NEW YORK — News executives debated last week whether Americans really care to know what happens to Charles Taylor.
Who, you ask?
Listen, I don't blame you for not knowing. Not every news organization decided to report his story, so you could have easily missed finding out about a man accused in the murder, rape and mutilation of 1.2 million people.
Recent developments in his story were certainly dramatic. Taylor, the former president of Liberia, who had been indicted on war crimes charges in Sierra Leone, suddenly "escaped" from exile in Nigeria.
Then just as suddenly, he was "captured." Interestingly, his capture came after intense pressure from U.S. officials - including indications that President Bush might cancel a scheduled meeting at the White House with Nigeria's President Olusegun Obasanjo under the circumstances.
On Monday, Taylor made history by becoming the first former African president to face war crimes charges before an international tribunal in Sierra Leone when he plead not guilty to 11 counts of helping destabilize West Africa through killings, sexual slavery and sending children into combat before an international war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone.
Did someone actually think it would be okay if this guy got away?
Listen to the crimes he is accused of:
- Turning children into soldiers, who killed, raped and terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips.
- Directing a rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone, where untold thousands were killed.
- Starting a decade-long civil war in Liberia.
- Harboring key al-Qaida operatives wanted for the bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, killing 12 Americans and more than 200 Africans.
In Liberia early this year, this reporter heard the horrors that linger. In one common story, though difficult to verify, it was claimed that Taylor would order a pregnant woman killed, just to settle a bet over whether she was carrying a boy or a girl.
After one particularly tough day, our news team paused at sunset, for a drink on a beautiful beach. The local beer was good, but it was difficult to enjoy, remembering not all the bodies have been dug up from under Liberia's sand.
In our exclusive interview with the new President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman ever elected president of an African nation, she said it was time Taylor faced charges for crimes against humanity.
I wish you could have sat with me across from Sirleaf, to see what courage this took just to say that.
Here she was, a 67-year-old grandmother, herself once imprisoned, and now so threatened by Taylor's operatives still in Monrovia, Liberia's capital, that she is under the constant protection of the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service (DSS). Nevertheless, she is still standing up and saying evil must be punished.
I actually trembled for her, thinking she could face retribution for telling us she wanted Taylor prosecuted. Before I left, I encouraged her to listen to her strapping American bodyguards.
Facing war crimes charges
A few weeks ago, Sirleaf was in Washington to meet Bush, and she made her demand official, perhaps earlier than she wished, calling on Nigeria to turn Taylor over to the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal.
She had to do it, to get the U.S. funding she needed to move her nation forward. But in doing it, she opened herself up to retribution, even before she had time to stabilize her new government.
Then sources tell NBC News, the U.S. was warned Taylor was planning an escape. But, thankfully, he did not succeed.
Now, after the death of Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Taylor is arguably the world's biggest indicted war criminal.
And you, the American people, who have proven throughout history to care deeply about right and wrong, should know that right can still win.