UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA: Presidential candidates divided over what to do about Charles Taylor
MONROVIA, 29 Aug 2005 (IRIN) - Candidates vying to be Liberia's next head of state are divided about whether to ask for former president Charles Taylor to be transferred from exile in Nigeria to stand trial for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone.
Taylor has been served 17 indictments for crimes against humanity for his involvement and support to the Revolutionary United Front rebel faction in Sierra Leone, known for hacking off hands, feet, lips and ears of civilians during the 1991-2002 civil war.
The UN-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone has repeatedly called on Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo to hand Taylor over for trial. However, Obasanjo has said that he will not turn the former warlord in, unless an elected Liberian president asks him to do so or Taylor breaks the terms of his asylum deal.
As Liberians prepare to go to the polls on 11 October, candidates outlined their stances on the issue at a recent presidential debate.
George Weah, onetime football wizard and now a favourite contender for the presidency, would only confirm that he wanted Taylor to have the opportunity to clear his name.
"What I will say is that ex-president Taylor has the right to exonerate himself. For Taylor, his family, and people that believe in Taylor, it is time for Taylor to exonerate himself and we should be able to give him the opportunity to do that," said the ace-shooter.
Wildly popular with Liberia’s youthful and mostly illiterate electorate, Weah has a strong following among former combatants, including those loyal to Taylor.
The former international soccer star did not specify whether he was in favour of sending Taylor to the Special Court to exonerate himself.
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, veteran oppposition leader and former UN official, called for a review of Taylor's asylum in Nigeria, where authorities have investigated allegations that he has been meddling in Liberian affairs by telephone.
"Mr. Taylor was not indicted by a Liberian court. He was indicted by an international court. Mr. Taylor reportedly had a deal with the West African leaders that led to his exit from Liberia. If it is true that deal has been broken, he should bear the consequences," she said.
Roland Massaquoi, a stalwart of the former president's cabinet who has now become the new torchbearer for Taylor's National Patriotic Party (NPP), said he would accept an option for Taylor to stand trial if his asylum deal was broken, or if the Liberian people demanded it.
Only Charles Brumskine, a one-time confident and deputy senate leader under Taylor, vowed to send his former boss to Sierra Leone to stand trial.
"I would have no reservation to transmit Mr Taylor to the Court for prosecution. The rule of law must be upheld and Mr Taylor has an international indictment hanging over him," he said.
But two of the lawyers in the presidential race raised legal questions.
Winston Tubman, a former UN diplomat and recently a Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General to Somalia, questioned the jurisdiction of the Special Court.
"I would not just send Mr. Taylor to court because the [Special] Court ask me to do so. The question of the jurisdiction of the Court is a legal issue. The Court does not have a compulsory jurisdiction to make Mr. Taylor appear there," he said.
However, the nephew of Liberia’s longest-serving president William Tubman did say that if he won a substantial majority in the upcoming polls, he would hand the decision over to the UN Security Council.
"If I have a ninety percent margin in the elections, I would then ask the Security Council to make a decision on whether it is compulsory for us to send him there," he said.
Corporate lawyer, Varney Sherman, said there was a need to clarify whether an extradition treaty existed between Nigeria and Liberia. He also noted that the Special Court would try Taylor for crimes against Sierra Leoneans, not Liberians.
"As a lawyer turned politician, there are complications with the Taylor issue - he has not been indicted by a court in Liberia. He has not been indicted for any offence committed against the Liberian people. He has been indicted for an offence committed against Sierra Leoneans,” he said.
Taylor led a brutal bush war against the government of Samuel Doe from 1989 until he was elected president during a break in the fighting in 1997.
Liberians voted for Taylor in the belief that the war would only end once the rebel leader had taken control of the presidency.
But the lull in the fighting didn’t last long, and within months, more and new rebels movements were beating a path to the capital Monrovia, wanting to see Taylor toppled.
Under international pressure, Taylor stepped down from office in August 2003 and took exile in Nigeria as part of a peace deal. He now lives in a luxury mansion in the coastal town of Calabar.
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