NAIROBI, Kenya — As rebel soldiers advanced on Liberia’s steamy capital Monrovia in 2003 warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor fled. Just as his escape into exile marked the end of 14 years of plunder and murder so his arrest in 2006 for crimes committed in neighboring Sierra Leone signalled an end to impunity for murderous dictators the world over.
On July 13 in a European court Taylor, 61, began his defense against 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Sierra Leone during an 11-year civil war that plumbed new depths of brutality.
Taylor denies supporting the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, a group notorious for hacking off limbs, filling its ranks with drugged-up kids and using rape and murder to terrorize civilians.
He is being tried before the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in a courtroom in The Hague. All the other suspects have been tried in a specially constructed complex in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, that bristles with floodlights, surveillance cameras and razor wire.
So powerful was Taylor’s influence that Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked that he be transferred to a court in The Hague, far from the countries in which he had wreaked so much havoc for so many years.
She feared his presence alone could destabilize the fragile region and her country.
When Taylor’s trial began last year he became the first African leader to face war crimes charges. Since then Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes committed in Darfur while Chad’s former dictator Hissene Habre is wanted for war crimes by the International Court of Justice, and investigations loom for the Kenyan leaders responsible for the bloodshed that followed disputed elections in late 2007.
These positive moves were undermined earlier this month when African Union members voted to ignore their obligations under international law to arrest Bashir. So he is free to roam the continent largely without fear despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although Taylor is locked up thousands of miles away his presence can still be felt in Liberia. This month his legacy came back to haunt Sirleaf when Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended she and 49 others be barred from public office for 30-years for their role in supporting Taylor during his rebellion.