Nigerian President Obasanjo [left] and Liberian President Taylor hold a press conference in Monrovia.

© 2003 Reuters Limited

(Dakar) – Nigeria must immediately call for and accept international assistance to detain Charles Taylor, the indicted war criminal and former Liberian president who appears to have fled from exile in Nigeria, Human Rights Watch said today. International assistance could enhance Nigeria’s capacity to ensure that Taylor, who has lived in Nigeria for the past three years, is taken safely into custody for transfer to trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo will be in Washington, D.C. this week and is scheduled to meet with President Bush today. Human Rights Watch urged the United States, along with the United Nations, the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States, to take concrete steps to facilitate Taylor’s immediate safe apprehension.

“Taylor, the person most associated with atrocities and murder throughout West Africa, is a serious threat to the region,” said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program. “Nigeria must do everything it can to find and detain Taylor and should call for international help to achieve this. To allow Taylor to evade trial would be a shameful breach of responsibility to the people of West Africa who have suffered so much.”

Nigeria announced on Saturday that it would consent to Taylor’s transfer to Liberia, as requested by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. Once in Liberian custody, her government could have surrendered Taylor to face trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone, where he is indicted on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for backing Sierra Leonean rebels.

However, on Monday, Nigeria indicated that it did not intend to physically transfer Taylor or hold him in custody. Nigeria said its “job is done” by consenting to Taylor’s transfer, thereby putting any burden of arrest and transfer onto Liberia.

“Taylor’s disappearance calls into question President Obasanjo’s commitment to peace and security in Liberia – the reason he gave for granting Taylor asylum in the first place,” said Dicker. “President Bush needs to make clear how important it is to the U.S. that Taylor face the court.”

Credible sources in the past week told Human Rights Watch that little or no security exists around Taylor’s compound in Calabar, a seaside town only 31 miles from Nigeria’s border with Cameroon and 81 miles from Equatorial Guinea. On Tuesday, Taylor was reported missing by the Nigerian government.

“If Taylor cannot be found, President Obasanjo will have a lot to answer for,” said Dicker. “As a key African leader, Obasanjo has a responsibility to promote justice and stability in Africa, not undermine it.”

The United Nations imposed a travel ban on Taylor in 2003, which bars him from legally entering or traveling through any country other than Nigeria. “This means that all other governments are obliged to stop Taylor from coming in, or transiting their territory,” Dicker said.

In 2003, Nigeria, acting with the support of the United States, the African Union and other international actors, offered asylum to Taylor as a temporary measure to end the bloodshed in Liberia and secure a peaceful transition to a new government.

In November 2005, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Liberia was given authority to detain and transfer Taylor to the Special Court for Sierra Leone if he enters Liberian territory. The Special Court was set up in 2002 to try those most responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone’s armed conflict. 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.