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Liberian Taylor arrest boosts accountability for leaders


April 2, 2006 (THE HAGUE) — Less than a month after former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in custody, bringing his war crimes trial to a sudden halt, a cell is being prepared at the same Dutch prison for another warring president.

The case against former Liberian President Charles Taylor, legal experts say, spurs the evolution of international justice that is creating accountability for leaders with blood on their hands. They say more will follow, and it likely will be sooner rather than later.

In recent years, proceedings have been launched against Saddam Hussein in Iraq; Rwanda’s former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who pleaded guilty to genocide before a U.N. tribunal and is serving a life sentence; Chad’s Hissan Habre, sought by Belgium for his alleged role in the murder and torture of masses; and Chile’s aging former dictator Augusto Pinochet, who has evaded the courtroom from a hospital bed.

Taylor, 58, was handed over to the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone on Tuesday and will soon face 11 counts of war crimes, dating back to the late 1980s, for the alleged widespread murder, rape and torture of civilians in Liberia and Sierra Leone, as well as for looting and burning of homes and conscripting child soldiers.

"I have no doubt that the precedent is now well set that heads of state and former heads of state no longer enjoy immunity for war crimes," Justice Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor of the U.N. tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, told The Associated Press from South Africa. "This is certainly a trend of greater accountability."

The cases against Taylor, Milosevic and Saddam are part of efforts to halt decades of unchecked human rights atrocities, ethnic persecution and genocide since the trial of Nazi leaders after World War II -a movement that culminated in the creation of a permanent war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands in July 2002 to prosecute individuals responsible for the worst crimes known to man.

The International Criminal Court is still in its infancy, with just one low-ranking defendant in its custody and five others indicted. Militia leader Thomas Lubanga of Congo arrived at the court on March 18 and will be the first ever to go on trial, while the five Ugandan rebels remain at large.

Yet human rights groups have heralded the court as a major step toward ending impunity that will force leaders to think twice before committing war crimes.

The ICC’s first three investigations are in Africa and could lead to indictments against leaders in Congo, Sudan and Uganda, where million have been killed in ongoing fighting over the region’s vast resources of oil, gas, gold and diamonds.

"The fact that the Security Council referred the case of Darfur to the ICC speaks volumes in this regard. The members must have been well aware that Sudanese leaders are in the firing line," Goldstone said.

Taylor, who fled to Nigeria in 2003 after five years as Liberia’s president, is due to appear before the Sierra Leone court for his arraignment on Monday, when he will be asked to plead to the allegations in his indictment.

Under a draft U.N. Security Council resolution circulated in New York on Friday, he will be transferred to the Netherlands to stand trial, most likely on the premises of the International Criminal Court but not under its jurisdiction.

Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys from Sierra Leone will essentially borrow a courtroom, prison cell and public gallery for Taylor’s trial and possible appeals.

Taylor’s case is similar to the Rwandan and Yugoslav trials in that they were held away from the conflict areas in safe countries. Taylor’s presence in Freetown, Sierra Leone, is considered a risk to peace and stability, years after he left the crime scene.

Judith Armatta, a lawyer who monitored Milosevic’s trial for the independent Coalition for International Justice, said she hopes Taylor’s arrest will send a signal to African leaders that they cannot count on getting away with murder any longer.

"Taylor’s arrest (and loss of asylum) increases the momentum," Armatta said. "The more leaders are held accountable for their crimes, the more other leaders will start second-guessing their actions ... the diplomatic solution of several years ago has been trumped. For any leader granted asylum or amnesty, they should not rest easy. It will not be the end of the story."


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