Taylor Trial May Expose Shadows of Diamond Trade

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(Rapaport…Associated Press, DAKAR) Former Liberia President Charles Taylor was known for boasting of friends in high places. Now he could well find it useful to denounce them as he defends himself against war crimes charges.

Taylor is accused of murder, rape, terrorism, sexual slavery, and other war crimes and crimes against humanity in connection with his alleged support for notoriously brutal rebels during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war. In return, he allegedly was paid in diamonds, which he used to fund his war to take power in Liberia.

Taylor, who has pleaded not guilty before a Sierra Leone war crimes court, could now try to show that his support for the rebels was a matter of politics and that other leaders also supported the rebel group.

Or he could simply name names out of spite, angry that former allies –or those that once at least tolerated him– did not prevent him being hauled before the independent, international tribunal trying those believed to hold the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during Sierra Leone’s war.

“I think the United States, Libya, and Burkina Faso are directly in the firing line in terms of ultimate responsibility” for the creation, arming and training of Taylor, said Alex Yearsley, who has followed the Taylor case closely for Global Witness, which tracks the tendency of mineral wealth to fuel conflict in poor countries.

Yearsley said the trial may also shine a spotlight on lesser figures from the shadowy international worlds of diamond and arms trading.

Jewel Howard-Taylor, who divorced Taylor in 2005 but remains in close touch, said in a telephone interview from Monrovia, Liberia, “I am sure that there are some governments that are afraid of the stories that might come out.”

Howard-Taylor refused to name the countries, but Taylor’s links to Libya, the United States and elsewhere are well known.

“While there may be some interesting revelations … I don’t see it being directly related” to the charges he faces, said Corinne Dufka, a Dakar-based Human Rights Watch researcher who has closely followed the Taylor case.

“And it would not mitigate his personal responsibility for the crimes with which he’s been charged.”

Possible ties between Taylor and the CIA have been a matter of speculation for years. Some say the CIA helped him escape from a Massachusetts jail in 1985, where he had been held on a Liberian arrest warrant accusing him of embezzling nearly $1 million from the government of the late President Samuel Doe while he was serving.

Taylor went from the United States to Libya to train as a guerrilla and then launched an insurgency against Doe. The Sierra Leone rebel leader with whom he is accused of allying, Foday Sankoh, also trained in Libya. Sankoh died of natural causes while in custody in 2003.

The conspiracy theory has it that Taylor spied for the CIA on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. A CIA spokeswoman said it was the agency’s policy to neither deny nor confirm employment and refused to comment on whether the agency was worried about what Taylor might say on the stand. The United States, though, has pushed hard for his trial.

Gadhafi himself came close to being indicted by the Sierra Leone war crimes court, according to David Crane, the former chief prosecutor of the court who drew up the Taylor indictment.

Gadhafi’s support for a range of West African rebels was believed aimed at undermining pro-United States governments as well as spreading his own influence. He remains the mercurial head of a one-party state.

But the Taylor trial comes as Gadhafi appears on the verge of international rehabilitation.

The United States once reviled Gadhafi as the terrorist responsible for the 1988 downing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. But Gadhafi paid $2.7 billion to compensate victims’ families, and the United States opened a liaison office in the Libyan capital in 2004, 24 years after closing its embassy.

Full diplomatic relations are expected to be restored soon.

Like Taylor, Blaise Compaore, the president of Burkina Faso and a longtime Gadhafi ally, was accused of funneling guns to Sierra Leone rebels and of smuggling out the diamonds they mined. Compaore denies the accusations and was not indicted by the Sierra Leone court.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press

© 2006 Dialog, a Thomson business. All rights reserved.

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