(New York) – The upcoming trial in Miami of Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr., who is accused of torture committed in Liberia, should signal the start of a more robust policy toward prosecuting serious human rights violations committed abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. Jury selection in the case is scheduled to begin this Wednesday at 12:00 p.m.
Chuckie Taylor is the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is on trial for war crimes by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. The son is accused of responsibility for torture committed between 1997 and 2003 while he headed Liberia's notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) during his father's presidency.
The Taylor case is the first brought under a 14-year-old federal law that allows the United States to bring charges against a person accused of torture abroad if the accused is in the United States or is an American citizen (18 USC § 2340A).
"As the first prosecution for torture committed abroad, Chuckie Taylor's trial is a vital, long-awaited step by the US government to ensure human rights abusers do not escape justice," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "The Department of Justice's efforts should be applauded and replicated in more cases like this one."
As detailed in a Human Rights Watch questions and answers document on the trial, Taylor, Jr. is charged with criminal responsibility for acts of torture, which include burning victims, shocking them with an electrical device, imprisoning them in holes in the ground, and ordering that that their genitals be mutilated. He is also accused of ordering executions.
Jury selection in the trial, which will be held before Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, is expected to last three days and will be followed by opening statements.
Taylor, Jr., an American citizen born in Massachusetts, was taken into custody on March 30, 2006, while trying to enter the United States from Trinidad. He was initially charged with passport fraud and pleaded guilty. On December 6, 2006, the day before his sentencing, he was indicted for torture. The torture indictment has since been amended several times, primarily to add more victims to the charges.
Prosecutions of atrocities committed abroad can be complex to investigate and require specialized expertise, Human Rights Watch said. However, these cases are sometimes the only available means to bring perpetrators of grave human rights violations to justice.
"Chuckie Taylor's trial for torture is hugely important for victims in Liberia," said Keppler. "This is one of the few prosecutions to date for atrocities committed during Liberia's wars."
After years of conflict, Liberia has not tried cases involving serious crimes, although a truth and reconciliation commission has been established. No existing international tribunals have the mandate to prosecute past crimes in Liberia.
Until last year, torture was the only serious crime that the Department of Justice could prosecute when committed abroad in cases in which neither the alleged perpetrator nor the victim is an American citizen. Recent legislation backed by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, chaired by Senator Richard J. Durbin, is helping to change that, Human Rights Watch said.
In December 2007, the Genocide Accountability Act made it a federal crime for anyone in the United States or for any American citizen to commit genocide anywhere. Similar legislation on recruitment of child soldiers has received support in the Senate and the House of Representatives, although it has yet to be finalized. The subcommittee also held a hearing on bringing perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice in the United States in June.
"Recent amendments to US federal law have widened the possibilities to prosecute the worst crimes," said Keppler. "The Department of Justice should actively apply these laws so that the United States avoids ever being a safe haven for human rights abusers."
Human Rights Watch urged the Department of Justice to devote adequate attention and expertise to enable effective investigations and prosecutions of human rights violations committed abroad.
The extraterritorial torture statute is also applicable to US officials. Human Rights Watch has urged the Department of Justice to conduct a criminal investigation of senior officials implicated in torture of detainees abroad.
Background on the Anti-Terrorist Unit
Charles Taylor created the ATU shortly after his inauguration as Liberia's president in 1997. The ATU was initially used to protect government buildings and the international airport, and to provide security for the presidency and some foreign embassies. However, following the emergence of an insurgency aimed at unseating then-President Taylor in 1999, the ATU's responsibilities were expanded to include combat and other war-related duties.
Information available to Human Rights Watch suggests that while Charles Taylor, Jr. headed the ATU, the unit committed torture, including violent assaults, rape, beating people to death and burning civilians alive. Information available to Human Rights Watch also suggests that the ATU committed war crimes, including extrajudicial killing of civilians and prisoners, rape and other torture, abduction, and the recruitment of child soldiers.