March 26, 2006

Rights group urges quick, secure handover of Taylor

By Pascal Fletcher

DAKAR (Reuters) - Nigeria, other West African governments
and the U.N. must quickly deliver former Liberian President
Charles Taylor to his war crimes trial and prevent any violence
by his allies, Human Rights Watch said on Sunday.

The U.S.-based international rights group said fears
existed that Taylor might try to escape trial, saying it had
credible reports that "little or no security" existed around
his exile residence in the southeastern Nigerian town of

Nigeria, where Taylor has lived in exile since 2003, said
on Saturday it would transfer the notorious former regional
warlord to Liberian custody. He is expected to be handed over
to a U.N.-backed court in Sierra Leone where he has been
indicted on 17 counts of war crimes and crimes against

Taylor is seen as the mastermind behind once intertwined
civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, where he is accused of
having supported rebels, notorious for their brutality, in
exchange for diamonds.

The 1991-2002 civil war cost an estimated 50,000 lives.

Some of Taylor's aides and supporters have warned that
bringing him to trial would spark violence in Liberia, and even
the attempted assassination of newly-elected President Ellen
Johnson-Sirleaf, who supports his handover for trial.

While human rights groups have welcomed the Nigerian
announcement as a step forward for justice in West Africa, they
expressed concern that the detailed arrangements of Taylor's
transfer for trial had not been clearly defined.

"Nigeria must urgently take steps to tighten security
around Taylor's villa in Calabar and should immediately take
him into custody," Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights
Watch's International Justice Programme, said in a statement.

"It would be a disgrace if Nigeria allowed Taylor to flee,"
he added in the statement sent to Reuters.

Taylor's 2003 exile was part of a peace deal to end 14
years of civil war in Liberia which killed 250,000 people,
spawned a generation of young gunmen and spread violence to
nearby states.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo told his Liberian
counterpart Johnson-Sirleaf that "the government of Liberia is
free to take former President Charles Taylor into its custody."
This suggested the onus of the transfer lay with Liberia.


But the small West African state is struggling to recover
from its brutal and destructive civil war and still does not
have an established new army. U.N. peacekeepers are helping to
maintain order.

Many in Liberia and Sierra Leone fear Taylor's return could
reopen old wounds, undermining a fragile peace.

Liberian security forces arrested around a dozen Taylor
associates on Friday including former bodyguards and fighters.

Noting the public threats by Taylor partisans, Human Rights
Watch said U.N. forces in Liberia had authority to detain
Taylor if he arrived there and deliver him to the Sierra Leone

"The U.N. force must also maintain security amid fears in
Monrovia that Taylor allies might use his transfer to stir up
violence in Liberia," Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights watch said Taylor's prompt and secure delivery
for trial was the responsibility of not only Nigeria and
Liberia, but also of other West African governments and the
international community.

"The U.N. peacekeeping forces in Liberia and Sierra Leone
will need to play their role to ensure justice can be done
while stability in West Africa is maintained," HRW's Dicker

Taylor lives in a riverside villa in Calabar, which is
normally watched by armed guards. On Monday journalists entered
without any security or identity checks and met Taylor.