A Protected Friend of Terrorism
The Bush administration is touting the rule of law and democracy as priorities in its effort to create stability and defeat terrorism. Yet it remains curiously apathetic about the activities of one of the world's most notorious indicted war criminals, a man who is also an abettor of al Qaeda and Hezbollah. I am speaking of former Liberian president Charles Taylor, who has not only escaped answering for his crimes so far but who may be given an opportunity to repeat them if the United States does not act.
It seems to matter little here that Taylor's efforts to escape justice may well succeed because of U.S. inertia. Indicted on 17 counts of crimes against humanity, Taylor poses a clear and present danger to West Africa and U.S. interests. Yet the State Department continues to respond to congressional inquiries with bland assurances that everything is fine and Taylor is no longer a problem. It's not true.
Unless Taylor is turned over quickly to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone to stand trial, he will never face punishment for the crimes he committed in the region at the cost of tens of thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed. The mandate of the court, largely funded by the United States, expires at the end of the year. It was established to try those "most responsible" for the atrocities in Sierra Leone. Taylor is at the top of the list.
Taylor's were brutal, vicious crimes. For more than a decade he presided over forces that murdered, raped and mutilated children; they also abducted children to use them as cannon fodder. He created "Small Boys Units" made up of specially trained children who, while high on amphetamines, were used to raze villages and murder civilians. He trained and supplied the Revolutionary United Front in neighboring Sierra Leone, whose signature atrocity was hacking off the arms, legs and ears of civilians, many of them children.
Taylor also hosted diamond buyers from al Qaeda and Hezbollah for several years, allowing the two designated terrorist groups to earn and hide their wealth in an asset that is untraceable and easily convertible to cash.
In August 2003, under siege militarily, Taylor fled to Nigeria under an asylum deal backed by the Bush administration and Britain's Tony Blair. The terms of the agreement with Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo were that Taylor not be allowed to participate in "active communications with anyone engaged in political, illegal or governmental activities in Liberia." In return, Obasanjo would not be criticized for harboring an indicted war criminal. Obasanjo promised to turn Taylor over only if the new Liberian government requested it.
There is clear evidence -- gathered by the court, U.N. officials in Liberia and European intelligence services -- that Taylor has made a mockery of the asylum agreement, meddling in Liberia's electoral process by phone, e-mail, fax and cash payments. The court has revealed evidence that Taylor funded and planned an unsuccessful January assassination attempt against Lansana Conte, the president of Guinea.
An investigation by the Coalition for International Justice has found that Taylor is spending some of the millions of dollars he looted to pay for campaigns of several of Liberia's presidential contenders. His financial empire, built on shell companies and businesses stretching from Nigeria to Europe and the Caribbean, is feeding resources to his longtime business associates and military loyalists. He will have the protection of whoever wins the October election. The new government will then make sure Taylor can return home and never face the court. Once he outlasts the court's mandate, he will have escaped prosecution and will continue to wreak havoc.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan last month told the Security Council that Taylor's "former military commanders and business associates, as well as members of his political party, maintain regular contact with him and are planning to undermine the peace process" in Liberia. David Crane, the court' s chief prosecutor, said that "Taylor is still ruling the country from his house arrest." Yet the Bush administration has offered no support for turning Taylor over to the court. The State Department has, in several recent briefings, equivocated on whether U.S. policy really supports such a move.
Part of the reason may be Taylor's long association with U.S. intelligence services. During much of the 1990s, Taylor was close to Moammar Gaddafi, the main financier of Taylor's wars. Taylor regularly reported on his meetings to U.S. intelligence agencies and was paid for the information. While the use of informants is necessary, protecting Taylor in the face of unspeakable atrocities just because of that historical relationship should not be tolerated.
Faced with the administration's apathy, a bipartisan group of legislators is taking the lead. Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y.), Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), Victor F. Snyder (D-Ark.) and Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) are co-sponsoring a concurrent resolution calling for Taylor's expeditious handover to the court.
The congressional action is helpful, but what is really needed is the administration's active support for Taylor's immediate extradition. The administration must acknowledge that Nigeria acted in the best interests of the region by taking him and thank Obasanjo for his help. Britain has already done this. But Obasanjo must have the political cover of public U.S. support to hand Taylor over. If Taylor escapes prosecution, West Africa will be endangered and U.S. moral leadership severely diminished.
The writer is a former bureau chief for The Post in West Africa. He is investigating Charles Taylor's financial network for the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based group.