African warlord Taylor faces court in Sierra Leone

A new preview story by Reuters’ Nick Tattersall…

One of Africa’s most feared warlords, former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, is due in court in Sierra Leone on Monday charged with backing rebels who mutilated and raped civilians during the country’s civil war.

Taylor faces 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for helping to launch and fuelling more than a decade of conflict in Sierra Leone, in which civilians were routinely hacked to death and children abducted from their homes to fight.

Taylor, known simply as “Pappy” to a generation of child soldiers, was flown handcuffed and surrounded by peacekeepers to the U.N.-backed Special Court in Freetown last week, after nearly three years in exile in Nigeria.

“The people of Sierra Leone have waited a long time to see this man brought to trial,” chief prosecutor Desmond de Silva said.

“The victims have the right to see one of the [principal] perpetrators … of violations of their human rights in this country brought to justice,” he told Reuters.

Although those who lived through the war are glad Taylor is facing justice, many fear his presence could trigger instability in a fragile region, and the court’s president has asked the Netherlands to hold the bulk of his trial in The Hague.

Taylor started a rebellion in Liberia to overthrow then-president Samuel Doe in 1989. The uprising turned into a 14-year on-off civil war in which 250,000 people were killed.

Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997 but left for exile in Nigeria in 2003 in the face of a rebellion against him and pressure from the United States and West African leaders.

His aides have said he will plead not guilty to charges accusing him of training, financing and arming rebels who carried out the initial attacks that launched Sierra Leone’s diamond-fuelled 1991-2002 civil war before looting their way through villages.

“Civilians were shot, burned in their homes, hacked to death and killed while trying to escape from attacks on their homes or from their captors,” the prosecution’s case summary says.

“Many civilians saw these crimes committed; others returned to their homes or places of refuge to find the results of these crimes — dead bodies, savaged or mutilated victims and looted and burned property.”

So many child soldiers took part that special units were formed for them, one of them known as the Small Boys Unit (SBU).

Some civilian victims had the initials of the Taylor-backed Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels carved on their bodies.