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Liberian Activists Urge War Crimes Tribunal - 2004-03-15

Human rights activists in Liberia are pushing for the prosecution of war criminals after 14 years of brutal conflict. But they are meeting opposition from authorities in the transitional power-sharing government set up to end the fighting.

While a United Nations-backed war crimes court opened with much fanfare in Sierra Leone last week, human rights activists in Liberia are calling for their own war crimes tribunal.

The two conflicts, which both saw many child soldiers involved, were intertwined, and former Liberian President Charles Taylor has been indicted by the court in Sierra Leone. But Nigeria, where he is living in exile, has refused to hand him over, saying it offered him a safe haven to stop the bloodshed.

A human rights lawyer who has started his own investigation into Liberia's civil war, T. Dempster Brown, says Liberia needs its own court to make sure Mr. Taylor and others responsible for the worst abuses face justice. "We will insist that there should be a war crimes tribunal because if we do not punish those who committed atrocities there will be a vicious cycle," he says.

Both rebel groups and militias close to Mr. Taylor have been accused of drugging child soldiers and orchestrating massacres, looting and mass rape.

Last month, Mr. Brown said he had fresh evidence of a civilian massacre carried out by top commanders close to Mr. Taylor. When one of those commanders came forward asking for proof, Mr. Brown produced a tape, which he played to journalists in Monrovia last week.

On the tape, a person identified as a witness says a massacre of several hundred civilians took place in April, after residents protested that their towns near the border with Ivory Coast were being used as transit points for weapons smuggling.

The United Nations has started its own investigation related to sexual crimes. Initial findings indicate more than 40 percent of the civilian population was victimized by some form of sexual abuse.

Project coordinator Awa Dabo says she hopes this will be used in a truth and reconciliation commission, which could help with future prosecutions. "It is a form whereby we are talking about addressing the issues that have happened, the concerns of the people who have suffered, talking to those who cause the suffering and moving on and in that process getting a record of what has happened," she says.

But efforts to implement the truth and reconciliation commission, which is mandated in Liberia's August peace accord, have moved very slowly. And, transitional leader Gyude Bryant has ruled out convening any war crimes court during his two-year term.

Most of the ministers in his power-sharing government are former combatants or leaders of armed factions that are in the process of being disarmed.

Defense Minister Daniel Chea, who held the same post under Mr. Taylor, says he believes prosecuting war criminals now would be too negative. "I think to move this country forward, to build a kind of peace network, the emphasis must be on reconciliation and not witch-hunting about who goes to trial and who doesn't go to a tribunal, because it would be just too much that perhaps you could have this whole country into a bottomless pit because somehow in some way everybody played a role in getting Liberia to this level," he says.

Rebel leaders who are ministers in the power-sharing government also express reservations about the need for a war crimes tribunal.

Given this opposition, the head of Liberia's National Human Rights Center, Blamoh Sieh, says rather than a war crimes court, it might be better to prosecute war criminals through normal legal channels. "The apparent reluctance to support anything like a crimes court, you don't see the will on the part of the politicians, and so it means that we in the human rights community, along with the greater civil society, we have to see how we can bring something about, what system of justice needs to be put into place and whether we can utilize our own traditional systems of justice," he says.

A statement from Nigeria could provide some momentum to the Liberian human rights activists. Although it has refused to turn Mr. Taylor over to the Sierra Leone court, Nigeria says it would strongly consider handing over Mr. Taylor to a court in Liberia.

The former rebel turned president has been accused of fueling instability in Liberia and in neighboring Guinea, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast by smuggling weapons, timber and diamonds. Mr. Taylor denies the accusations.