Friday, January 19, 2007

Taylor haunts a Liberia in transition

The face of the man whose army burned and raped its way across Liberia smiles down on the capital from a white billboard with a bold proclamation: Charles Taylor is innocent.

Put up a week ago by a group trying to raise money for the legal defense of the former Liberian president charged with war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone, the sign shows how strongly some still support Taylor in the country his forces ransacked.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently said she saw no reason for Liberia to try Taylor when Sierra Leone was already doing so. She said she'd rather focus on rebuilding her ruined nation's wasted infrastructure. It's a stance that may seem shocking to a world that recently watched Iraq hang Saddam Hussein, particularly in a nation still haunted by years of brutal warfare that spawned drugged child soldiers and amputees.

Even some high-ranking elected officials are Taylor backers and some who condemn the warlord-turned-president say Liberia should leave well enough alone.

"Charles Taylor is not the only bad man in Liberia ... There were so many," said 23-year-old Tenneh Dudu, adding that Taylor's government helped pay for her primary schooling.

Liberia's Information Ministry said the billboard is protected as free speech and the government has no plans to protest it.

Many observers say Taylor, who is jailed in the Netherlands, is so far out of the picture now that the show of support doesn't threaten the country.

"We don't see any past governments or elements of any past governments" as posing a current security threat, said Ben Malor, spokesman for the U.N.'s 15,000-strong peacekeeping force. Taylor's fighters have nearly all been disarmed, Malor said.

But not all agree. Aid groups have argued that continuing unemployment makes the ex-combatants a potential danger. And Taylor was moved from Sierra Leone to the Hague for trial after Sirleaf said this summer that trying him in Africa could threaten her fledgling government and become a rallying point for Taylor's supporters.

Liberia's small population - about 3 million people - means many had a connection to Taylor at one time. Even Sirleaf briefly backed his 1989 rebellion against then-dictator Samuel Doe.

The head of Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission says most Liberians would rather just get on with their lives than seek justice.

"Liberia has a culture, deeply rooted in religious beliefs, which more or less prepares people to forgive and forget," said Jerome Verdier, chairman of the commission, which was created to take testimony from victims and perpetrators in the war.

Taylor's forces toppled Doe in 1990 and Taylor won the presidency in 1997, beating Sirleaf. International observers deemed the vote fair, but some say he won because Liberians feared what he would do if he lost.

"Taylor's constituency was not one of political allegiance. It was born from intimidation," said Human Rights Watch researcher Corinne Dufka.

Two years later, a new rebellion began and, in 2003, rebels forced Taylor to flee to Nigeria.

While he was in exile, the U.N.-backed Sierra Leone court charged Taylor with war crimes for his role in backing rebels who conscripted child soldiers, hacked off peoples' hands, burned villages and raped multitudes of women in Sierra Leone.

Sirleaf took office in January 2006 and called for Taylor's extradition to Sierra Leone a few months later. He was captured at the Nigerian border as he attempted to flee. He is awaiting trial at the Hague, and has pleaded not guilty.

The group that put up the billboard, the Association for the Legal Defense of Charles G. Taylor, says their cause will help Liberia's transition to the rule of law.

"We didn't put up a signboard saying 'Free Mr. Taylor,'" said John Richardson, a retired architect who once negotiated for Taylor's rebels and serves as a spokesman for the group of Taylor backers. "Mr. Taylor's innocence should be a point of law and justice: The concept of innocent until proven guilty."

Richardson said that in a country where an accused thief is more likely to get stoned to death than taken to court, the billboard provides a civics lesson.

"In every area of our everyday life, we see where the failure to apply that basic principle (of innocence until proven guilty) is happening," he said.

Still, the group's primary goal is to garner support for Taylor - a feat not as difficult in Monrovia as those reading the charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity might believe.

Taylor has many friends in Liberia's government. His ex-wife, Jewel Howard-Taylor, is a senator, one of four from Taylor's political party. The House of Representatives also has four members from Taylor's party.

John Hopkins, 52, a retired police officer who says he was jailed and whipped by Taylor's rebels, criticized the billboard. "They should wait until he's not guilty before they put it there," he said.

Link to AP Wire | 01/18/2007 | Taylor haunts a Liberia in transition