By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 31, 2006
MONROVIA, Liberia, March 30 -- President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf said Thursday that she supported a bid to move the war crimes trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor from neighboring Sierra Leone to The Hague and that Taylor's dignity and rights must be guaranteed as the case advanced.
"In any proceedings, the United Nations must allow Mr. Taylor to maintain his dignity and a vigorous self-defense that is consistent with the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty," Johnson-Sirleaf said in a televised address, her first to the country since Taylor was arrested Wednesday.
The U.N.-backed special court in Sierra Leone, where Taylor faces an 11-count indictment for his role in that country's civil war, requested that the trial be conducted on the premises of the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands. The Sierra Leone court would retain jurisdiction over the case.
The court's president, Justice A. Raja N. Fernando, cited concerns about stability in the region in the request.
The British government is preparing a U.N. Security Council draft resolution that would formally authorize the court in Sierra Leone to try Taylor in The Hague. Britain is waiting for a "green light" from the Dutch government before presenting the draft to the 15-nation council, according to a council diplomat.
The special court has the authority to conduct trials outside Sierra Leone, but the Dutch government has requested that the Security Council explicitly approve the transfer. It is also seeking to persuade another country to grant Taylor asylum should he ultimately be acquitted.
Taylor's first court appearance in Sierra Leone is expected next week. He is accused of mass murder, rape and mutilation, including support for a rebel movement in Sierra Leone that killed thousands and frequently amputated the limbs of its victims. Taylor, 58, is also accused of destabilizing Liberia and several neighboring countries while amassing a fortune from illicit trade in diamonds, guns and timber.
Taylor had dominated Liberian politics since 1989, when he launched a rebel movement. More than a decade of fighting left 200,000 people dead and the country in ruins. He was elected president in 1997, but resigned under international pressure in 2003 and began an exile in Nigeria.
Taylor disappeared Tuesday from a guarded government compound in southeastern Nigeria, days after President Olusegun Obasanjo announced that he would hand him over to the Liberian government. Taylor was captured Wednesday at a border post near Cameroon.
That day, Nigerian officials flew him to Monrovia, where he was arrested by U.N. forces. He was then transferred by helicopter to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, and jailed.
Many Liberians expressed relief Thursday that Taylor had finally been arrested.
"I feel very good," said Wilson Doe, 34, a former soldier in Taylor's militia, who was working on a road project in Monrovia. "He's not a good man."
The sentiment was evident in the newspaper coverage here. The Informer ran a grainy image of Taylor on its front page and declared: "Taylor Falls Finally."
Liberians unable to afford the 35-cent newspaper could, for half the price, buy photocopied pictures of Taylor appearing dour in a bulletproof vest and handcuffs shortly after his arrest at Roberts International Airport in the capital.
Yet many Liberians said they were troubled by Taylor's arrest by international officials. Never before has a former African head of state been forced to face justice before an international tribunal. After decades of colonialism followed by decades more of Cold War proxy struggles, deep wariness persists in Africa about the intentions of outside powers.
In an interview in her office, Johnson-Sirleaf, who set Taylor's arrest in motion by requesting his extradition from Nigeria, said the case set "a sad precedent of arresting an African head of state."
But she added: "Liberian people feel much safer, and we can now move forward with what we need to do."
Staff writer Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.