Taylor’s Trial Dilemma: Freetown or The Hague?


By Rodney D. Sieh*

Liberian Times
March 31, 2006

Charles Taylor, whose rebel movement tormented the West Africa sub-region for the last fourteen years, is finally sitting in his prison, in the custody of the Special Court in Sierra Leone which has been on his heels for years. As he awaits his judgment, his holders are contemplating a change of venue, citing safety concerns amid the risk of having one of the world's most wanted criminals on Sierra Leonean soil.

Taylor, taken from exile in Nigeria and presented in handcuffs Wednesday to the U.N.-backed tribunal in Sierra Leone, is charged with 17 counts of crimes against humanity stemming from a brutal rebellion that left many thousands dead or maimed. On Thursday, international prosecutors requested that Taylor's trial be moved to The Hague in the Netherlands. According to the court, a trial in Africa is too risky for a man blamed for sparking an unsettled environment within West Africa. For now, Taylor's capture and imprisonment appears to have ended 16-year odyssey of war and chaos.

Taylor's Family Concerns

On the flip side, Taylor's family has also begun to express concern for his safety, well being and concerns about a fair trial. His sister Thelma, in a statement on behalf of the family demanded immediate access to the former president.

Thelma Taylor says the family is concerned about Mr. Taylor's treatment and a fair trial held in Freetown or even The Hague. She said the family opts for a trial to be held in Liberia instead which many has come to view as inconceivable. If Sierra Leone is concerned about its own safety what about Liberia. The consequences are endless and may pose problem and take away the focus of more important issues of the new government.

"The satisfaction from the family is that Mr. Taylor should be transferred to Liberia. There is no treaty between The Hague and Liberia that anybody should be extradited to The Hague. This is why The Netherlands said Wednesday that it was willing to work with the court trying Taylor, but that it wanted a U.N. Security Council resolution. A spokesman for the Hague-based International Criminal Court, Ernest Sagaga, told AP that if the U.N. asked it to host the trial, tribunal "authorities ... will have to consider it." "If it was to take him to Liberia, he was willing, we were willing, everybody was willing for him to go to Liberia," Thelma Taylor said.

According to the Associated Press, the international court hosted a case comparable to Taylor's when the Netherlands hosted a trial for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 that killed 270 people over Lockerbie, Scotland. It was presided over by Scottish judges and Scottish security kept watch over the defendants, two Libyan intelligence agents. A U.N. resolution paved the way for those proceedings.

U.S. president George W. Bush, on Wednesday confirmed that there is a process to get Taylor to the court in the Netherlands but admitted that such a process will require a United Nations Security Council resolution. "Secretary Rice, who was in the meeting, told me that she thought that might happen relatively quickly. And so, therefore, I think he is headed for where he belongs, which is trial," said Bush.

At the heart of Taylor's charges is the fact that he engineered and helped to mastermind devastation in Sierra Leone, Liberia's neighbor to the north. For years the limbs and legs of young children and forced many of the youths into harms way and turning thousands into killers. To date it is believed that remnants of Taylor are still in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and Liberia.

In the wake of the special court's request for Taylor to be transferred to The Hague, many are wondering how this will be done and under what circumstances. Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Dirk-Jan Vermeij told the Associated Press that that holding Taylor's trial outside Sierra Leone could help stability and peace in the region.

Sirleaf Favors The Hague

In an address to the nation on Thursday, Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf suggested that she favored The Hague over Sierra Leone because it would be a more conducive atmosphere for Taylor to be tried. "The government wishes to make it abundantly clear that those who would try to use these circumstances as an excuse for insurrection to undermine the stability of the nation will be dealt with harshly, without mercy," Sirleaf said. "We still expect a resolution from the UN Security Council that will allow for a change in venue to a more conducive environment such as the international court in The Hague," the Liberian President said today when she addressed the nation.

Sirleaf said she will continue to stress that in any proceedings, the United Nations must ensure that Mr. Taylor is allowed to maintain his dignity and the right to a vigorous self defense. "This is consistent with principle that a person is deemed innocent until proven guilty," she stressed.

It has been done Before

Charles Taylor is the first sitting African head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes (in Africa), and is second only behind Slobodan Milosevic. But even if Taylor is tried in The Hague it is possible that it would be change of venue, but the players will remain the same, meaning the Special Court will still have the luxury of have its prosecutors handle Taylor's trial. Experts say the trial will be in The Hague but it would be the Special Court of Sierra Leone conducting it. An African leader on trial at The Hague is nothing new. Jean Kambanda, prime minister of Rwanda at the beginning of that country's 1994 genocide, pleaded guilty to genocide before a U.N. tribunal. He was Rwanda's head of government.

The Sierra Leone court's Sri Lankan president, Justice A. Raja N. Fernando, believes that the court could use the modern facilities of the new International Criminal Court (ICC) to try Taylor. Chief Prosecutor Desmond de Silva stressed it was a change of venue, not of courts. "It'll be the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague, the court case will not go to the ICC, it will not go to any other court in The Hague," he said. The request came on the same day that Taylor, 58, who is charged with 11 counts of war crimes stemming from Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war, was delivered by U.N. forces to the court in Freetown after being deported from Nigeria.

Taylor fled to exile in Nigeria in 2003 as part of a deal to end fighting in Liberia. Last week Nigeria, under pressure from the U.S. and others, said it would hand Taylor over to the U.N. court, but Nigeria made no move to arrest him and he fled. Nigerian police captured him trying to slip across the northern border into Cameroon. He reportedly had two 110-pound sacks filled with U.S. dollars and euros. While the Sierra Leone tribunal's charges refer only to the war there, Taylor also has been accused of backing rebel fighters elsewhere in West Africa and of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers who attacked the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing more than 200 people.

The indictment against him includes charges of mutilations and sexual slavery. He is lso accused of receiving diamonds in exchange for supporting Sierra Leone rebels who often hacked off the limbs of their victims or raped them. Should Taylor plead guilty he will most likely face a long prison term, but a not guilty plea could lead to a drawn out trial which could be months away.

About the Author: Rodney D. Sieh is the Chief Editor of FrontPageAfrica.com. Mr. Sieh serves as contributing writer to TheLiberianTimes.com

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