By Salah Sarrar
TRIPOLI – Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi assailed Nigeria on Thursday for handing over former Liberian President Charles Taylor for trial, saying the move set an unacceptable precedent that threatened all African leaders.
Taylor on March 29 to Liberia, which promptly sent him on to Sierra Leone where he awaits trial on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for backing rebels during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2001 civil war.
The United Nations is seeking to move the trial to the International Criminal Court in the Hague amid security fears, but the process has been stalled as no third country has yet volunteered to act as Taylor’s jailer if he is convicted.
Gaddafi said handing Taylor to the ICC would undermine Africa’s credibility and seriously harm Nigeria, which could no longer be considered a haven.
“This also means that every (African) head of state could meet a similar fate — this sets a serious precedent,” he said.
Gaddafi has sought a leading role in African disputes, trying to mediate a peace deal in Darfur and sooth tensions between Sudan and Chad, and each time fiercely opposing outside intervention in the continent’s affairs.
“Taylor must stay in Nigeria without facing any trial and without being handed over to any tribunal because there is absolutely no right for that,” the Libyan leader said.
“When I talk about Taylor I might not agree with his policies but a principle should be applied,” he added.
Gaddafi was addressing a gathering of heads of state of the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, including Liberia’s new President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who supports moving Taylor’s trial to the Hague.
Nigeria had given Taylor asylum in 2003 as part of a deal to end Liberia’s own 14-year civil war.
Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo later came under intense international pressure to deport Taylor to Sierra Leone to stand trial, but he insisted he would only hand over Taylor to an elected Liberian government if it made such a request.
Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s first elected postwar president, asked Obasanjo in early March to hand over Taylor, but she wanted him sent to Sierra Leone. Nigeria and Liberia were at odds over what to do with Taylor for several weeks.
At the time, human rights activists accused Nigeria of prevaricating, precisely because Obasanjo was reluctant to set a precedent of sending an African head of state to face trial.
In the end, Taylor escaped from his asylum residence in southern Nigeria, in circumstances that have never been explained by the Nigerian authorities, and was captured the following day trying to cross into Cameroon.
Only then did Nigeria fly him to Liberia, where U.N. forces immediately transferred him to Sierra Leone.
Taylor led an uprising in Liberia in 1989 that turned into a civil war that spilled across borders, killed a quarter of a million people and spawned a generation of child soldiers.
Libya backed Taylor and supplied his forces with arms during the 1980s after he escaped from a jail in the United States.
But since then the North African country has abandoned support for revolutionary movements and mended relations with the United States, which restored full diplomatic relations with Libya this month. — Reuter