By Victoria Averill and Christo Johnson
FREETOWN – A U.N. backed war crimes court wants to shift the trial of ex-Liberian President and feared warlord Charles Taylor to the Netherlands because of security concerns, it said on Thursday.
Taylor, 58, was f
lown in handcuffs to Sierra Leone on Wednesday to face 11 counts of war crimes at the U.N.-backed court stemming from Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Charges against him include mutilations and sexual slavery. He is also accused of receiving diamonds to support Sierra Leone rebels who often hacked off limbs or raped their victims.
Taylor will be the first former African president to appear before an international court when his initial hearing is held in Freetown on Monday or Tuesday, a court official said. It was earlier announced for Friday but was later put back.
Taylor will be asked how he pleads to the charges.
Court President Justice A. Raja N. Fernando wants the trial switched to the Hague, where it could use the modern facilities of the new International Criminal Court (ICC).
The request cited fears the trial of Taylor, who still has supporters in neighbouring Liberia, could provoke unrest in both of the small and war-ravaged west African states.
Court chief prosecutor Desmond de Silva stressed it was just a change of venue and it would “be the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague”.
The Dutch Foreign Ministry and the ICC were considering the request made on Wednesday, the day Taylor was delivered by U.N. forces to Freetown after being deported from Nigeria.
Newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has said Taylor should not face justice in a “hostile” venue, on Thursday also backed a move “to a more conducive environment such as … The Hague”.
Taylor’s family said it opposed the transfer of his trial to The Hague and were worried about his safety in Freetown.
“The family … doubts the ability of the Special Court to protect him,” said a statement issued in Accra, Ghana, by his sister, Thelma Taylor Saye.
A Dutch foreign ministry spokesman said there would have to be a legal basis for the Sierra Leone court to sit in The Hague, such as a U.N. Security Council resolution. Taylor would have to leave the Netherlands after a verdict.
In 1998, the Council endorsed a U.S.-British plan to put two Libyans on trial in the Netherlands, before Scottish judges, for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Taylor made a run for freedom on Monday from his temporary exile in Nigeria, only to be captured on Wednesday and whisked to the Sierra Leone special court.
Earlier, de Silva said if convicted Taylor faced a possible life term, but not the death penalty, which was forbidden under international criminal law.
Taylor’s exile in Nigeria was part of a 2003 peace deal to end a civil war in Liberia.
Established in 2002, the ICC is investigating war crimes in Uganda, Sudan’s Darfur region and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its first trial is expected to start later this year.
Taylor’s trial in an ICC court room would help to raise the profile of an organisation still firmly opposed by the United States, which fears it will be used for politically motivated cases against its troops or citizens. — Reuter