(New York) – Today’s verdict in the US trial of Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr. for torture committed in Liberia is a significant step to ensure that victims see justice and that perpetrators do not expect sanctuary in the United States, Human Rights Watch said. The jury in the trial, which has been taking place at a Miami federal court since September 29, found the defendant guilty on all counts today.
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. Chuckie Taylor was charged with torture and conspiracy to commit torture 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).
"Today's verdict is a milestone in ensuring justice for atrocities," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel for Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program. "Never before has torture committed abroad been prosecuted in the United States. We now look to the Department of Justice to bring more cases like this one."
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 on torture charges.
For a more detailed discussion of the charges against Chuckie Taylor for torture and other issues in the case, Human Rights Watch has prepared a question and answer document on the trial.
Cases involving atrocities committed abroad are complex to investigate and try, but they are sometimes the only available means to bring perpetrators of grave human rights violations to justice. Following many years of conflict, Liberia's courts have yet to try individuals for atrocities committed then, although a truth and reconciliation commission has been established. No existing international tribunals have the mandate to prosecute past crimes in Liberia.
"The decision handed down today has major significance for victims in Liberia," Keppler said. "Prosecutions for human rights violations committed abroad can play a vital role in ensuring perpetrators of the worst crimes are held to account. Today's verdict is a signal to torturers around the world to beware."
During the trial, the parties called more than 20 witnesses to testify. Prosecution witnesses included victims, former bodyguards and members of the ATU, and US government employees involved in investigating the crimes. Defense witnesses included residents of the area where the alleged incidents occurred who testified that they never saw Chuckie Taylor commit torture and that they were not aware of the alleged incidents.
Until last year, torture was the only serious crime that could be prosecuted when committed abroad in cases in which neither the alleged perpetrator nor the victim is an American citizen. 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 was signed into law on October 3, 2008.
"Laws that make human rights violations committed abroad a prosecutable offense in the United States have increased in recent years," Keppler said. "The Department of Justice should make sure that when the appropriate cases arise, they make use of these laws."
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, and fatal beatings and burning of civilians. 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.