After many years as a rebel leader, Charles Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997. But his presidency was as turbulent as his rebel career. There were accusations that he was trading diamonds for weapons and sold arms to rebels in Sierra Leone. Charges of war crimes dating back to his role in the fighting in Sierra Leone, combined with mounting domestic and international pressure, forced Taylor to step down in 2003.
That same year a Special Court for Sierra Leone, a joint effort of the United Nations and Sierra Leone's government, indicted him on charges of war crimes relating to the civil war in the country that lasted from 1991 to 2003. The court accused him of supporting rebels blamed for killing and maiming thousands of people, including women and children.
Mr. Taylor managed to avoid arrest until last year, when he was finally detained by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He first tried to boycott his trial, pleading not guilty to all counts. He later fired his lawyers, arguing that he did not have sufficient resources to mount a good defense. The court has since increased his funds and assigned him a new defense team.
In 2002, the United Nations appointed David Crane to serve as the chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Crane, who is currently a law professor at Syracuse University, says, in Sierra Leone and in Liberia, Mr. Taylor has much to answer for.
"Charles Taylor's crimes are very grave, if he is in fact found guilty of those," said Crane. "He is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which resulted in, just in Sierra Leone, the murder, rape, maiming and mutilation of over 500,000 Sierra Leoneans.
"And if you add the destruction of Liberia, we're looking at 1.2 million human beings who were murdered, raped, maimed and mutilated," continued Crane, "and if he's convicted, he will be incarcerated in England and most likely, because of the seriousness of his crimes, he'll never set foot on African soil again."
Many legal analysts view Charles Taylor's trial, the first for an African head of state, as an important precedent. Elise Keppler is a Human Rights Watch lawyer whose specialty is international justice.
"From all perspectives, from Human Rights Watch's perspective, this trial sends a powerful signal that no one is above the law, and the trial really represents a break from the past where impunity has all too often prevailed in West Africa," said Keppler. "It signals that impunity for these kinds of crimes is not going to be permissible, and it will hopefully build respect for rule of law in West Africa, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia and elsewhere throughout Africa."
Prosecuting a Warlord
The trial, many experts argue, could determine the shape of future international criminal tribunals. In Wisconsin, Beloit College professor of international relations Beth Dougherty believes Charles Taylor's trial will succeed where others have failed.
"There have been a series of high-profile trials of former heads of state: Serbian Slobodan Milosevic at the Yugoslav tribunal and Saddam Hussein at the Iraq High Tribunal," noted Dougherty. "Neither of those proceedings went as people had hoped. So everyone is hoping that the Charles Taylor trial first will be viewed as legitimate and secondly that the courtroom proceedings will run in a very dignified and restrained manner."
Previous tribunals set up in the 1990s in the Balkans and Rwanda have been criticized for running too long, wasting funds, or becoming pulpits for high-profile defendants. Many experts say fair, credible proceedings at the Special Court for Sierra Leone could serve as a model for future international trials.
But the Special Court for Sierra Leone also has its critics. Some analysts say his trial should have taken place in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, and not The Hague. However, Caitlin Reiger, of the International Center for Transitional Justice in New York, says trying Charles Taylor in West Africa, where he still wields considerable influence, could destabilize the region.
"The decision was made on the basis of security concerns which were not just within Sierra Leone, but were about the geopolitical stability of the whole West African region,” said Reiger. “And that I think had much to do with the fragility of the situation in Liberia, with a newly elected government who had agreed to the request to transfer Taylor to Sierra Leone. So it's a much, much more of a regional question."
Many of Charles Taylor's former soldiers remain armed and active throughout the region, although most experts expect his influence to fade as the trial progresses. What is important, says Syracuse University's David Crane, is what the trial represents for Sierra Leoneans and Africans in general.
"It tells the people of Africa that their lives matter, that the most powerful warlord in Africa, Charles Taylor, was humbled before the law. And at the stroke of my pen back in 2003, I was able to show the people of Africa that, truly, the rule of law is more powerful than the rule of the gun and that no one is above the law," said Crane.
Charles Taylor's lawyers have asked the court to delay the trial until next January. Once it starts, it is expected to last at least 18 months. And some analysts say Liberia is likely to press charges against its former president once this trial concludes.
This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.