FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Nigerian security forces encouraged former Liberian President Charles Taylor to flee, his spiritual adviser said Sunday, calling into question Nigeria’s repeated denials that it was complicit in Taylor’s attempt to evade a war crimes trial.
Taylor, the first former African president to be charged with crimes against humanity, is to appear today before a tribunal that is bent on sending a powerful message to despots that no one is above the law. He has repeatedly declared his innocence and will be asked to enter a plea to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual slavery and mutilation.
Many were suspicious when Nigeria’s government announced Taylor’s disappearance last week, just days after Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo reluctantly agreed to hand him over from the exile haven he had been offered under an internationally brokered peace agreement ending Liberia’s 14-year civil war.
Taylor’s spiritual adviser, the Indian evangelist Kilari Anand Paul, said Taylor told him in a phone call from jail on Saturday that State Security Service agents came with two vehicles to his Calabar villa the night of March 28.
Taylor said “they escorted him to the north, way off toward Cameroon and, in the middle of nowhere, told him to go. He said, ‘Where are you guys going?’ And they said they received instructions to leave him, and they left,” according to Paul.
Nigeria again denied the allegation. “The story is a far-fetched figment of his jaundiced imagination,” said a spokesman for the Nigerian leader, Femi Fani-Kayode.
For two days, Nigeria had resisted calls from the United States, human rights organizations and others to arrest Taylor to ensure that he would stand trial.
He was arrested Wednesday in northern Nigeria and taken to the war tribunal in Sierra Leone, established to try those seen as bearing greatest responsibility for atrocities during Sierra Leone’s 1991-2002 civil war.
Diplomats and Nigerian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity suggested Taylor had been allowed to flee. Some said he might have been taken by rogue elements in the State Security Service set on embarrassing the president.
Before Taylor could cross into Cameroon, the agents who had freed him “turned up and arrested him. … They had guns and told him to surrender himself,” said Paul, who met Taylor in 2003 and says he helped broker Taylor’s exile to Nigeria.
Paul said Taylor told him he believed his captors thought he would flee and that the agents had been ordered to kill him, “but they couldn’t because he surrendered without any resistance and because he had five or six people with him.”