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Dispute in Liberia Over Taylor Handover

Last week Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf requested former Liberian President Charles Taylor's handover from Nigeria. Now Liberians are arguing where he should be tried.

When Liberia's newly elected President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked Nigeria for the handover of former Liberian President Charles Taylor last week, most Liberians welcomed the news. This was an opportunity for the warlord turned president to be brought to justice.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo offered Taylor asylum in 2003 to bring Liberia's civil war to an end. Now, Nigeria's government says it is considering the handover request.

If handed over, Taylor would be transferred to Sierra Leone, where he has been indicted by the U.N.-backed Special Court. He faces charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and recruiting and using child soldiers for combat. He denies the charges.

Many Sierra Leoneans were also quick to express their delight, when they heard that Taylor may be tried for allegedly instigating the war there.

Since the former rebel leader, Foday Sankoh, died of a stroke while in the court's custody, and other senior rebels disappeared, Taylor's would be the first high-profile case to be heard.

Sierra Leone journalist Samuel John told VOA last week, this would shed light on some of the causes of the war in Sierra Leone.

"Everybody's looking forward to the testimony of Charles Taylor, because he has been accused of steering the war in Sierra Leone," he said. "I think, now that Foday Sankoh is dead, we can hear the truth from Charles Taylor."

A former Taylor supporter and interim Liberian president, Moses Blah, told VOA that it was too soon to hand Taylor over for trial. He said the Liberian government should prioritize by focusing its energy on pressing issues like reinstating water and electricity supplies in the country.

Mr. Blah said that Taylor still had many supporters in Liberia who were likely to cause trouble if he was sent to Sierra Leone.

One of these supporters is former member of the legislature, Sando Johnson. He tells VOA that he objects to Taylor's trial in Sierra Leone, saying he would not have a fair hearing. He says, Taylor is already considered guilty by the special court.

Statements such as these created security fears among officials in Liberia. They are concerned that if Taylor was sent to Sierra Leone, his supporters could possibly protest violently. Sando Johnson says that he will use the law to pursue the case, but will not get involved in any violent backlash.

Another option being considered is bringing Taylor back to Liberia.

Though Taylor does not face any charges in Liberia, he could be arrested by the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).

Special assistant to the prosecutor at the Special Court Harpinder Adhwal said UNMIL does have grounds to arrest Taylor if he enters Liberia.

"If he is transferred to Liberia, there is actually a Security Council resolution, resolution 1638, which gives UNMIL the capacity to apprehend and detain Charles Taylor, and facilitate his transfer to the Special Court," he explained. "So if he does set foot in Liberia, there is a Chapter Seven resolution that allows UNMIL to facilitate his transfer to the Special Court."

An analyst from the International Crisis Group, Mike McGovern, points out that giving up Taylor would discourage others in similar situations in the future.

"If that deal saved a lot of civilian lives, one would want to be able to reproduce such a deal in another circumstance," he said. "So in some other country having a war, which has another brutal dictator refusing to leave and who is promising to fight to the death, you would want to be able to use the same kind of diplomatic tools to get that person out of that situation and save civilian lives."

But McGovern warns that any delay in the handover could aggravate the situation.

"What we are up against is the need for a quick decision," he added. "You cannot allow the decision making process to languish, because that gives all of the momentum over from President Johnson Sirleaf to Charles Taylor and his supporters who will have time to organize, who will have time to make their case. On the other hand President Johnson Sirleaf will look to be rather weak, rather exposed."

At this stage it is difficult to be absolutely certain that Charles Taylor will actually be transferred. However, Mrs. Johnson Sirleaf has received back up from President Bush.