- UN peacekeepers delivered handcuffed former Liberian president Charles Taylor into the custody of a UN-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone on Wednesday where he will be the first former African head of state to face prosecution for war crimes before an international tribunal.
A UN helicopter brought Taylor from the Liberian capital Monrovia directly to the landing pad of the Special Court in Freetown where officials whisked him directly to his waiting cell.
Nigerian police captured Taylor, who is indicted on 17 counts of war crimes, on Tuesday after he disappeared from the mansion where he was living in exile in the south of the country.
Taylor was detained Tuesday night in Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, Information Minister Frank Nweke told reporters. Authorities immediately informed Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo who is on a visit to the United States and the Nigerian leader ordered Taylor’s immediate deportation to Liberia.
“Taylor was received as soon as he landed and the UNMIL peacekeepers read him his rights and he was handcuffed by peacekeepers,” Liberia’s chief prosecutor, Tiaon Gongloe told reporters after Taylor’s departure in a white UN helicopter.
A UN Security Council resolution late last year mandated UN peacekeepers in Liberia “to apprehend and detain former president Charles Taylor” in the event of his return to Liberian territory and depose him with the Special Court in Sierra Leone.
“It is a triumph for international justice,” said Gongloe, also a former human rights activist imprisoned under Taylor where he was tortured and suffered severe internal bleeding.
Warlord-turned-president Taylor stepped down as elected leader of Liberia in 2003 and accepted exile in Nigeria under intense international pressure led by the United States. His departure cleared the way for a ground-breaking peace deal that ended 14 years of brutal on-off civil war that killed tens of thousands of Liberians and displaced millions.
“God willing, I will be back”
At his departing speech Taylor, dressed head to toe in white, vowed to return to Liberia, and the Nigerian plane that flew Taylor into Monrovia on Wednesday was much like the one that collected him to begin his exile less than three years ago.
Repeated attempts by Taylor’s lawyers to get the Special Court to drop the charges against him have failed and Court officials recently told IRIN that they are ready and waiting to receive him.
Nigeria had always maintained that it would hand Taylor over from exile only at the request of an elected Liberian government. That request came earlier this month while new Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf was visiting the United States – Liberia’s main potential donor to help rebuild the war-battered country and a key proponent of the drive to get Taylor before the Special Court. Nigeria followed up with an announcement that Liberia was “free to take” the former president.
But before arrangements could be made for his transfer, Taylor slipped off in a car on Monday night and waiting commandos swooped in and took him to vehicles standing by to help him make his way to the northeast town of Gambouru near the Cameroon border, Nigerian officials said. But Taylor, loaded with cash, was arrested before he crossed the border.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, US President George Bush and human rights activists welcomed news of Taylor’s detention saying in part that it sent a clear message to other leaders that they are not above the law.
“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,” Annan said at UN headquarters in New York. “And I think this is relevant, not just for what happened in Sierra Leone and Liberia, but in other parts of the region and the continent.”
President Bush who met with Nigerian President Obasanjo at the White House on Wednesday also stressed the regional importance of Taylor’s trial. “The fact that Charles Taylor will be brought to justice in a court of law will help Liberia and is a sign of your deep desire for there to be peace in your neighbourhood," Bush told Obasanjo before reporters.
Human rights groups working for Taylor’s arrest said his capture means his victims could finally see justice done.
“Today there is a tremendous amount of both relief and hope. Relief that an indicted war criminal accused of having wrought great suffering throughout West Africa is finally where he belongs, and hope because justice for the victims of these crimes is now in reach,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa representative of Human Rights Watch.
And Alhaji Ahmed Jusu Jarka, who had both his hands cut off by Taylor-backed rebels in Sierra Leone, is looking forward to seeing Taylor in the dock.
“I will raise my hands to show him what he did to the people of Sierra Leone,” said Jarka, head of the Amputees and War Wounded Association of Sierra Leone. “This is what we have been looking forward to…Everybody is anxious to see him and to see the Special Court try him.”
Unease in Freetown
Only this week many Sierra Leoneans said the very existence of the Special Court and Taylor’s presence could threaten to the country’s stability.
“I personally did not want the Special Court to be set up here at the beginning when I thought of the security threat it could bring. After 11 years of war there are still some sore wounds and bringing Charles Taylor here is a huge security threat. He still has plenty of supporters back in Liberia,” said 25-year-old student Victor Bangura. He is particularly concerned about security since the departure in December of the UN peacekeeping force known as UNAMSIL that restored order in Sierra Leone at the end of more than a decade of brutal fighting.
“We had huge confidence, for the most part, in [UNAMSIL]. If they were here now we would be very confident that things would be fine.”
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