The UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone has rejected an appeal by former Liberian president Charles Taylor for immunity from prosecution for crimes he is alleged to have committed during Sierra Leone's 10-year civil war.
The Appeals Chamber of the Special Court said on Monday, "We hold that the official position of the Applicant as an incumbent Head of State at the time when these criminal proceedings were initiated against him is not a bar to his prosecution by this Court."
The ruling was read out by Justice Emmanuel Ayoola, the president of the Special Court, who is Nigerian.
Taylor was indicted for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone on 4 June 2003 while he was attending the start of peace talks in Ghana with two Liberian rebel movements.
The charges arose from his support for Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement during that country's brutal conflict.
Taylor stepped down as president of Liberia two months after the charges were filed against him and went into exile in Nigeria.
His defence lawyer, Terrence Terry, had appealed to the Court to quash the indictment and set aside an international warrant for Taylor's arrest. He claimed that under customary international law, criminal proceedings cannot be instituted against a sitting head of state.
However, the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court ruled that the sovereign equality of states does not prevent a head of state from being prosecuted before an international criminal tribunal.
Taylor was indicted on 17 counts of war crimes ranging from crimes against humanity and serious violations of international humanitarian law for supporting the RUF and an international arrest warrant was served against him.
Terry had also argued that the Special Court was a national and not an international court and therefore did not have the necessary powers to indict Taylor in the first place.
However, the Appeals Chamber reaffirmed an earlier ruling that the Special Court for Sierra Leone was an international court and not a national court or part of the judicial system of Sierra Leone.
Taylor’s defence lawyer had further argued that issuing an arrest warrant on Taylor while he was visiting Ghana was an infringement of that country’s sovereignty. That argument was dismissed by the Court on the grounds that any such appeal would have to be made by the government of Ghana itself.
The prosecution, in turn, argued that as a matter of procedure, Taylor could not file any appeal without first making a personal appearance before the court.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone was set up jointly by the Government of Sierra Leone and the United Nations. It is mandated to try those who bear the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed in the territory of Sierra Leone since 30 November 1996.
It has so far indicted 13 people, of whom two have since died. The court will begin its first trial on Thursday, when three former leaders of the Civil Defence Force, a militia group which supported President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah during the civil war, will be led into the dock.
Pressure has been mounting on Nigeria to send Taylor to Sierra Leone to stand trial, but Nigerian authorities have maintained that he will only be handed over on the request of the Liberian government.
In Monrovia, a coalition of 80 human rights groups launched a three-month campaign on Monday calling on the transitional government of Liberia to demand Taylor be brought before the Special Court.
“We want this government to make sure that Taylor faces the Special Court for the horrific crimes he has been indicted for,” said Aloysius Toe, a well-known Liberian human rights activist who was imprisoned under charges of treason by Taylor’s regime in 2002.
However, the chairman of Liberia's transitional government, Gyude Bryant, refused to act on their demands.
“This transitional government will not request that Taylor be removed from Nigeria. His presence there is part of the peace process,” Bryant said.
“If Taylor’s behaviour in Nigeria derails this peace process, it is a different matter,” he concluded.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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