Charles Taylor is on trial in the Hague Court. He is charged with war crimes against humanity for his role as the head-of-state in Liberia.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
By Mark Doyle
BBC world affairs correspondent, The Hague
At a dilapidated army base in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown, newly-arrived Nigerian peacekeeping troops were being briefed by their commanders.
The soldiers lined up in fresh uniforms, weapons by their sides.
As they listened to their officers, they tried to look determined and warlike.
Some managed it, but most looked scared, their eyes darting about to take in a new and fearful environment.
The hillsides around the base were being protected by a ring of mortar launchers and every few minutes the sound of outgoing rounds started an echo across the city.
Thick trail of blood
From the valley below, the constant sound of rifles and machine guns drifted up, along with the smoke from hundreds of burning houses and the sharp reek of explosives.
It was January 1999.
The Nigerian peacekeepers, with United Nations approval, were fighting off an invasion of the Sierra Leonean capital by rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who had been joined by some members of the disintegrated Sierra Leonean army.
The RUF, allegedly backed by neighbouring Liberia, was trying to overthrow the elected government of Sierra Leone.
While I was watching the Nigerians, I became aware of a thick trail of blood on the ground next to them.
My eyes followed the trail to the wheels of a truck, and when I looked up at it I realised that an open-backed Nigerian army vehicle had just arrived through the cacophony of noise and smoke.
Chopped off hands
The truck was full of Sierra Leonean civilians who were waving the stumps of the remains of their arms in my direction.
Most had had their right hands chopped off and were left with a blunt and bloody arm-end.
One, however, held the remains of his severed right hand in his left - in the pathetic hope, I suppose, that some miracle might be performed.
Their blood was pouring off the back of the vehicle.
CHARLES TAYLOR CHARGES
Acts of terrorism (WC)
Violence to life, in particular murder (WC)
Sexual slavery and violence (CAH)
Outrages upon personal dignity (WC)
Violence to life, in particular cruel treatment (WC)
Other inhumane acts (CAH)
Use of child soldiers (VIHL)
CAH: Crime against humanity
WC: War crime
VIHL: Violation of international humanitarian law
They were waving at me, I think, because I was one of the few white people at the scene. They probably thought I was an aid worker or a doctor.
But of course it was only the Nigerians who could help.
I heard a brief exchange between the army driver and his officer.
The driver said the civilians had been attacked by the RUF on the outskirts of the city and that he had brought them to the base because it was the only safe place he knew.
He had thought the military hospital was the best place, but his officer told him it was too busy and to take them to another clinic.
'Enormous test for justice'
The victims on the back of the truck were some of the many thousands of civilians deliberately targeted by the RUF in a reign of terror tactics that lasted around a decade in Sierra Leone.
The limb-chopping appears to have originated as a tactic during the Sierra Leonean elections in 1996 - the rebels severed the hands of those accused of using them to vote for President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.
1989: Launches rebellion
1991: RUF rebellion starts in Sierra Leone
1995: Peace deal signed
1997: Elected president
1999: Liberia's Lurd rebels start insurrection to oust Taylor
June 2003: Arrest warrant issued
August 2003: Steps down, goes into exile in Nigeria
March 2006: Arrested, sent to Sierra Leone
The prosecution in the trial of Charles Taylor, beginning next week, will try to prove a link between him and the civilian victims of the war in Sierra Leone, which has a common border with Liberia.
It is the first time an African leader has appeared before an international criminal court and prosecutors hope it will prove to be a test case to end impunity on the continent.
The chief prosecutor in the case, Stephen Rapp, said: "This is an enormous test of international justice."
Charles Taylor is accused of being one of those who "bear the greatest responsibility" for war crimes committed during the hostilities in Sierra Leone.
He is charged on 11 counts of crimes against humanity including terrorising civilians, murder, rape, using child soldiers and looting.
He is accused of having command responsibility for the actions of the RUF - of knowing what they were doing and colluding with them, either by commission or omission.
'Divide and rule'
The prosecution is expected to refer to reports by United Nations experts who said Charles Taylor used looted diamonds from Sierra Leone to buy weapons used by the RUF.
Mr Taylor denies all the charges.
At a preliminary hearing in the premises of the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, he said: "I did not and could not have committed these acts against the sister Republic of Sierra Leone."
He also questioned the motivation of the court.
"I think this is an attempt to continue to divide and rule the people of Liberia and Sierra Leone, so most definitely I am not guilty," he said.
After the preliminary hearing in Freetown the case was moved to the premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague partly because of fears Mr Taylor might escape from the facility in Sierra Leone.
But the case will still be heard by judges from the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
There is no doubt that atrocities were committed in Sierra Leone, by the RUF and others.
But the prosecution, led by American lawyer Stephen Rapp, will have to prove a direct link between those atrocities and Mr Taylor.
That will not be a simple task, and Mr Taylor's defence team, led by the British Queen's Counsel, Courtenay Griffiths, will seek prove his innocence.
The trial is expected to last for 18 months.
Throughout the years that I covered the wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, many people searched for the "smoking gun" that would prove the link between the Liberian president and the RUF.
But although there was plenty of circumstantial evidence - and a working assumption that the RUF could not have done what it did without rear bases in Liberia - few people would claim to have irrefutable proof.
Perhaps Mr Rapp, with the benefit of years of research and a big team of investigators, has got it.
The circumstantial evidence includes reports that Mr Taylor met and trained alongside the (now dead) RUF leader Foday Sankoh in camps in Libya.
There was also the fact that when the RUF battlefield commander Sam Bokarie retired, he set up house in the Liberian capital Monrovia (I met him there).
And there is the fact that the Sierra Leonean police had secret files which alleged that Mr Taylor sent envoys to and from the RUF (I obtained these files).
But none of this, I suspect, would stand up in a court of law.
That is what the trial starting in The Hague on Monday is for - to decide whether Mr Taylor is guilty of responsibility for atrocities, or whether, as he says, the whole affair is part of an attempt to divide and rule the people of west Africa.
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Published: 2008/01/07 00:04:31 GMT