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Liberians Call for Own War Crimes Court

A group of Liberians is calling for the establishment of a war crimes court in Liberia. Their country's former president, Charles Taylor, is in custody at the U.N.-backed special court in neighboring Sierra Leone.

The Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia is planning a rally next week in Monrovia. It hopes thousands will turn out to support their bid to create a court in Liberia similar to the one in Sierra Leone.

Last week, the forum gave a petition signed by nearly 10,000 people supporting a Liberian court to the speaker of the legislature.

The court would try all of those guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, committed during the 14 years various rebel militias fought government soldiers and each other. The conflict ended when then-president Charles Taylor took asylum in Nigeria in August 2003.

During the war many civilians were killed, often brutally, and many child soldiers were forced to fight.

Forum Chairman Mulbah Morlu says a war crimes court is a necessity after such a vicious war.

"We witnessed a tremendous exercise of abuse against human rights and violations against international laws," said Morlu. "We felt there was a need to build a consensus for establishing a war crimes court in Liberia."

The forum says most Liberians favor such a court.

The Liberian peace agreement signed in Accra in 2003 made a provision for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the causes of the war and investigate human rights violations.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Chairman, Councilor Jerome Verdier, says the panel will try to piece together what happened during the war when it begins its work in earnest in June. He says the commission is adopting a carefully thought out process, which will address the need for justice in Liberia.

He says there is no need for a Liberian war crimes court.

"What is happening in our view is an emotional outburst brought on by the recent arrest of former president Charles Taylor," said Verdier. "And so people are emotionally charged onto the issue of a war crimes court. I think, it grows out of a disregard or a lack of knowledge of the Liberian peace process."

Verdier promises that the commission will be a part of the campaign to end a culture of impunity in Liberia. This means that in certain cases investigations will lead to the prosecution of those who are believed to have committed particularly serious abuses.

On the streets of Monrovia, opinion is divided on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's potential success and the need for a war crimes court in Liberia.

The eight-story Duko Palace used to be a luxury hotel overlooking the city center. It was abandoned during the war and then used as a refuge by Liberians fleeing the fighting. Years later, about 300 people still live in the dilapidated building.

One of Duko's inhabitants, James Colly, wants to put the war behind him and is worried about problems that a war crimes court could bring with it.

"We are afraid," he said. "Coming out with a war court here in Liberia, we are afraid that it will bring some problems that we are not expecting in Liberia. We really need peace now. Charles Taylor is the person who the government really wanted. Nobody knows what may happen. It is not total peace, it is not totally over. We are now yearning for total peace."

But Colly's neighbor, James Willy, disagrees and strongly favors such a court.

"It would be preferable to have a similar court here," he said. "They should bring everybody to the court, because they all contributed to the destruction of this country. One person cannot fight a war, so they should all be arrested."

Another Duko resident, Wilfred Weed says that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will just let those who committed atrocities off the hook.

"What I think we need here is a war crimes court, because we have to set a precedent against impunity and a TRC is just like offering an opportunity for people to repeat their actions," he said. "Because when people are not punished for their crimes it gives them encouragement, it gives them motivation to repeat their actions. So, I do not think the TRC will serve any better."

Lawmakers have not indicated whether they would back a proposal for a Liberian war crimes court.

From the Forum for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia, Boakai Jalerba says he would not be surprised if there are members of parliament who will not back the idea.

"A number of our elite may have some apprehensions about a war crimes court in Liberia, because throughout the 15 years of conflict, a number of them had their hands tainted and entangled in the war process, so to tell them that look we want to have a war crimes court in Liberia is like a man shooting his own toe," he noted.

In the event that the legislature does not give its support, the forum is simultaneously lobbying foreign governments and the United Nations.