in 1997 after having launched a bush war against Samuel Doe’s government that is said to have claimed upwards of 150,000 lives. In December 1989, Taylor and the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia entered the country from Cote d’Ivoire, eventually capturing large swathes of territory.

The Liberian civil war was marked by extensive human rights abuses, which continued after Taylor became head of state.

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