Secretary of State Colin Powell Thursday defended the political deal last year that allowed former Liberian President Charles Taylor to go into exile in Nigeria. In Senate testimony, he said the United States is still working for a scenario under which Mr. Taylor will face war crimes charges in Sierra Leone.
Secretary Powell made clear the United States accepted the exile deal with some reluctance and is still seeking an arrangement under which Mr. Taylor will stand trial before the U.N.-supported Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal.
Mr. Taylor, who resigned as Liberia's president and went into exile in Nigeria last August, faces charges of crimes against humanity for allegedly having been the main backer of rebels who waged a 10-year campaign of maiming and murder in Sierra Leone.
The issue of Mr. Taylor and his refuge in Nigeria was raised at a Senate Budget Committee hearing Thursday by Republican Senator Judd Gregg, who told Mr. Powell the exile deal and U.S. support for it, could undermine the Sierra Leone tribunal and those like it.
"Now that they've indicted him and Taylor's been forced out of his country, it appears that we can't get him before the court, and he should come to Sierra Leone and be tried. He should be brought there and tried," he said. "This Congress has put a bounty on the effort to try to get him to Sierra Leone and try him. Because if we don't try him in Sierra Leone, no future tribunal structured on the issue of genocide, whether its over Rwanda or what's happening in the Congo, is going to have legitimacy."
Mr. Powell said the backdrop for the exile deal, negotiated by U.S. diplomats and the West African grouping ECOWAS, was a rapidly deteriorating situation in Liberia, with rebel groups besieging Monrovia and many of its residents facing starvation.
He said the only way the mediators could get Mr. Taylor out of power and out of the country was to have him taken in by Nigeria, where he would not "immediately" be subject to the tribunal.
"It wasn't a perfect arrangement," he said. "We would have preferred another arrangement. But we had to deal with a real emergency at that time. And so it was an arrangement that was entered into by ECOWAS, and we supported it. And as a result, Charles Taylor is no longer in power, is no longer protected by his goons, and the Liberian people are heading toward a better future. He went to Nigeria, the country that was willing to host him, as long as we didn't put pressure on Nigeria to immediately turn him over to the court."
Mr. Powell said Mr. Taylor is still subject to the tribunal and he believes he ultimately will be brought to justice before it.
He said the Bush administration hopes for, and is working for, "a set of circumstances" under which the former Liberian leader will be turned over to the court. But he added that "for the moment" it is obliged to respect the political deal that "got him out of Monrovia."
Senator Gregg said the United States has been "generous enough" toward Mr. Taylor and should not be "standing in the way" of his hand-over to the Sierra Leone court.