Charles Taylor's trial puts dictators on notice

Liberia's former president becomes the first African head of state to go on trial for war crimes Monday.

Ibrahim Koroma forgives the child rebels who chopped off his left hand nine years ago during Sierra Leone's brutal civil war, saying they were "misled." But he feels differently about Charles Taylor, the former president of neighboring Liberia, who backed Sierra Leone's rebels. "I don't feel fine about [Mr.] Taylor," says Mr. Koroma. "Let him face trial."

When Taylor stands before the judge from the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone as his trial begins in The Hague on Monday, he will make history as the first African head of state to face war-crimes charges. The faraway trial may help close a chapter for the victims of his wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia. But it also carries a message for despotic leaders everywhere.

"The greatest message that [Taylor's trial] sends is not for Sierra Leone alone but for Africa and the world that the days of impunity are finished, that if you commit these crimes, whoever you are, you will face justice," says John Caulker, executive director of Forum of Conscience, a group based in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown.

The civil conflicts Taylor fomented in Sierra Leone and Liberia cost 400,000 lives between 1989 and 2003 and were characterized by incredible brutality and the widespread use of child soldiers.

Taylor traded the Liberian presidency for exile to Nigeria in 2003, where he lived until he was arrested in March last year. Concerned that his continued presence in West Africa could cause yet more instability, regional leaders including Sierra Leone's president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Liberia's Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf pushed for Taylor's extradition to The Hague. He will be tried by the Special Court using the facilities of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and if found guilty will serve his sentence in a British jail.

The Special Court was set up by the UN and the government of Sierra Leone in 2002 to try those who "bear the greatest responsibility" for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and violations of international law committed during the civil war. The court is judging four separate trials dealing with three different warring parties – the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the Civil Defence Forces (CDF) – and Taylor. Judgments are due later this month in the AFRC and CDF trials while the RUF trial is beginning to hear defense arguments.

The AFRC judgment may well result in the world's first prosecution and sentencing for the crime of recruiting and using child soldiers. Important as this is, however, Taylor's trial is the most significant in a series of international criminal investigations into atrocities and malpractice committed by heads of state in Africa.

Other African leaders on trial

Late last year a court in Ethiopia found former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam guilty of genocide but he will escape justice because he lives in exile in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe. This year, former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba was convicted by a British court of defrauding the Zambian people of $46 million, and the ICC last month began investigating allegations of mass rape committed by forces loyal to Ange-Félixe Patassé, former president of Central African Republic now in exile in Togo.

"The world has turned a page in the wake of Taylor's arrest," argues Special Court prosecutor Stephen Rapp. "[Crimes against humanity] cannot be ignored, and there will have to be prosecutions. The days are gone when leaders accused of atrocities could escape into exile."

There are concerns, however, that the arrest and trial of Taylor, who was persuaded to step down in part by an offer of safety in exile, may serve to further entrench other leaders accused of abusing power, such as Mr. Mugabe.

"Charles Taylor was promised by his colleagues, the African heads of state, that he would be safe and now he is on trial," says Mr. Caulker. "So there are positives and negatives. From Sierra Leone's point of view, the positive wins. From Zimbabwe's point of view, perhaps it is the negative."

Mr. Rapp concedes that while Taylor's trial sets a key precedent, it might also make it more difficult to oust other tyrants who have seen Taylor given asylum one moment and be arrested the next. "At the negotiating table, the offer of safety in exile will no longer wash." But, drawing an analogy with more mundane crimes, Rapp says this is a price worth paying: "I want bank robbers to know they'll be arrested and therefore stop robbing banks."

Pressing concerns for war victims

None doubt the importance of justice, but most in Sierra Leone – especially the victims – have other priorities. Five years after the war ended, Sierra Leone remains one of the world's poorest countries.

On any given day in the center of Freetown, crowds of amputees jostle with polio victims and the destitute – both young – and old to beg for money. The government, they say, gives them nothing and the court, they argue, is not really for them.

"You can free Charles Taylor today and we will not feel it much. You can kill Charles Taylor today and we will not feel it much," says Farma Jalloh, a former government soldier blinded while fighting the RUF rebels. "The international community wants to try Charles Taylor but what will it achieve for the victims?"

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