Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Relief at Taylor Arrest in Liberia, Sierra Leone

Despite concerns that the former Liberian president's detention could spark more instability, the overriding sense is that justice must be done at last.
By IWPR
"No wicked heart shall prosper," reads the graffiti outside Sierra Leone's special war crimes court.



Until recently, that sentiment seemed a slightly forlorn hope in a country like Sierra Leone.



Charles Taylor, the man held to be the driving force behind the country's civil war in which tens of thousands of people were killed, mutilated or raped, was living in luxurious exile in Nigeria. Meanwhile, victims of the militias once controlled by an assortment of Sierra Leonean warlords struggled to rebuild their lives in a country mired in poverty and corruption.



But Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was arrested while trying to flee Nigeria at the end of March, and after a brief stop in Liberia, he was flown to Sierra Leone, where the United Nations-backed Special Court had indicted him on eleven counts of crimes against humanity.



He was detained on the Nigeria-Cameroon border on March 29, with sackfuls of dollars and euros in the back of his four-wheel-drive vehicle. The Nigerian government, his official hosts, had announced he was missing the day before.



Taylor looked a dishevelled figure as he stepped from a Nigerian helicopter onto Sierra Leone soil, wearing handcuffs, and jeered by local people standing on rooftops.



However, when he reappeared in court in the UN compound in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, guarded by peacekeeping troops from Mongolia, the former Liberian leader cut a much more dapper figure.



Composed and clean-shaven, wearing a neat blue suit but minus his trademark dark glasses, he stared down Judge Richard Lussick and questioned the legitimacy of his jurisdiction.



Speaking calmly and slowly, Taylor said, "This is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, so most definitely I am not guilty, Your Honour…. I did not and could not have committed those acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone."



Taylor pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes. The former warlord turned Liberian president is accused of supporting the Revolutionary United Front, RUF, during the decade-long civil conflict in neighbouring Sierra Leone. The rebel group was notorious for training child solders, who went on to amputate the hands and feet of thousands of civilians.



On the streets of the Liberian capital Monrovia , many greeted the news of Taylor's arrest with relief.



"I can't believe it," said Sam Saidu, a 36-year-old road worker. "We never knew whether we can get rid of the man. This has given people hope for a lasting peace."



Saidu was one of hundreds of thousands of Liberians displaced by the country's own 14-year civil war, which began when Taylor invaded the country with a small band of men in 1989.



His presidential election campaign in 1996 was based on intimidation, with Taylor openly threatening a return to war if he lost. Liberians desperate for an end to the carnage chanted, "He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I will vote for him." That gave Taylor's party 75 per cent of the vote and made him president.



Western countries declared the election free and fair. But Taylor's followers did not moderate their behaviour. They put up roadblocks laced with human intestines and slit open the stomachs of pregnant women after laying bets on the sex of the unborn child.



The charges he now faces in Sierra Leone relate to the civil war there rather than the violence in his native Liberia.



The Special Court charges that he used his presidential powers to sponsor rebellions in neighbouring countries, notably Sierra Leone where he backed the RUF in a struggle for control of the country's rich diamond fields.



The court issued the indictment in 2003, just before a rebel advance forced Taylor to accept exile in Nigeria.



The terms of his exile agreement meant that he could not be extradited unless he interfered in Liberian politics or contacted the media - or if an elected government in his own country asked for him, which is what finally happened. Liberia's newly elected president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, requested Taylor's extradition on March 17.



Most observers believe the president, who was inaugurated in January, came under considerable pressure from the United States to ensure Taylor was brought to justice. As well as mutilation, murder and sexual slavery, the former dictator has also been accused of allowing the al-Qaeda network to launder money through the West African diamond trade.



"US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has put a lot of emphasis on having Charles Taylor brought to justice," said Princeton Lyman, director of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Council for Foreign Relations.



After Taylor was reported missing in Nigeria, members of the US Congress urged President Bush to cancel a scheduled meeting with Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo in protest. Taylor was speedily apprehended and the two presidents went ahead with their Washington meeting as scheduled.



Desmond de Silva, chief prosecutor at the Special Court in Sierra Leone, believes the message is going out that impunity is giving way to accountability.



After Taylor was arrested by Nigerian police, he was first flown by jet to Liberia under the extradition arrangement. He only touched the tarmac at Monrovia's airport so that he could be read his rights, and was then whisked away to Sierra Leone in a helicopter.



Within hours, photocopied pictures of a handcuffed Taylor were being sold on street corners in the Liberian capital for a few cents.



At streetside stalls selling food and beer, the arrests provoked furious debate.



"Some people are happy, some people are sad," said Joseph Hill, 40, who served in Liberia's national army for 16 years. "I guess even the Devil has a friend."



Many were concerned that the trial could further destabilise an already volatile region. All of Liberia's neighbours, where Taylor's influence was corrosive, are in fragile shape.



William Dennis, a father of two, said the extradition came too soon after the Liberian elections last November.



He also commented that the Special Court is too near Liberia for comfort. Taylor still has loyalists in both Liberia and Sierra Leone and he is financially strong, and therefore, "He should be tried far away from West Africa."



After years of war, security is a constant theme for civilians in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. There are 15,000 UN peacekeepers currently in Liberia, but the last of a similar force in Sierra Leone departed in December. Sierra Leone is mired in corruption and the government is deeply unpopular.



Few expect the UN contingent in Liberia to stay on at full strength until the end of Taylor's trial, and the Special Court has begun negotiations to move the proceedings to The Hague.



But despite these worries, there are many who insist Taylor should remain in West Africa and face justice there.



James Kpumgbo had one hand amputated by Sierra Leone's RUF, the group Taylor is accused of backing. "We want to see justice," said the father of three. He cannot afford either a radio or newspapers, but he has been following events by word of mouth whenever he goes into town to beg.



"Let Charles Taylor stay here," insisted Kpumgbo. "Let him know the bitterness of war."



Jerome Verdier, head of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, believes Taylor's trial will give the international justice system a much-needed boost.



"We need to see justice done in the case of Charles Taylor," said Verdier, who was nearly executed himself during the Liberian war. "That means not just a trial, but a free and fair trial. We have not had a great experience so far with these special courts. Foday Sankoh [the RUF leader] and Slobodan Milosevic both died in custody.



"Now is our chance to prove ourselves."



Katharine Houreld is an IWPR contributor.