Liberian Warlord Charles Taylor Back in Custody

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Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is arrested trying to cross the Nigerian border into Cameroon. He vanished after authorities in Nigeria agreed to transfer him to a U.N. war crimes tribunal. He is now in Sierra Leone and will stand trial for war-crimes charges. Los Angeles Times writer, Hans Nichols, talks with Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. In West Africa today one drama ended and another began. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was captured while on the run in Nigeria. He'll now face war crimes charges at a tribunal in Sierra Leone backed by the U.N. Taylor is charged with arming and supporting brutal rebels during Sierra Leone's decade long civil war. Taylor had been living in exile in Nigeria since the negotiated end the to the Liberian conflict in 2003. Last week Nigeria announced it would hand him over to the tribunal but then Taylor disappeared. Now he's been caught and flown to Sierra Leone.

And that's where we've reached reporter Hans Nichols who's covering this story. Hans tell us, please, about the capture of Charles Taylor and what happened when he arrived in Sierra Leone today.

HANS NICHOLS: Well, you know, it's been a crazy 48 hours. And Taylor flush with dollars but kind of low on options, was trying to head into Cameroon, where Nigerian police nabbed him. Then from there he was flown back to Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which of course where he was president. You know, one little irony to this is that when he left Liberia in 2003, when rebels where shelling Monrovia, he vowed a glorious return, God willing. He did have a return, but he was only there less then an hour. He received a medical check up, he had his rights read to him, and then he was spirited onto a helicopter and flown one country over to, to Sierra Leone, and deposited in the capital here in Freetown, and came directly into the Special Court for Sierra Leone into this kind of walled compound here. He was escorted to a vehicle, driven about a hundred yards and went into the detention facility, what staffers here kind of irreverently call it the Presidential Suite.

BLOCK: Now the timing of all this is interesting. It comes as the Nigerian President, Olusegun Obasanjo, is in Washington for talks with President Bush. And there was a lot of pressure on the Nigerian government to find Charles Taylor and, and get him into custody.

NICHOLS: That's, the timing of this can't be overlooked. Taylor and Obasanjo are actually long standing friends. The big question here is to what extent Obasanjo actually facilitated Taylor's release, and then once under international pressure went ahead, and, and ordered his, his police to go ahead and track down Taylor. And there's a lot of talk about President Bush actually not meeting, and snubbing Obasanjo if Obasanjo didn't find Taylor, who was, you know, loose in his country.

BLOCK: Charles Taylor had been living in Nigeria. He had a luxury villa there for nearly three years. Why did the Nigerian government change course and agree to turn him over the U.N. tribunal?

NICHOLS: What Obasanjo had always said was that when a newly elected, a democratic elected president of Liberia made a formal request to ask for Taylor's handover that Obasanjo would honor that request. And Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first democratically elected female head of state, she went ahead and made that request two weeks ago, which was a very bold move that required a lot of courage. I mean, recall that Taylor still has quite a few supporters in Liberia. It's a very tenuous political situation there. So for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to go ahead and make this request took quite a bit of courage. Once that request was made it was just a question of the Nigerian President, Mr. Obasanjo, handing over Taylor to the Liberian authorities and then minute he was in Liberia, the United Nations Mission there has the mandate to go ahead and to carry him to the special court in Sierra Leone.

BLOCK: Well at that Special Court, Charles Taylor becomes the first African leader to face charges of crimes against humanity. What are the specific charges against him?

NICHOLS: Well there, there are 11 counts, and they include grave and serious violations of international and humanitarian law, including sexual slavery and mutilations. The war in Sierra Leone was perhaps Africa's most brutal, where rebels where known for hacking off lips and limbs and ears of any civilian that kind of went in their path. So Taylor is accused of funding those rebels that committed these atrocities.

The bulk of the prosecution's case against Taylor will be the funding mechanisms and the support that he gave for rebels that invaded Sierra Leone from Liberia in, in the early '90s.

BLOCK: Could Charles Taylor also face charges for war crimes in his own country, Liberia?

NICHOLS: It seems that Liberia wants to just do a truth and reconciliation commission, and they don't want to open up all the old wounds that one of these U.N. tribunals, or the U.N.-backed tribunals can tend to open. That's also because in, in the recent elections that Liberia just had, quite a few of the former warlords won seats at the House and Senate. So they're able to play defense on a lot of the war crimes legislation, preventing it from even getting out of committee in their House and Senate.

BLOCK: Reporter Hans Nichols talking with us from Freetown, Sierra Leone. Hans thanks very much.

NICHOLS: Thanks for having me.

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