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Hague Trial Could Mean Justice for More West African War Victims


The arrest of former Liberian President Charles Taylor on war crimes charges closes one chapter in the history of more than a decade of brutal civil wars in West Africa. Now that he is in custody of a special U.N.-backed, war-crimes court in Sierra Leone, momentum is building to take Taylor out of the region, where he still wields considerable influence, to face justice at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

For many people in West Africa, there is no doubt that Mr. Taylor's arrest and transfer last month to Sierra Leone's war crimes court has brought relief and, even, a feeling of joy.

Sierra Leone native Ismail Rashid is a professor of African Studies at Vassar College.

"Overwhelmingly, in the region, the mood has been one of jubilation that Charles Taylor has been docked, and is going to have his day in court," said Professor Rashid. "In other words, for people in Guinea, for people in Liberia and for people in Sierra Leone, whose lives have been largely under the shadow of Charles Taylor, this, for them, is a great moment."

Rashid spoke along with other experts, who have followed Taylor's infamous career, at a recent seminar at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington.

The man responsible for indicting Taylor on 11 counts of war crimes, David Crane, also addressed the audience. Crane, now a law professor, was formerly the chief prosecutor of the Sierra Leone court.

He says the court has clear evidence that what turned into years of devastation in West Africa began as a strategic and criminal plan involving several African leaders.

"Charles Taylor was the center point of a 10-year, geopolitical plan that [Libyan leader] Moammar Gadhafi had started back in the late '80's, and began to recruit various individuals to include [rebel leader] Foday Sankoh, [Burkina Faso's] Blaise Compaore," he said. "And what we really found was a joint criminal enterprise, set up to take the diamonds out of eastern Sierra Leone, to use this as a base to finance this geo-political plan of Moammar Gadhafi to take over a large portion of West Africa politically."

Crane says, from the beginning, prosecutors wanted Taylor caught, taken out of West Africa to allow peace to take root in the region and transferred to the tribunal in The Hague. Last week, the U.N. Security Council announced broad agreement for moving the trial to the Netherlands.

But as the case against Taylor gets under way, some experts worry that the other horrific crimes, including the maiming, raping and enslaving of civilians, that victimized an estimated 600,000 people in Liberia are going to be forgotten.

That is because Taylor has been charged for his role in supporting rebels who fought in Sierra Leone's war, not in the separate 14-years of civil war in Liberia.

Liberia Institute for Peace, Democracy and Good Governance advisor Phillip Banks led the drafting of Liberia's current post-war constitution. He says, the statute Taylor has been charged under in the Sierra Leone war crimes court does not allow for the prosecution of others with blood on their hands.

"It limits effectively the prosecution of a lot of the individuals, who were associated with the conflict. The leaders of all of the warring factions, who participated in tremendous atrocities over a period of more than a decade - they cannot be reached by that court," said Banks. "Because that court can try only individuals, whose activities impacted on Sierra Leone."

And, so, Banks and the other speakers are calling for the creation of a tribunal for Liberia.

"There was more than [one] person, and I am talking about leadership inside countries in Africa, who were involved in the perpetration of the atrocities that were committed in that region, and whose action in support of those atrocities in my opinion, constituted their complicity in the crimes against humanity," added Banks. "Specifically, I can point to Cote D'Voire [Ivory Coast] and Burkina Faso."

Whether or not Liberia's victims get their day in court, Crane says, justice appears to be coming to those who bear the greatest responsibility for the atrocities that took place during a decade of war in Sierra Leone.

"You know, when you are sitting there trying these guys, and you have these people led in, [who are] missing various body parts," said David Crane. "And, you see one of them point their stump at the accused, saying 'you did this to me,' because their hand is missing, and then walk out proudly with their head held high past these guys, that is justice."

Last week, Taylor made his first appearance in the Sierra Leone court. He initially said he could not enter a plea, because he did not recognize the court. But after the judge insisted, Taylor said he did not commit, and could not have committed such crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.

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