Former Liberian Leader Faces Trial

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Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president and rebel leader, is set to go on trial for war crimes at a special tribunal in The Hague.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Tomorrow, for the first time a former African head of state will go on trial for war crimes before an international court. Charles Taylor, Liberia's ex-president and notorious rebel leader, stands accused of 11 counts including crimes against humanity, mass murder, sexual slavery and recruiting child soldiers.

The charges stemmed from Taylor's alleged role during the brutal civil war across Liberia's border in Sierra Leone. The trial will be held in the United Nations-backed special court for Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague.

NPR's Ofeibea Qiust-Arcton covers the conflicts in both Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone. And she joins us now from her base in Dakar, Senegal. Remind us, Ofeibea, of how we reached this point in the Charles Taylor case.

OFEIBEA QIUST-ARCTON: Now here's a part of history. Charles Taylor came to prominence back in 1989 on Christmas Eve. That's when he launched the rebellion in his own country. But as you said, he's facing charges for having orchestrated a similar civil war across the border in Sierra Leone, for backing rebels there whose favorite sport was to tell their victims long sleeves or short sleeves. That's whether their arms would be chopped off at the elbow or the wrist.

And after that in 2003, if I can spool forward, Charles Taylor himself was under threat from rebels. He was eased out of office under the auspices of the United States, African leaders, the European Union. And before that, he was indicted for these war crimes - alleged war crimes in Sierra Leone. He spent a time in Nigeria in exile; but it was last year, when a new president was elected and sworn in Sierra Leone. That pressure was put on Liberia to demand that Charles Taylor be brought to trial. And that is when he was flown after being caught in Nigeria to Sierra Leone via Liberia and was put into U.N. custody.

ELLIOT: Now the long-awaited trial is set to begin tomorrow. But if the crimes Charles Taylor allegedly committed happened in Sierra Leone, why is he being tried thousands of miles away in The Hague in the Netherlands?

QIUST-ARCTON: After those really vicious wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, there was real concern in West Africa that Charles Taylor signified regional destabilization because he had allegedly been involved in a lot of conflicts in West Africa. So West African leaders and especially the Liberian and Sierra Leone leaders felt that if the trial was transferred to The Hague, to the international criminal court, then there could be a really free and fair trial.

Now I have to admit Taylor, who has pleaded not guilty to the charges, felt and said that he didn't think that was right. But generally, it was felt that was the best course. But a lot of ordinary people in Sierra Leone and across the border in Liberia said: Well, how are we going to be able to follow the crimes Taylor are alleged to have committed happened here? And the special court for Sierra Leone said that testimonies and witnesses and all those needed for a proper trial would be able to get to The Hague and that it would be the fairest course if that's how West Africa felt.

ELLIOT: In a broader sense, Ofeibea, what does the Charles Taylor trial mean for international justice in Africa?

QIUST-ARCTON: Watch out, any African leader, rebel, militia leader, marauding groups who feel that they can either abuse their people or commit atrocities. If you do commit these crimes, or you're alleged to, you will face justice. So watch out.

ELLIOT: NPR's Ofeibea Qiust-Arcton, thank you.

QIUST-ARCTON: Always a pleasure.

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