On October 30, 2008, justice for victims of atrocities committed during the course of Liberia's long and brutal years of armed conflict took a major step forward in a very unlikely location: Miami, Florida. On that afternoon, an American jury issued its verdict in the first US prosecution for torture committed abroad. The defendant, Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., faced charges of committing torture in Liberia during the presidency of his father, Charles Taylor, from 1997 to 2003. The father is currently on trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during neighboring Sierra Leone's conflict that ended in 2002.
For five weeks in September and October, Chuckie Taylor sat in an orderly courtroom, while the jury looked on intently. But there was nothing ordinary about the subject of this case, which Human Rights Watch worked hard to make a reality.
As the trial unfolded, prosecution witnesses put forward devastating personal accounts of torture - including being burned with boiling water, shocked with electric devices, and locked in a hole in the ground - mostly at a training base of an elite military unit, the Anti-Terrorist Unit, which the junior Taylor headed. Meanwhile, defense witnesses who lived in Liberia near to where the torture allegedly took place testified that they were not aware of any such incidents.
After each side rested, the jury went to work behind closed doors to assess the evidence. Two days later, they convicted Taylor Jr. of torture and conspiracy to commit torture, along with charges related to carrying a firearm. Taylor Jr.'s sentencing is now scheduled for January; he could face life imprisonment.
The trial, important enough in its own right, has broader significance: It is the first trial to be brought in the United States using a law passed in 1994 under which anyone on US soil, citizen or not, can be charged and tried for torture committed anywhere in the world. That means that individuals who commit mayhem abroad cannot come to the United States and assume a comfortable life, leaving victims' shattered lives behind. More important, it says that even if there is no international tribunal or domestic court in their countries that can bring perpetrators to justice, the United States can and will.
Taylor Jr., is in fact a US citizen, born in the US while his father was living in Boston. He spent his youth in Massachusetts and Florida, and only went to live in Liberia in 1997 after his father came to power. But the road to his prosecution for torture in the United States was less than straight.
Chuckie Taylor was first taken into custody on March 30, 2006 after arriving at Miami's international airport from Trinidad, and was soon after charged with a passport violation. While it is not clear why he was detained, he may have been on a US watch list as there had been reports that he was involved in arms trafficking or might be looking to recruit Liberian immigrants to destabilize the new Liberian government.
As soon as word got out that he had been picked up, emails began flying back and forth among Human Rights Watch staff members in Africa and the United States who had long hoped that a case would be brought under the 1994 law. They knew that it had to be a strong case and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. They started contacting officials in a number of US federal agencies and were pleased to find that the authorities seemed receptive.
Taylor Jr.'s arrest came right after his father had been surrendered to the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the intense advocacy and long hours to ensure that the surrender of Taylor Sr. actually took place had left Human Rights Watch staff exhausted. But Corinne Dufka, senior researcher in Human Rights Watch's Africa division, saw it as "yet another important opportunity to reinforce the fight against impunity in West Africa" and sprung into action.
"We felt that there was real interest," said Dufka. "It was clear investigators were keen to learn from our research on atrocities committed by members of the ATU."
Dufka, who covered Liberia from Human Rights Watch's Sierra Leone field office from 1999 to 2004, knew how important this case was. She recalled the many victims of ATU atrocities she had interviewed over the years: women who had seen their young children murdered in front of them; girls who had been raped by ATU militiamen; and civilians who had been tortured at the feared ATU base.
Aware that investigating crimes when much of the evidence is in another country recovering from war is no easy task, Dufka and Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program, worked as a team to press American officials to take up the challenge. They met with Justice Department officials, urging them to conduct investigations in Liberia, and brought to their attention Human Rights Watch research which documented crimes in which Chuckie Taylor was implicated.
"Although everyone we spoke with at the Department of Justice was very tight-lipped about the case, we sensed they were trying to move forward," said Keppler.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch staff remained concerned that wider political issues might undermine efforts to prosecute. They questioned whether there would be adequate political will to move forward even if the evidence was there. All of this was taking place during a difficult period in the United States, Dufka noted. The Guantanamo detention center and the abuses at Abu Ghraib were very much in the news; the United States was itself being accused of torture and mayhem, with no meaningful accountability for those violations.
So Human Rights Watch staff continued to do everything they could to underscore publicly and privately the need to pursue the case, and how important it would be to demonstrate how justice could be achieved through a fair, efficient trial. This was especially true since years of war had devastated the Liberian judicial system, leaving no immediate prospect of any prosecution in Liberia for past human rights abuses, and no international court could try the case. The International Criminal Court has jurisdiction only for crimes committed after 2002, and there is no special tribunal for Liberia. Taylor Sr. is being tried by a UN-backed special court which only has a mandate to prosecute crimes in Sierra Leone.
As the December 7, 2006 date for sentencing Chuckie Taylor on the passport charge approached, the situation grew tense. Taylor had already been in custody for some time and there was a real chance he might be released and disappear. "We really had no indication on whether or not the Department of Justice would bring charges for torture against the younger Taylor," Keppler noted.
Only a day before he was sentenced, the Department of Justice announced Taylor Jr.'s indictment for torture. He was initially charged with responsibility for acts of torture to a single individual, but charges stemming from six other victims were subsequently added.
Keppler, who kept track of the proceedings and who was in the courtroom for the start of the trial in September 2008, said the stakes were high for this first case under the torture law. She was struck by how smoothly the trial progressed and the performance of both the prosecution and the defense.
Human Rights Watch staff are now looking to build off this precedent to ensure wider prosecutions for past crimes in Liberia. "Talking with media in West Africa around the opening of Chuckie Taylor's trial, it was clear that people in Liberia are keenly interested in this case," said Keppler. "When terrible abuses have been committed, justice is critical, not just for victims but also for rebuilding a society based on rule of law."
Back in the United States, South Florida attorney general greeted the Taylor verdict with this message: "It's the first of its kind but that doesn't mean it's the last of its kind." Human Rights Watch plans to hold him and the rest of the Department of Justice to this.