Taylor War Crimes Trial Worries West Africa

There are worries that Charles Taylor's trial in Sierra Leone could upset an uneasy peace in the region. The former Liberian president is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. In a change of tactics, U.S. diplomats are working to get the trial moved to the Netherlands.

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There's an uneasy peace in West Africa. And there are also fears that a trial for Charles Taylor, the former Liberian President, a trial that's expected to be held in Sierra Leone, could upset that peace.

American diplomats are now working to get the trial moved to the Netherlands. It's a change for the United States, which had always insisted on local justice for Sierra Leone's brutal civil war.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN reporting:

When he helped set up the special court for Sierra Leone, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes, Pierre Prosper placed a heavy emphasis on location.

Ambassador PIERRE PROSPER (Ambassador at Large for War Crimes, U.S. Department of State): We wanted it in Freetown. We wanted it in a place where the atrocities occurred. We wanted it in a place where the population could actually go feel it, smell it, touch it, be part of the process.

KELEMEN: But now that former Liberian President Charles Taylor is in custody facing charges of exporting violence to neighboring Sierra Leone, regional leaders and the U.S. government have come to the conclusion that it would be better to move the trial.

John Bellinger, the State Department's legal advisor, says officials are already working out the modalities of moving the Taylor trial to the International Criminal Court, the world's first anti-war crimes tribunal and a court the U.S. opposes.

Mr. JOHN BELLINGER (Legal Advisor, United States State Department): The ICC would not be trying Charles Taylor, they would simply be providing their facilities--their bricks and mortar--to the special court for Sierra Leone to try Charles Taylor. So we have no problem with that.

KELEMEN: He expects the UN Security Council to take up the issue in the next couple of weeks.

Elise Keppler, who has been reporting on the Sierra Leone court for Human Rights Watch, says the move of venues signals a change in attitude for the Bush Administration.

Ms. ELISE KEPPLER (journalist, Human Rights Watch): A more pragmatic approach that could reflect the U.S. prioritizing justice and accountability. And also recognizing, you know, the blowback and collateral damage of its policy on the International Criminal Court to date.

KELEMEN: When the Bush Administration came to office it made clear it would not be party to the International Criminal Court, and began a campaign to pressure countries around the world to give the U.S. written assurances that Americans would never be tried by the court.

That campaign angered many U.S. allies, and has lost steam in recent months. European nations also persuaded the U.S. to abstain from a United Nations Security Council vote last year that sent the issue of Darfur, Sudan, to the International Criminal Court.

Moving the Taylor case to the ICC facilities seems to be part of this trend of the Bush Administration softening its line, but the State Department's John Bellinger said people shouldn't read too much into it.

Mr. BELLINGER: We don't have a general allergy to the ICC. We are concerned about the ICC's potential coverage of the United States government. But we see a role for the ICC and international criminal justice in the world; that's the reason that we did not object to the Security Council Resolution that referred the human rights violations and atrocities in Darfur, Sudan, to the ICC.

KELEMEN: This tentative embrace of the International Criminal Court may just be a matter of convenience because the U.S. wants to find a place to house the Charles Taylor trial.

U.S. officials say they're expecting other countries to help pay for the move, since the Sierra Leone court survives on international handouts. And it will be costly to bring the court officials, witnesses, and Taylor, to The Hague.

There are other issues to be worked out as well, including where Taylor would be jailed if convicted.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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