Commission: Bar Liberian president from office

Liberia’s truth and reconciliation commission has recommended barring President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and 50 other high-profile figures from public office for three decades for supporting armed groups in the country’s civil wars.

If the legislature approves the recommendations and they become law before the 2011 presidential poll, it would block the chance of a second term for Sirleaf.

Sirleaf, 70, acknowledged before the commission in February that she gave up to $10,000 to a rebel group headed by Charles Taylor, viewed by many as the chief architect of Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars that lasted from 1989 to 2003.

Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female leader, said the money she sent while an expatriate was meant for humanitarian services and that she was never a member of his group.

“If there is anything that I need to apologize for to this nation, it is to apologize for being fooled by Mr. Taylor in giving any kind of support to him,” Sirleaf said in February.

From 1989 to 1997, Taylor led the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia, whose aim was to unseat then-President Samuel K. Doe. Taylor’s men are accused of systematic rape, razing villages, assassinations and cannibalism.

Taylor won a much-criticized presidential election in 1997 and led the country before being forced into exile in 2003 by a different rebel group.

There were no publicly reported humanitarian works by Taylor and his fighters, especially in the first months of the war, but most atrocities were being committed by Doe’s forces and Taylor was welcomed by many as a liberator fighting a barbaric dictatorship.

But as Taylor advanced into hostile territory, where his tribe and its allies were not dominant, his fighters began slaughtering and maiming civilians just as the government’s soldiers had.

“In defense of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, she never hid the fact that she was curious about Taylor and what he was all about,” said Mark Huband, a foreign correspondent who covered the war and later wrote the book “The Liberian Civil War.”

She granted a BBC interview in 1990 declaring that if removing Samuel Doe from power meant demolishing the Executive Mansion, where the president sits, Taylor should do that and “we will rebuild it.”

Still, Huband said: “I never had the impression that Sirleaf supported Taylor, certainly not after it became clear his troops were out of control.”

Liberia’s wars killed an estimated 250,000 and displaced millions. Liberia’s postwar government set up the truth commission, modeled on the one in post-apartheid South Africa, inviting both victims and perpetrators to retell their version of events.

On Tuesday, members of the House of Representatives mandated a committee to review the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report and report back in two weeks.

Jerome Verdier, chairman of the commission, told The Associated Press Monday that he and others on the commission “believe we have done no individuals any wrong.”

Information Minister Laurence Bropleh said that the Liberian people knew that Sirleaf had contributed $10,000 to Taylor’s movement before her 2005 election.

“We are just continuing to do the people’s business; the president is very involved in moving the country forward,” he said.

Political analyst and university teacher Kpankpayeazee Dworko said the truth commission’s stand on Sirleaf “has already caused her an image problem and is likely to hamper her second term presidential bid.”

Acarious Gray, assistant secretary-general of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change party said “the presidency has been brought to public disrepute” and Sirleaf should consider resigning.

But human rights advocate Melvin Page said he does not think the legislature will rush to action.

“I expect that legislators will drag their feet in passing the recommendations because there are a lot of them in there who participated in the war and are against the recommendations,” he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.