UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
LIBERIA-SIERRA LEONE: Taylor trial could go to Europe
FREETOWN, 30 Mar 2006 (IRIN) - The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has requested that Charles Taylor’s trial for war crimes take place in The Netherlands rather than in West Africa, where he is blamed for helping foment a string of brutal conflicts in which hundreds of thousands of people died.
The former Liberian warlord-turned-president was flown into the Sierra Leone capital Freetown by UN peacekeepers late Wednesday, handcuffed and wearing a flak jacket, to face 11 counts including responsibility for murder, mutilation, rape and recruiting child soldiers in Sierra Leone’s civil war.
As he spent his first night in cell 6B of the Special Court detention facility, international leaders hailed Taylor’s arrest after his three years of exile in Nigeria as a victory against impunity, but said moves were afoot to transfer the trial out of Africa.
Officials with the court said they made the request because of security concerns. A letter sent Wednesday requesting that the Dutch government and the International Criminal Court facilitate the conduct of the trial there “referred to concerns about the stability in the region should Taylor be tried in Freetown,” a court statement said on Thursday.
Deputy Prosecutor Christopher Staker told IRIN that “the request envisages that the Special Court will conduct the trial as the Special Court but in the Netherlands…with [the same] judges and prosecutors.”
The court is still awaiting a response from the ICC, while The Hague has said it would approve the transfer pending some conditions, Staker said.
One condition is that Taylor would not stay in the country once the trial is over. The Hague also wants assurance that the Special Court has secured ICC facilities, and finally it is asking for the legal basis for holding the trial outside of Sierra Leone, which is allowed in the court’s charter, court officials said.
New Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had asked Nigeria to hand over Taylor for trial, said in a speech to the nation on Thursday: “We still expect a resolution from the Security Council that will allow for a change in venue to a more conducive environment.”
“We have said and will continue to stress that in any proceeding the United Nations must ensure that Mr Taylor is allowed to maintain his dignity and the rights to a vigorous self-defence,” she said in the radio address. “This is consistent with the principle that a person is deemed innocent until proven guilty.”
While still in Freetown, Taylor is expected to appear in court in the coming days to formally hear the charges and enter a plea, a court spokesman said.
Continued threat to the region
Taylor stands accused of providing arms against diamonds to a rebel movement in Sierra Leone known for hacking limbs and other acts of mutilation, as well as sowing trouble in neighbouring countries. And politicians and observers across the region had long feared he could continue to cause trouble.
“It’s disappointing that the change of venue might diminish the satisfaction felt by the victims of his alleged crimes,” said Corinne Dufka of the West Africa office of Human Rights Watch. “The prosecutor no doubt had to balance this with pressing security needs.”
But the decision, she added, “also highlights that Mr Taylor did indeed continue to maintain contacts within the region.”
Nearly three years after stepping down from power and into exile - with the defiant words “God willing, I will be back” - Taylor was placed in detention at the Special Court in a small room with a wall fan, a table, a chair and a mattress.
Streets in Freetown fell silent and people ran out of their homes to watch as UN helicopters carrying the 1990s rebel leader circled before landing on the grounds of the Special Court in the twilight.
As the UN aircraft landed, a Toyota Land Cruiser drove close to its steps and security guards formed two lines leading to the waiting vehicle.
His hands cuffed before him, Taylor emerged clad in a black flak jacket over a beige caftan, his eyes fixed on the ground.
In the cell block a deputy police inspector arrested Taylor and read him the indictment. The inspector then formally handed Taylor over to Special Court custody.
Taylor’s arrival in Freetown ended a day of high drama. He was reported missing from his luxury mansion on Tuesday but recaptured the next morning. After being nabbed by Nigerian authorities in the northwest corner of the country trying to flee to Cameroon, Taylor was flown to the Liberian capital Monrovia and arrested there by UN troops who flew him into Sierra Leone.
While many Sierra Leoneans will be relieved to see Taylor face justice, just as many are likely to applaud the transfer of the trial to Europe. Peace remains fragile five years after the end of the country’s decade-long civil war and last December saw the close of the UN mission UNAMSIL, at one time the largest in the world at around 17,000. Some 250 UN troops remain in the country to guard the Special Court as Sierra Leone works to bolster its own security forces.
“Wherever Charles Taylor is, there is uncertainty,” John Caulker, head of the human rights group Forum of Conscience, told IRIN.
And Sierra Leonean lawyer James Blyden Jenkins Johnston said in a local newspaper: “With the bulk of UNAMSIL gone, I do not think we should take the risk of putting our armed forces to the test so soon, even as we struggle with our fragile peace.”
“Please take Mr Charles Taylor somewhere else for him to face trial! Do not disturb our peace again,” he added.
A similar sentiment was expressed by most callers to a local TV station after Taylor was put in detention.
Meanwhile residents of Taylor’s home country - where children already were busy selling photos of him in handcuffs at 10 cents a print - had mixed feelings about his capture.
“I feel sad to see our former president picture in handcuffs but happy to know that no one is above the law,” said Jimmy Walker, a one-time neighbour of Taylor.
But Joshua Saye, a former fighter with Taylor’s rebel movement in Liberia, was dismayed. “I cannot stand to see this kind of humiliation of our man, the Great Ghankay Taylor, in handcuffs on the Liberian soil,” he said, using the traditional name the descendant of American slaves added in a bid to appeal to indigenous African groups. “Let him not cry. We are still with him in spirit.”
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said Taylor’s detention “strikes an important blow to impunity.”
“At least [those who suffered in the war] can continue their life in the knowledge that he is no longer among them and he is not in a position to harm them.”
This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006
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