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Africa: Fugitives Take Note - Justice Can Be Done

Published in: All Africa

Liberia's "big man" surely thought he'd enjoy a comfortable retirement when he left power back in 2003. But on April 26 the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, proving that even the most powerful aren't immune from justice.

As I watched Taylor looking on somberly as the verdict was read, I recalled that for years, the prospects for Taylor's surrender looked extremely bleak. Despite an international arrest warrant for him, the Nigerian government offered Taylor safe haven and he went into exile.

The judges at the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, a mixed international-national war crimes court sitting in The Hague, found Taylor guilty of aiding and abetting all 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on which he was charged. He was also found guilty of planning the crimes during attacks on three districts in Sierra Leone. This decision is the first of its kind against a head of state.

The conviction is a triumph for the Sierra Leone victims. When I traveled to Freetown in 2004, people consistently told me they wouldn't consider justice complete for the country's armed conflict, which ended in 2002, unless Taylor was brought to the dock. Activists emphasized that because of Taylor's involvement with Sierra Leone's rebel forces during the conflict, he was central to any effort to hold those responsible to account.

While Taylor got on with a quiet existence in Calabar, Nigeria, activists across West Africa joined with international groups such as Human Rights Watch to campaign for his surrender. We sought to make clear that seeing to it that he faced trial was not simply a matter of "Western concern," as some critics suggested, and to keep the issue on the international agenda.

President Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria's president at the time, indicated he would consider extraditing Taylor to Liberia if a duly-elected Liberian president requested it. However, Liberia's new president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who took office in January 2006, initially indicated that Taylor's surrender was not a priority. Perhaps partly due to our campaigning, accompanied by urging for Taylor's surrender by the British and United States governments, Johnson Sirleaf did an about face. In March, explaining that international pressure had made it impossible for Liberia to address other issues until Taylor was surrendered, she submitted a request to the Nigerian government for his transfer.

An international chase that seemed the stuff of Hollywood films followed. But in the end - and with the apparent threat that a scheduled meeting between the Nigerian president and U.S. President George Bush would be cancelled unless Taylor was arrested - Taylor was taken into custody on Nigeria's border with Cameroon and sent to Freetown. His trial was transferred to The Hague in June 2006 due to concerns over instability if his case were tried in West Africa, and opening arguments began in June 2007.

The trial was complex. Some 115 witnesses testified, more than 1,000 exhibits were admitted, tens of thousands of pages of transcripts were generated, and hundreds of motions were decided. Taylor himself took the stand for nearly seven months.

After more than a year of deliberations, the judges announced their verdict in a session lasting more than two hours, which provided detailed findings on Taylor's role in committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone. Specifically, the court found that Taylor was individually criminally responsible for the crimes by providing arms and ammunition, military and financial support, and encouragement to the Revolutionary United Front and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, rebel groups responsible for terrorizing civilians, rape, murder, enslavement, and child recruitment, among other crimes. Appeals are now anticipated, while sentencing is scheduled for late May.

Critics of international justice often question the significance of charging suspects when they seem beyond the reach of law. The Taylor verdict shows how short-sighted that perspective is. Though Taylor did not immediately face justice after his indictment was unsealed, he ultimately was taken into custody, tried and judged for his crimes.

The verdict should put fugitives from justice - even at the highest levels of power - on notice. Notably, while President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on crimes committed in Darfur is at liberty today, he may be brought to trial in the future.

Of course, whether suspects are held to account depends on the actions of governments, and the long-term impact of the verdict beyond Sierra Leone rests with countries that are committed to accountability for the worst crimes. Countries that are members of the International Criminal Court, for example, should insist that Al-Bashir is surrendered for trial. For crimes not subject to the ICC's jurisdiction, including crimes committed in Liberia under Taylor's presidency before the ICC became operational, we look to governments to pursue prosecutions through national courts with international support as needed.

Victims obtained some justice for Taylor's brutal crimes on April 26.

Governments should build upon this landmark decision to ensure that victims everywhere have the same opportunity.

Elise Keppler is senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's international justice program.

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