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Questions Raised Over Future Taylor Handover


A decision by the Nigerian government to lift former Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor's asylum has been welcomed by human rights activists, both in his home country and abroad. But the terms of his possible future handover remain unclear, raising questions over where he will be sent next.

Saturday's statement by the Nigerian government clearing the way for Charles Taylor's extradition was clear on one important point. The former warlord, who is accused of sowing instability throughout West Africa, can now be released into the hands of Liberian authorities.

For years during the 1990s, Taylor led a brutal rebel campaign in Liberia to topple then-President Samuel Doe. But he has been formally indicted to face war crimes charges at the U.N.-backed Special Court in Freetown for his role in perpetuating Sierra Leone's own bloody civil war.

Nigeria has repeatedly refused to honor the Special Court's extradition request, saying such a move would violate the asylum agreement it brokered with Taylor. His decision to accept asylum in Nigeria ended a rebel siege of the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in 2003 and a decade-and-a-half of on-and-off civil war.

Earlier this month, Liberia's recently elected president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, made a formal request to the Nigerian government for Taylor's handover. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo had earlier said he would be willing to hand over the former warlord, if a democratically elected government in Liberia asked him to.

But with the path now cleared for Taylor's extradition, there is disagreement in Liberia over where he should be sent.

George Mulbah is a newly elected member of parliament from Taylor's own National Patriotic Party.

"The issue of Mr. Taylor is beyond the control of the government," Mulbah says. "We have been told that the African Union has unanimously agreed, and Nigeria has agreed to extradite him. All we want is a free and fair trial within the confines of the law."

That, Mulbah says, cannot happen in Sierra Leone.

"We will also want the international community to have some consideration, instead of Freetown, that we use The Hague," Mulbah says. "That would be the best area, because, there, the environment would not be hostile. He will have his date in court."

The Hague has most recently been the setting for a special war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which was trying former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic until his death earlier this month.

Liberian democracy advocate Ezekiel Pajibo says a trial in The Hague is out of the question, as is any attempt to bring Taylor back to Liberia.

"Mr. Taylor has not been indicted for crimes in Liberia," Pajibo says. "He has been indicted by the Special Court on Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor is wanted by the Special Court, so we believe the appropriate place for Mr. Taylor is in Freetown, behind bars, where he will pose little to no threat to Liberia."

But the question of where Taylor will stand trial is not the only one being raised. First, the Liberian authorities will have to take him in charge. And with the country's infrastructure in ruins and a police force and army that is still being formed, some say the country is physically incapable of handling Taylor's extradition.

Activist Pajibo says the United Nations should step in.

"The government of Liberia does not have the capacity to fetch Mr. Taylor. We think what the Liberian government can now do is to request the U.N. mission in Liberia to accomplish the task," Pajibo says.

But it remains unclear whether Nigeria would allow this.

Whatever Liberia decides to do must be done quickly, say some human-rights groups.

Long before coming to power in Liberia, Taylor had once escaped from prison in the United States.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has denounced a marked lack of security at Taylor's compound in the southern Nigerian city of Calabar. It urged Nigeria to take immediate steps to ensure the former warlord would not be allowed to flee again.

And, Special Court prosecutor Desmond de Silva said Sunday he has asked Nigerian authorities to arrest Taylor, to keep him from escaping.