He is facing 11 counts of helping to destabilize West Africa through crimes against humanity committed during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Taylor, one of Africa’s most notorious leaders, arrived at the court after being extradited from Nigeria to Liberia and then to Sierra Leone under the request of newly elected Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.
From 1991 to 2002, during the height of one of Africa’s most bloody civil wars, Taylor allegedly armed rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for diamonds. An estimated 50,000 people died in the conflict at the hands of the rebels, who used tactics including hacking off the limbs and lips of men, women and children.
Standing before Justice Richard Lussick in Sierra Leone’s capital city Freetown, Taylor quietly denied the charges against him, according to the Associated Press.
“Most definitely, your honor, I did not and could not have committed those acts against the sister republic of Sierra Leone,” he told the court.
Although Taylor had his first appearance at the U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone, the court has asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to host the trial. Officials fear Taylor’s presence could destabilize Sierra Leone and neighboring Liberia, where Taylor supporters, including some armed rebels, remain active, the AP reported.
The U.N. Security Council must first authorize Taylor’s transfer to the Netherlands, but not before finding a country that would agree to host Taylor once the trial is over.
Lawyers for Taylor have asked to keep the trial in Sierra Leone. They also have argued that the special court has no jurisdiction over Taylor, who was Liberia’s head of state when the court indicted him in 2003.
But an appeals court already has dismissed this argument, according to Diane Orentlicher, a law professor and director of American University in Washington, D.C.’s war crimes research office, who has served as an adviser to the Sierra Leone court in the Taylor case.
“Picking up on a suggestion to this effect in a 2002 decision of the International Court of Justice,” Orentlicher said in an e-mail, “the SCSL [Special Court for Sierra Leone] held that the immunity that incumbent heads of state enjoy before foreign national courts does not extend to international courts, at least when their statutes provide that the status of a defendant as head of state does not preclude criminal responsibility.”
The SCSL is considered an international court.
Separately, Taylor is accused of launching Liberia’s civil war, a conflict that killed an estimated 200,000 people between 1989 and 1996 and of harboring al-Qaida suicide bombers responsible for the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 200 people.
Because the special court was established as a joint venture between the United Nations and Sierra Leone to address abuses committed in Sierra Leone during its civil war, the court will deal only with Taylor’s crimes in that country, Orentlicher said.
Taylor’s trial could mark a milestone for those seeking to bring other African leaders accused of war crimes to justice, according to human rights experts.
The ICC is considering war crimes in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Sudan’s Darfur region. The African Union also will decide whether to extradite Chad’s former President Hissene Habre, accused of mass murder and torture during his 1982-1990 rule.
“The message here for the political leadership of Africa is that the days of absolute impunity for mass crimes is coming to an end,” Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch’s international justice program, told Reuters.
Previous dictators including Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko and former warlord and Ugandan President Idi Amin have fled punishment and ended their lives in exile in other countries.
Johnson-Sirleaf’s insistence that Nigeria turn Taylor over to Liberia ended any hope the fallen leader may have harbored of living out his days in the walled villa that served as home to him, his family and dozens of others in the southern Nigerian town of Calabar.
But fears that Taylor’s trial could have the opposite effect and deter African leaders from setting up special war crimes courts also exist.
“This opens up an enormous can of worms for African presidents,” Richard Reeves, a specialist on West Africa at the London-base think tank Chatham House, told Reuters. “If you look at any African leader in office for more than a dozen years, they have all tried to destabilize neighboring countries.”
Known as “Pappy” to thousands of children forced to become soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone, Taylor became synonymous with a vicious war that left civilians maimed and raped by Taylor-backed rebels.
Taylor, educated at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., lived and worked in the United States in the 1970s. After returning to Liberia and embezzling $1 million as a government official, Taylor was sent to Plymouth County Jail in Boston, Mass., but he escaped by cutting through bars and climbing down a knotted sheet in 1985.