Global Policy Forum

Liberia Seeks Extradition of Indicted Leader


By Robyn Dixon

Los Angeles Times
March 18, 2006

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has asked Nigeria to extradite her country's former leader, Charles Taylor, to face war crimes charges, a move cheered by human rights advocates that is also laden with risks for her battered West African country. An international court in Sierra Leone, which borders Liberia, has a cell waiting for Taylor, who has been indicted on 17 counts of war crimes. The United States has been putting intense pressure on Nigeria and Liberia to ensure that Taylor faces trial for his role in Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war.

In Sierra Leone, Taylor is accused of supporting rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, whose trademark was mutilating civilians and cutting off their limbs, as well as using children as soldiers. He left Liberia in 2003, accepting exile in Nigeria in a move that paved the way for the end of the civil war that racked his country.

Johnson-Sirleaf, a former World Bank official, upset the favored candidate, former soccer star George Weah, in a presidential election last year and took office in January. She has been applauded for her tough stance against corruption, but she also has alienated powerful figures in the country.

In recent months there has been increased speculation about a Taylor trial, and whether it would lead to a border attack on Sierra Leone by his supporters in Liberia or some other destabilizing event. Some have suggested holding the trial outside Africa, but many analysts say that would anger Africans who are highly sensitive to the legacy of colonialism.

President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria confirmed Friday that Liberia had formally sought Taylor's extradition. Obasanjo has repeatedly promised to hand Taylor over if requested by a democratically elected Liberian president. However, he seemed to be setting new conditions, saying he intends to consult the African Union and West African government leaders. Johnson-Sirleaf told journalists Friday that the decision would be a collective one involving African leaders. She appealed to the United Nations Security Council to help bring Taylor to justice. "It is time to bring the Taylor issue to closure," she said.

Nigeria argues that the AU and the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, must be consulted because they were part of the original deal to exile Taylor. But human rights groups and analysts say that extradition may become bogged down in a long consultation process, or that Taylor may take advantage of the delay and flee.

"The prosecution itself does not necessarily agree that this [consultations with the AU and ECOWAS] is a precondition to the transfer at all," said Harpinder Athwal, special assistant to the prosecution at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Those groups were involved at a point when Liberia did not have a functioning government, she said. "Now this is an issue government-to-government and the prosecution doesn't necessarily see that there is a role for the African Union or ECOWAS," she said. "It only takes one spoiler to say 'no' for the whole thing to collapse again and then we're back to square one."

She said prosecution of Taylor would send a powerful message to Sierra Leone, to the region with its complex web of inter-related conflicts and to the world that no one is above the rule of law. "Often it's seen that the rich and powerful escape the rules that have been set, that there's one rule for one person and another for another," Athwal said.

Johnson-Sirleaf has moved quickly in her first two months in office. She set up a truth and reconciliation commission, fired top officials in the Finance Ministry as part of her anti-corruption drive and barred officials of the former transitional government from traveling abroad until they underwent financial audits. The transitional government consisted of members of factions from Liberia's 14-year civil war. When they left, there were reports that members stole cars, as well as the furniture, carpets and even the light fixtures in their offices. The new president promised to give women's issues prominence, saying she had experienced the terror of attempted rape.

Johnson-Sirleaf won enthusiastic applause when she addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress this week, and won the warm backing of the U.N. Security Council on Friday. But the extradition move is seen as her boldest yet. "It's a very bold step," said Mike McGovern, West Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. "It's going to buy her a degree of goodwill because people should recognize that she's taking a risk here for the sake of ending the culture of immunity and moving Liberia into a new era."

Corinne Dufka, West Africa analyst for Human Rights Watch, said there was no reason for Nigeria to balk at Johnson-Sirleaf's request. "Now Obasanjo will have to move ahead, and do it quickly. We do not think that he needs to get approval from the African Union or from ECOWAS," Dufka said. "He has repeatedly stated that he will surrender former President Taylor after there has been a legitimate election in Liberia. That has happened. President Johnson-Sirleaf has made a request. There is no reason to delay this any further."

* Times staff writer Maggie Farley at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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More Information on the Special Court for Sierra Leone More Information on Liberia


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