(Washington, DC) - When Liberia's newly elected president visits Washington today, the U.S. government should give her strong support in seeking Charles Taylor's surrender to face trial at the Sierra Leone war crimes court, Human Rights Watch said today. The Bush administration should commit to assist in maintaining stability and democracy in Liberia and toward strengthening U.N. peacekeeping forces there as necessary.  
 
Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who was inaugurated as Liberia's president on January 16, is expected to brief a joint session of Congress and meet with U.S. President George W. Bush.  
 
"The Bush administration has played a positive role in pressing for Taylor to face trial at the Sierra Leone war crimes court," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "Now the administration needs to see this through by giving Liberia's new president strong backing to request Taylor's surrender. She should not be expected to shoulder this burden alone."  
 
Over the past two weeks, Sirleaf-Johnson and Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo discussed former Liberian President Charles Taylor, according to news reports. In 2003 Taylor left Liberia for Nigeria. In taking Taylor in as a temporary measure, Nigeria acted with the support of the United States, the African Union and other actors in the international community in efforts to secure a peaceful transition in Liberia.  
 
For his role in Sierra Leone's armed conflict, Taylor has been accused of 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The crimes include killings, mutilations, rape and other forms of sexual violence, sexual slavery, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, abduction, and the use of forced labor by armed groups. The Special Court was set up in 2002 to try those most responsible for war crimes committed during Sierra Leone's armed conflict.  
 
Nigerian President Obasanjo has thus far been reluctant to surrender Charles Taylor to the Special Court, however. He has indicated though, that he would consider surrendering Charles Taylor upon request from a duly-elected Liberian government.  
 
"More than any other individual, Taylor is associated with atrocities and murder in West Africa," said Dicker. "Nigeria should promptly surrender him to face trial at the Sierra Leone Special Court and immediately comply with any request from Liberia's president for his surrender."  
 
Time is of the essence for Taylor to face trial, Human Rights Watch said. The Special Court is already advanced in its operations, faces major funding difficulties, and will confront increasing international pressure to complete operations.  
 
The U.S. government also needs to send a strong message in support of accountability for serious crimes committed in Liberia, Human Rights Watch said. Liberia's recently inaugurated Truth and Reconciliation Commission provides an important forum for establishing a record of abuses. However, prosecutions for serious crimes will also be essential. Given the devastation of the Liberian justice system, international support is likely to be necessary to rebuild the national courts, including ensuring justice for serious crimes.  
 
"This is a crucial moment for Washington to help West Africa break a devastating cycle of impunity," Dicker said.