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Britain offers to imprison ex-Liberian leader

The British government said Thursday it would be willing to jail former Liberian President Charles Taylor if he is convicted of war crimes, breaking an impasse that had stalled his trial before an international tribunal.
(FILES) Former Liberian President Charle
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor makes his first court appearance on April 3 at the Special Court in Freetown.George Osodi / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The British government said Thursday it was willing to jail former Liberian President Charles Taylor if he is convicted of war crimes, breaking an impasse that had stalled his trial before an international tribunal.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said the decision showed “the U.K.’s commitment to international justice.”

Taylor was captured in Nigeria in March and brought to Sierra Leone, where he pleaded innocent before a U.N.-backed war crimes court in April to charges stemming from Sierra Leone’s civil war. No trial date had been set pending a decision on where he might be jailed.

The Sierra Leone court had asked the Netherlands-based International Criminal Court to host the trial, fearing Taylor’s trial in Africa might revive regional instability.

The Netherlands agreed, on condition that a third country jail Taylor if he is convicted or take him in if acquitted. Denmark, Austria and Sweden had all rejected requests to jail Taylor.

In a letter to British lawmakers, Beckett said the international community must not fail West Africans “by asking them to run the risk associated with his continued presence in Freetown” in Sierra Leone.

Acclaim from other governments
“This is a welcome and significant step to fulfill the conditions set by the Dutch government for Charles Taylor’s trial to take place,” said Peter Andersen, spokesman for the Sierra Leone war crimes court.

Liberia’s justice minister, Frances Johnson-Morris, said Britain’s move was “in the interest of peace and security in the region.”

The Dutch government welcomed Britain’s announcement, saying conditions hosting Taylor’s trial at The Hague have now been met.

“This is a big step, a crucial step,” Herman van Gelderen, spokesman for Foreign Minister Ben Bot, told The Associated Press. “We think it’s important that people suspected of crimes like these — terrible crimes, war crimes — should be held accountable, should be tried, and if we can play a role we are ready to play a role.”

Charged with crimes against humanity
Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from his alleged backing of Sierra Leonean rebels, who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips during the 1991-2002 civil war. Although the charges refer only to Sierra Leone, Taylor also is accused of fomenting violence in his homeland and elsewhere in West Africa.

Taylor launched a Liberian insurgency in 1989 and won elections that handed him the presidency in 1997. Rebels took up arms against him three years later, and Taylor fled to Nigeria in 2003.

Dutch Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hannah Tijmes said another Dutch condition for hosting the trial — a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the trial’s transfer — likely would come “within a few days.” The resolution has been drafted, but the council was waiting for a country to agree to take Taylor before voting on it.

Tijmes also said the Dutch parliament must enact a law allowing the trial to take place in The Hague.

Defense motion rejected
The court last month dismissed a motion filed by Taylor’s lawyer, who is pressing to keep the trial in Sierra Leone. Taylor says his witnesses and relatives would not be able to attend if the trial is moved to Europe.

Taylor was expected to be transferred from detention in Freetown after the Security Council adopts the resolution.

Taylor’s first stop will be the ICC detention unit, a 12-cell wing in a maximum-security Dutch prison complex in the coastal suburb of Scheveningen. There is only one other prisoner there — former Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.

The U.N. war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia maintains a separate bloc of 84 cells in the same complex.