MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
In Sierra Leone today Charles Taylor went before an international war crimes tribunal.
Ms. CRYSTAL THOMPSON (Chief of Court Management, UN Special Court): The statute charges Charles Ghankay Taylor with crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law.
BLOCK: That's Crystal Thompson, chief of court management at the UN backed special court for Sierra Leone. She read out 11 counts of crimes against humanity. Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia was arrested last week as he tried to flee Nigeria where he had been exiled. He's been indicted for his role in exporting the Liberian conflict to neighboring Sierra Leone. This was Charles Taylor's response to the charge.
Mr. CHARLES TAYLOR (Former President of Liberia): Most definitely your honor, I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister Republic of Sierra Leone. I think that this is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, and so most definitely I'm not guilty.
BLOCK: NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton covered the civil wars in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. She joins us now from Free Town, the capital of Sierra Leone. And Ofeibea this trial of Charles Taylor is something of a landmark case for Africa.
OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON reporting:
Absolutely. It's the first time a former president has faced charges against humanity. And the crimes against humanity, there was a litany read out in court today starting with sexual slavery, mutilation where rebels that Charles Taylor said to have backed chopped off either the hands, the feet, the lips, the nose of civilians. The only choice their victims had was short sleeves or long sleeves. Do you want it cut at the wrist or do you want it cut above your elbow? Also enlisting and forcing children into combat, which has left child soldiers all over the West Africa. These are some of the charges that Charles Taylor is facing.
BLOCK: And we heard a very defiant Charles Taylor responding to those charges today. Tell us more about what happened in the courtroom today in Free Town.
QUIST-ARCTON: Well apart from saying not guilty, Charles Taylor also told the special court here in Sierra Leone that he felt it had no jurisdiction to really be trying him. He also said because, it's very much in the works that the trial be moved from here in Free Town to the Hague in Netherlands, that he doesn't want to happen. He said that if he's accused of crimes against humanity within this region, this is where most of his witnesses will be. This is where his family is and he doesn't want it moved. He also said that he felt afraid, that he feared for his life. He wanted security stepped up and that he didn't want to end up like Milosevic, i.e., dead, under UN auspices in the Hague or Foday Sankoh, a former rebel leader here in Sierra Leone who also died in UN's custody while facing trial.
BLOCK: What's the US role been in getting Charles Taylor to trial? Washington was deeply involved in getting Charles Taylor out of power in Liberia and into exile in Nigeria.
QUIST-ARCTON: Indeed. There's been a lot of pressure on the Nigerians who were host to Taylor. They agreed to bring him into exile three years ago when he was eased out of power to try and end the civil war. And since then, although Charles Taylor was already indicted on war crimes, before he was given asylum in Nigeria, Washington has been pushing for Nigeria to surrender him and bring him to trial. And that's eventually what has happened. There are a lot of civilians who are saying, well Charles Taylor said we will taste the bitterness of war, now he must taste the bitterness of justice and a trial. But many fear that he will destabilize the region by staying here, and that the trial should take place outside the region, outside their country.
BLOCK: In the end, what difference do you think that this trial of Charles Taylor on war crimes charges might mean for Sierra Leone, for Liberia or for West Africa on the whole?
QUIST-ARCTON: I think very many Africans feel that too many leaders have taken them for a ride, have killed them in the hundreds of thousands and have literally got away scot free with impunity. And this message, by bringing Charles Taylor to court here in Sierra Leone is to say that African despots, African leaders, African dictators, you cannot do this to your people. You cannot kill them. Wanton killing, putting children into combat, you will face trial, you will face justice. So it is very much a test case for Africa.
BLOCK: Ofeibea thanks very much. That's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton in Free Town, Sierra Leone.
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