Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was taken to a Dutch prison Tuesday to await a U.N. war crimes trial for the killing, rape or mutilation of hundreds of thousands in West Africa.
Taylor — the second sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes — came to Rotterdam aboard a U.N.-chartered plane from Sierra Leone, where he had been in custody since March 29. His hands cuffed in front of him, he was whisked away in a black Mercedes van flanked by five uniformed police motorcyclists.
Taylor faces charges stemming from his alleged backing of Sierra Leonean rebels, who terrorized victims by chopping off their arms, legs, ears and lips during that country’s 1991-2002 civil war. He also has been linked to violence in Liberia and elsewhere in West Africa.
‘Justice is being done’
The prosecutor who drafted Taylor’s indictment hailed his arrival in the Netherlands as a great day for victims and survivors of Sierra Leone’s conflict.
“This is for and about the people of West Africa,” David Crane, the former prosecutor at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, told The Associated Press. “For them to see Charles Taylor — who was so feared — humbled before the law, it is special because justice is being done.”
“He’s been terrorizing that part of the world for at least a decade,” Crane added. “He has incredible power, influence — almost mythical powers. People are afraid of him.”
Taylor’s successor as Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, had called for the trial to be moved to Europe, fearing the sight of him in the dock could spark unrest in Africa.
“We’ve got 3 million Liberian people that we want to concentrate on,” Sirleaf said.
Pleaded innocent to crime
Taylor will be held in a special wing of a maximum-security prison outside The Hague, where the International Criminal Court is located. He has pleaded innocent to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and faces life imprisonment if convicted.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic is the only other sitting head of state to be indicted for war crimes. He died this year in a U.N. cell in The Hague before his genocide trial could be completed.
While the Milosevic trial dragged on for four years, prosecutors said they expect the proceedings against Taylor to be far quicker.
Crane said Taylor’s trial should start in January and take about a year. Witnesses likely will include atrocity survivors and members of Taylor’s inner circle who agreed to testify against him.
Taylor was arraigned in Sierra Leone on April 3, but proceedings had stalled because of questions about where the trial would be held.
The Netherlands agreed to host the trial on condition that a third country jail Taylor if he is convicted or take him in if acquitted. After several countries refused, Britain stepped forward last week. The U.N. tribunal for Sierra Leone then authorized Taylor’s transfer.
Jewel Howard-Taylor, who divorced Taylor last year but remains in close touch, said she hoped for a speedy trial. “We look forward to the trial being free and fair and being held as soon as possible,” she told the AP in Liberia.
Taylor had objected to the move, saying it would be difficult for his witnesses to travel to testify and for his family to lend him support. Many of his close associates face travel bans stemming from alleged corruption, making even trips to Sierra Leone impossible.
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 into exile in Nigeria in 2003.
Nigeria agreed in March to a request from Sirleaf to hand him over. Taylor tried to slip away but was captured and flown to Sierra Leone.
The step forward in Taylor’s prosecution coincided with a breakthrough for Liberia’s new government: On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council voted to lift timber sanctions against Liberia to help spur economic growth in one of Africa’s poorest nations.
The council maintained sanctions on Liberian diamond exports for six months but said it will review the measures in four months.
Liberia had been under U.N. arms and diamond embargoes since 2001 to stop government revenues from those industries from being used to fuel civil war.
Sierra Leone also is rich in diamonds. Prosecutors say Taylor and the rebels he allegedly helped train, fund and arm used a barbaric campaign of terror to destabilize Sierra Leone’s government with the aim of taking control of diamond-rich regions.