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Global justice on trial

The court in The Hague must handle war crimes allegations against Liberia's Taylor in exemplary fashion.

January 08, 2008

Former liberian President Charles Taylor, whose war crimes trial at The Hague got underway Monday, is the first African head of state to face an international court. It couldn't have happened to a meaner guy.

Taylor is just one in a depressingly long line of deposed African leaders who bled their countries dry in brutal wars against their own people and plundered their national treasuries. Yet while most of his fellow vampires have died in luxurious exile, Taylor finds himself in a detention center in Holland, stalking quarters formerly occupied by ex-Yugoslavian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Unfortunately, Taylor seems to have studied the stalling tactics of the detention center's former tenant all too well. Milosevic turned his trial into such a drawn-out farce that he ended up expiring of a heart attack before he could be brought to justice. Taylor, who is believed to have stolen millions if not billions of dollars during his tenure as president from 1997 to 2003, is claiming to be broke; the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone is thus reportedly shelling out about $100,000 a month to pay for his defense. The trial was supposed to get started in June but had to be delayed after Taylor and his lawyers boycotted the proceedings, saying they hadn't been given adequate time to prepare.

Prosecutors won't lack for evidence against Taylor. He is on trial not for the circus of murder in Liberia for which he was ringmaster during his presidential term -- a conflict that shocked the world as child soldiers loyal to Taylor, high on amphetamines and other drugs, charged into battle naked or wearing women's ball gowns -- but for his role in the gruesome civil war in next-door Sierra Leone that ended in 2003. (Liberia opted to deal with its past through a truth and reconciliation commission rather than war crimes trials, so Taylor is being tried by Sierra Leone instead of his home country.)

Taylor is believed to have supported rebel groups in Sierra Leone in exchange for "blood diamonds" plundered from that country. The Sierra Leone conflict was another nightmare of senseless mayhem, with thousands of children left mutilated by bandits who cut off their limbs with machetes simply to terrorize the population. Some of these victims will be among the 140-plus witnesses expected to testify against Taylor; also expected to appear is a former regime insider said to have key information about Taylor's connection to Sierra Leone militias.

It is vitally important that Taylor's trial be conducted in an exemplary fashion, with professional treatment of all evidence and the defense accorded every opportunity to present its case. The trial could send an extremely powerful message to despots the world over, proving that the world will no longer tolerate their atrocities. Or it could be just another disappointing failure for a struggling international justice system.

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