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Liberia | Nigeria | Sierra Leone
Politics | Society | Human rights

Taylor's whereabouts unknown as handover nears

Charles Taylor (Liberian President 1997-2003):
«May use his wealth and associates to slip away.»

afrol News, 27 March
- Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo this weekend said "yes" to a formal Liberian request to hand over that country's ex-Dictator Charles Taylor so that he can be charged for war crimes committed in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Since the Nigerian announcement on Saturday, however, Mr Taylor has not been found at his exile home in Calabar, southern Nigeria.

Nigerian President Obasanjo on Saturday issued a short statement saying ex-President Taylor was to be "transferred to the custody of the government of Liberia," following a formal request of Liberia's newly elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of 5 March. Mr Obasanjo already had informed his Liberian counterpart that "the government of Liberia is free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody."

Human rights organisations, the UN and many Western governments had pressured the Nigerian President to hand Mr Taylor over to a UN-supported special war crimes court in Sierra Leone after the Liberian leader was indicted by the court in 2003 but was given a Nigerian exile as part of a deal to hand over power. Having the 2003 deal in mind, President Obasanjo has insisted that Mr Taylor could "only be turned over, on request, to a democratically-elected government of Liberia at a time that such a government considers appropriate."

It would therefore be up to the government of Liberian President Johnson-Sirleaf to decide whether Mr Taylor was to be extradited to the special court in Sierra Leone. The Nigerian government made it clear that Mr Taylor now could be handed over to Liberian officials for a transfer to Monrovia, whenever Liberia sends someone to pick up its ex-Dictator.

The sudden and unexpected message from President Obasanjo on Saturday immediately caused concern in Freetown, where the Sierra Leonean war crimes court is based. The court's prosecutor, Desmond de Silva, yesterday told the press in Freetown that he had sent a request to the Nigerian government "to execute a warrant of arrest" on Mr Taylor to prevent him from escaping.

"Until the indicted war criminal Charles Taylor is in the hands of Liberian authorities to whom Nigeria is making Taylor available for collection, the spotlight of the international community will be upon Nigeria," Mr de Silva said. "In particular, the watching world will wish to see Taylor held in Nigerian detention to avoid the possibility of him using his wealth and associates to slip away, with grave consequences to the stability of the region," he added.

Meanwhile, in Mr Taylor's comfortable exile in Calabar, the prosecutor's concerns seem to be well-founded. No particular efforts have been made by federal police or security forces of Cross River state to hinder the movements of the Liberian ex-leader since President Obasanjo's Saturday announcement.

Indeed, the Nigerian presidency today denied it had received any formal request by the Sierra Leonean special court to arrest Mr Taylor. Local authorities, which are allowing Mr Taylor great freedom of movement and communication - except with the press - have received no orders to enhance security or even to arrest Mr Taylor. The Nigerian presidency again indicated it would not take orders from the Sierra Leonean court, but only respond to formal Liberian government requests.

The Liberian government, on the other hand, seemed surprised and maybe even uncomfortable with the sudden gesture from President Obasanjo, placing responsibilities over Mr Taylor with Monrovia. The Liberian presidency indicated Mr Taylor could be sent directly from Nigeria to the Sierra Leone court to avoid political turmoil in Liberia. There were however no concrete plans on the ex-President's extradition and transport from Calabar.

Requests by the Nigerian and international press to Mr Taylor's spokesman Sylvester Paasewe on the ex-President's whereabouts yesterday and today have remained unanswered. There are speculations that the ex-leader may have left his home in Calabar, using his luxury car with diplomatic plates. Some hold he has already escaped, although observers maintain this is unlikely.

Human rights activists fear that the Taylor saga could begin on a new, unpleasant chapter if the indicted war criminal achieves to escape. "Nigeria must urgently take steps to tighten security around Taylor's villa in Calabar and should immediately take him into custody," Richard Dicker of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch demanded yesterday. "It would be a disgrace if Nigeria allowed Taylor to flee," he added.

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