When former Liberian president Charles Taylor appeared before the Special Court for Sierra Leone on Monday, initially refusing to recognize its authority before pleading not guilty, it marked the first phase in the trial of one of Africa's most wanted men. "The people of Sierra Leone have been waiting patiently for three years to see the accused finally face the trial chamber," said prosecutor Desmond de Silva. "Many voices have come together to uphold the rule of law and justice. The voice of the people of Sierra Leone was the loudest and I commend them for their courage, conviction and persistence." But for all the applause, Taylor's first day in a Freetown court may also be his last.
Within hours of taking custody of Taylor last week, the Special Court an independent tribunal established jointly by Sierra Leone and the United Nations and mandated to bring to justice the leaders behind war crimes and atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's civil warasked the Netherlands if it could hold Taylor's trial in The Hague. Prosecutor de Silva, as well as the leaders of neighboring African countries, believe that trying Taylor in Sierra Leone could destabilize the region. Taylor still has thousands of supporters, most of them unemployed former soldiers, in Liberia, which he ruled for seven years, as well as in neighboring Sierra Leone, whose civil war he allegedly fueled by buying diamonds and supplying arms. Many observers fear that Taylor could call on those same loyal men and boys to foment trouble again. "We have a very fragile peace process ongoing," Liberia's Minister of Information Johnny A. McClain told Time. "Liberia does not have an army because we are restructuring our army. We do not have a police force because we are restructuring our police force. So our security is in the hands of the United Nations."
From his exile in Nigeria between August 2003 and last week, human rights groups say Taylor continued to meddle in the internal affairs of Liberia. In the run up to last year's Liberian presidential poll, which elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Taylor financed the campaigns of several loyalists who ended up in parliament, says Corrine Dufka, a researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Once people see him on television, isolated and removed, it starts to demystify him," says Liberia's Labor Minister Samuel Koffi Woods. "It's only then that the mini warlords who are still here will understand that they too can be held accountable."
The U.S. and E.U. have backed the Special Court's request to move Taylor to Europea place Taylor himself has said in the past he would prefer to be tried. The big donors are spending millions rebuilding Liberia and Sierra Leone and both understand the sensitivities of holding his trial in the region. The U.S. may have balked at the idea if it meant transferring jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court, which Washington does not support. But no matter where the actual trial is held, control of the case will stay with the Special Court, which Washington sees as a model for future war crimes courts and a welcome alternative to the permanent ICC. Compared to the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which are often criticized for the glacial pace of their prosecutions, "the court in Freetown is progressing faster, for less money and in a more focused way," says Mike McGovern, West Africa project director for the Brussels-based research and lobby group International Crisis Group. "The perception is that they're harder-working." With Taylor now in its hands, the coming months will surely be even busier.
--With reporting by Johnny Dwyer/New York