(New York) - Nigerian authorities must arrest Liberian ex-President Charles Taylor and deliver him to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Human Rights Watch said today.

Taylor accepted Nigeria’s offer of safe haven today and left for Nigeria shortly after handing over power to Vice-President Moses Blah. However, this guarantee of Taylor’s physical safety must not shield Taylor from prosecution before the Sierra Leone Special Court, said Human Rights Watch.

“Taylor is an indicted war criminal accused of the most heinous of abuses,” said Rory Mungoven, global advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Amnesty for Taylor would flout international law and would be an affront to his innumerable victims.”

Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997 after a seven-year civil war. He soon gained international notoriety for his forces’ brutal abuses of civilians and for his use of child soldiers organized in “Small Boy Units.” In addition, Taylor’s support for the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone contributed to the deaths, rapes and mutilations of thousands of civilians there, prompting United Nations sanctions on his regime. Taylor’s forces have also been implicated in conflicts in neighboring Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire.

On June 4, the Special Court for Sierra Leone “unsealed” its indictment against Taylor. He is charged as one of those “bearing the greatest responsibility” for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed during Sierra Leone’s civil war. The alleged crimes include murder, taking hostages, rape, extermination, sexual slavery, and the use of child soldiers.

“The U.N. Security Council has called on all states to cooperate with the Sierra Leone Special Court,” said Mungoven. “Nigeria must not reject the Security Council’s request by harboring an indicted war criminal.”

International law does not accept amnesty for atrocities that amount to crimes against humanity or war crimes. The Special Court’s statute and implementing legislation provide that neither amnesty nor a suspect’s official capacity is a bar to prosecution.

The Special Court was established by agreement between the United Nations and Sierra Leone and is designed to function for three years. The Special Court has the power to prosecute those “who bear the greatest responsibility” for serious violations of international humanitarian law and certain violations of Sierra Leone law committed in Sierra Leone since November 30, 1996.