By Alexandra Hudson
THE HAGUE, May 31 Once surrounded by African presidential splendour, former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor now lives in a Dutch prison near the chilly North Sea with only a Congolese militia chief for company and food he finds foul.
The ousted Liberian president feels socially isolated in The Hague, his lawyer told Reuters ahead of the start of Taylor's trial on Monday on charges of orchestrating murder, rape and terrorism during Sierra Leone's civil war.
The U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone moved Taylor to the international justice capital in 2006, fearing a trial in Freetown could bring new unrest in West Africa.
The only other inmate in the 12-cell detention wing of the International Criminal Court (ICC) is Thomas Lubanga, a French speaking Congolese militia leader charged by the ICC with war crimes for recruiting child soldiers.
"Taylor and Lubanga are learning each other's languages but they struggle to communicate," said lawyer Karim Khan.
"The food which is served is completely eurocentric and not palatable to the African palate," he added.
A spokeswoman for the detention centre, part of a Dutch prison complex near the North Sea beach resort of Scheveningen, said detainees were offered a varied diet.
"They can also cook for themselves. There is a prison shop where they can buy ingredients or they can have foods like plantain ordered in," she added, referring to one of the staple foods in parts of Africa.
During the day, Taylor has the chance to take part in language classes, art classes and computer courses. His detention costs the court 658 euros ($883) a day.
Taylor is no stranger to being locked up. He was detained in the United States on a Liberian extradition warrant in the 1980s, but got out under circumstances that remain mysterious before returning to Liberia to launch the civil war.
Taylor's current home is a big contrast to the imposing presidential mansion in Monrovia with its heavy wood panelling and ornate gilt trimmings, where he worked under the protection of hefty bodyguards in suits and dark glasses.
From there, Taylor was forced to flee to Nigeria where he was given the run of a hilltop villa with views across a wide river in the southeastern town of Calabar.
The cold, rainy climate of the Netherlands is very different to West Africa's hot and humid coast.
A more bustling wing at Taylor's prison complex is home to 45 war crimes suspects facing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Most are from Serbia, but some come from other former Yugoslav republics.
Cells resemble college dormitory rooms and inmates play board games, cook and watch television together. Ceramics classes are popular. Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic reputedly listened to Frank Sinatra CDs in his cell.
Khan said there was no objection to Taylor socialising with the former Yugoslav war crimes suspects, though that had not been organised yet.
Despite the shortcomings, Taylor may find his cell at The Hague one of his more peaceful abodes.
During his last days in Monrovia, the roads around his bunker-like personal dwelling were sealed off by drunk and edgy gunmen as rebels fought their way into the city. The Executive Mansion still bears the bullet holes.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Dakar)