The trial of one of Africa's most ruthless leaders, the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, is to be moved to Europe after Britain offered him a jail cell if he is convicted of war crimes.
The British decision lifts the final obstacle in the long-running process aimed at securing justice for the West African leader accused of funding rebels in neighbouring Sierra Leone who hacked off the limbs of their victims during a decade-long civil war. Mr Taylor, who faces charges of crimes against humanity, is also accused of selling diamonds on behalf of the former rebels of the Revolutionary United Front in return for weapons.
Mr Taylor's trial at a UN-backed court has been on hold in Sierra Leone pending a decision on its transfer to The Hague, amid fears that his trial in Africa could be a destabilising factor for the still-fragile democracies of the region. But that decision depended on whether a European country would agree to imprison Mr Taylor if he is found guilty.
The Liberian President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who had pressed for the trial to be heard in Europe, discussed the issue of Mr Taylor's possible imprisonment in Britain during a visit to London last month.
Announcing the decision yesterday, the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, said that the former president's presence in Sierra Leone "remains a threat to peace in that region ... we are demonstrating through concrete action the UK's commitment to international justice."
The Dutch government said that with Britain's announcement, conditions it set for hosting the trial at The Hague have been met. "This is a crucial step," said Herman van Gelderen, the spokesman for the Foreign Minister, Ben Bot. "We think it's important that people suspected of crimes like these - terrible crimes, war crimes - should be held accountable, should be tried, and if we can play a role we are ready to play a role," he said.
The Netherlands last week sentenced a Dutch businessman to eight years in prison for breaking a UN arms embargo by smuggling weapons into Liberia, which were used by militias loyal to Mr Taylor to kill civilians, including children.
British diplomats said that the UN Security Council would now "expeditiously" consider a UK-sponsored draft resolution formally transferring the Taylor trial to The Hague.
British legislation will have to be adapted to allow Mr Taylor's possible incarceration. The Swedish parliament went so far as to pass a law in order to allow Mr Taylor to be jailed in Sweden in case of conviction, but the government in Stockholm did not follow through with a political decision.
Mr Taylor's lawyers had sought to have the trial held in Sierra Leone on the ground that West African witnesses and Mr Taylor's relatives would not be able to attend the trial if it were moved to Europe. The former leader, who received asylum in Nigeria following his removal as president in 2003, was moved to Sierra Leone for trial in March.
Human Rights Watch, which welcomed Britain's decision, urged international donors to redouble their efforts to make Mr Taylor's trial accessible to the people of West Africa by providing funding, once the transfer to The Hague is agreed.