Charles Taylor has clung to power in Liberia despite United Nations sanctions, diplomatic isolation, and internal armed rebellions. But Wednesday, the long arm of international law reached out and tapped Mr. Taylor on the shoulder.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone - a joint tribunal of the United Nations and the government in Freetown - indicted Taylor for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and serious violations of international humanitarian law during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war. It makes Taylor the first serving head of state to face war-crimes charges since Slobodan Milosevic was indicted by the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
"The message is that no one is above the law when it comes to accountability for war crimes," says Janet Fleischman, the Washington director for Africa of Human Rights Watch.
The indictment alleges that Taylor backed the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), blamed for widespread atrocities against Sierra Leonean civilians. It accuses Taylor of "bearing the greatest responsibility" for these atrocities, which have occured since a peace agreement was reached on Nov. 30, 1996, supposedly ending five years of fighting.
The indictment was issued just hours after Taylor left Liberia for the first time in several years, to attend peace talks with Liberian rebels in Ghana. An international warrant for his arrest was issued both to the Ghanaian authorities and to Interpol.
"This will be an extremely important test of Ghana's commitment to the system of international justice," says Ms. Fleischman.
Minutes after the indictment was made public, Taylor appeared at the peace talks' opening ceremony in Accra, Ghana's capital. The Associated Press reported that Taylor looked tense, stepped away from his motorcade, and walked slowly into the conference hall with other West African officials. He made no comment to reporters.
The knot of West African countries known as the Mano River subregion has been embroiled in internal and cross-border conflict for more than a decade, and the Liberian president has been fingered by many observers as a key instigator.
Taylor came to power through the gun, launching a rebellion in 1989 that eventually led to the overthrow of President Samuel Doe. In the 1990s, he sponsored the war in neighboring Sierra Leone, says Ian Smillie, a former member of the UN expert panel that investigated the connection between natural resources and conflict in Sierra Leone.
"Charles Taylor funded the RUF, he provided them with a base in Liberia, and basically encouraged them to go after the diamond areas in Sierra Leone," says Mr. Smillie. "That became a cash cow for the RUF and for Taylor himself to fund his own rebellion."
Taylor won a 1998 presidential election deemed unfair by international observers. He supported a rebel insurgency in the diamond-producing south of neighboring Guinea, and is reported to have armed rebels who were trying to overthrow the government of Ivory Coast. The International Crisis Group, a think tank based in Brussels, has labeled him "the key to regional instability."
Last month, the UN Security Council extended by one year the sanctions against Taylor's regime, banning the sale of arms to Liberia, the import of its diamonds, and the ability of its senior officials to travel internationally.
Putting Taylor on trial for war crimes would set a "tremendous precedent" for Africa, says Smillie. "It would demonstrate to rebels and a lot of African leaders that they can't get away with this kind of egregious meddling in other people's affairs."
Taylor's indictment is the 11th by the special court, established a year and a half ago. RUF leader Foday Sankoh is among those who have appeared before the court; indicted deputy RUF leader Sam Bockarie was reported killed in Liberia last month. The prosecutor has also accused Taylor of harboring Johnny Paul Koroma, a former Sierra Leone junta leader.
Some 50,000 people died in Sierra Leone's civil war, which began with a military coup in 1992 but heated up substantially in 1997 when the RUF overthrew elected president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The RUF quickly gained a particular reputation for brutality by hacking off civilians' limbs.
A peace deal signed in 1999 gave an amnesty to the RUF fighters, but it didn't bring peace, with fighting resuming intensely in 2000. Intervention by British troops helped subdue the rebels and the war was officially declared over in January 2002 after more than 45,000 RUF fighters handed in their weapons to the UN peacekeepers. Mr. Kabbah won the postwar election last May.