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Liberia's New President Faces Pressure Over Predecessor

Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, is facing increased pressure to make sure her predecessor Charles Taylor is surrendered to the war crimes court in Sierra Leone. The deposed former warlord turned president is still living in exile in Nigeria, despite mounting demands to have him go on trial.

A coalition of civil society groups calling itself "Campaign against Impunity" released a statement in Monrovia Friday asking Mrs. Sirleaf to seize on her new leadership and request Nigeria surrender Taylor to the U.N.-backed special court in Sierra Leone. Members of the group said such a position could tip the balance and show she stands for accountability and the rule of law.

Mrs. Sirleaf has said she would ask for Taylor's handover in due course of consultations with regional leaders. During the campaign, she said she regretted her past support for the warlord, at one point saying he should level Liberia so it could be rebuilt.

When it was clear she had won the election, the top European Union vote observer, Max van der Berg, told journalists he was expecting a clearer signal on the Taylor issue. "When it comes to ex-President Charles Taylor, you need cooperation," said Max van der Berg. "We all know where he is now, today. We all know the complexity of that situation. At least it needs a government, a new government here, who says, yes, he should face court. And that already, with the Senate and the House of Representatives, would be a fairly positive step."

But Liberia's new legislature is filled with former warlords and allies of Taylor. Calling for Taylor to face charges would also expose them.

When asked whether the Taylor question should be put to a referendum, the European observer dismissed the idea.

"It's not up to us as individuals, neither as people, just simply to say if somebody has done crimes against mankind, at least that he is alleged of it, let's put it very carefully, if he is alleged of that, then it's not up to somebody to say, well we could make a referendum to do it a different way," he said. "There are international laws, rules, and they are set by the international community. Liberia is part of that international community and wants to be a part of it and come out of the dark of the past into this new area of light. And having that light, it means being part of it. And there's no way to [mess] around with these things in another way. You need to cooperate, there's no other way."

Liberia's long civil war ended when Taylor fled into exile in Nigeria in late 2003. President Olusegun Obasanjo said he would allow him to remain in Nigeria, as long as he didn't meddle in regional affairs. He has also said he would allow Taylor's handover to the war crimes court in Sierra Leone, if that was the request of Liberia's newly-elected government.

Liberian civil society leaders would prefer that Taylor be tried in Sierra Leone, since a court already exists there, even though Taylor used many of the same methods in Liberia he is accused of spreading to Sierra Leone - such as trading weapons for diamonds, and abducting and drugging children to turn them into looters and killers.

Liberian journalist Philip Wesseh believes Mrs. Sirleaf has enough to deal with in her new presidency. He also says it's more of an international issue than a Liberian one. "Taylor is not being charged for crimes committed in Liberia," said Wesseh. "He's being charged for crimes allegedly committed in Sierra Leone. He was indicted by a court outside Liberia so it's an outside situation, so I believe they need to give the person a chance. There should be no pressure on Madam Sirleaf for the Taylor factor. She has too much to do, too much to think about."

He fears the international community could sanction Mrs. Sirleaf if she is seen as doing too little on the Taylor issue. "There might be certain measures by the international community against Mrs. Sirleaf's government because of Charles Taylor," said the journalist. "[But] she doesn't have control, it's the international community. If Taylor were indicted by a court in Liberia, [then] as president of Liberia, [Mrs. Sirleaf] would have jurisdiction, but with that she doesn't have the jurisdiction, so Mrs. Sirleaf should be left alone. Let the international community handle the Charles Taylor factor."

Liberian and Nigerian newspapers have been reporting that U.S. and European pressure on Nigeria to send Taylor to Sierra Leone is building, but so far such reports have not changed the situation - Taylor remains free, living in a luxurious villa, in Calabar, southeastern Nigeria, while his cell at the detention center on the grounds of the Freetown court remains empty.