A War-Crimes Trial in Florida

  • Share
  • Read Later
Shirley Henderson / AP

A courtroom drawing of former Liberian President Charles Taylor's son, Charles McArthur Emmanuel

Monday morning, Chucky Taylor stepped into a federal courtroom wearing a gray blazer and black slacks, looking more like a museum security guard than an accused war criminal. But his trial on torture charges that opened this week will test a never before invoked federal law criminalizing torture, a statute that the Bush Administration examined closely to ensure CIA agents and other civilians involved in the War on Terrorism would not be exposed to prosecution.

"Crimes such as these will not go unanswered," said Assistant Attorney General Alice S. Fisher when the indictment was announced in December 2006. The Liberian government has not commented on the prosecution but has deferred to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia the accounting for crimes committed during the 14-year civil war. Human-rights groups view the prosecution as a shift toward greater accountability for human-rights violators who enter the United States.

Taylor, also known as Charles Emmanuel, is the 31-year-old American son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, currently behind bars in the Hague, where he faces 11 counts of crimes against humanity before a U.N.-sponsored court. Born in Boston and raised in the suburban sprawl of Orlando, Fla., Taylor Jr. moved to Liberia as a teen and allegedly commanded the militia called the Anti-Terrorist Unit, also known as the "Demon Forces."

The trial, which Taylor's attorneys expect to last another seven weeks, is the first prosecution under the Extraterritorial Torture statute, a 14-year-old law dusted off by the Department of Justice to prosecute Taylor. It is also a unique experiment in international justice: all of the crimes of which Taylor stands accused — summarily executing people, ordering beheadings, forcible sodomy, the slashing and electrocution of genitals — were committed in far-off Liberia, in the midst of a bizarre and brutal region-wide conflict.

"No jury has dealt with a case like this," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel with Human Rights Watch. "Ideally, what you want is the domestic courts in the countries where the crimes were committed to take up these cases," she said. But noting that Liberia is currently relying on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address war crimes, she said, "Cases like this help to fill the impunity gap."

Taylor Jr.'s defense was quick to point out that this is not a normal criminal trial. "The government is asking you to take yourself back in time on the other side of the world in the middle of the civil war and decide whether these acts happened," federal public defender John Wylie explained in his opening statement.

The defense hopes to show that all the testimony against Taylor is motivated either by tribal hatred or by a desire by witnesses to win asylum status. "Liberia is literally one of the poorest countries in the world," a land of no credit cards, no ATMs and little or no electricity or running water, continued Wylie. "Who wouldn't want to get out of that situation?"

The first alleged victim to testify was Rufus Kpadeh, a 37-year-old farmer from northeast Liberia. He recalled in Liberian English that over two months in 1999 he was bound, beaten and forcibly sodomized and had plastic melted onto his flesh at Gbatala base, a quarry used by Taylor's unit as a training facility. Until two weeks ago, Kpadeh had never traveled out of Liberia nor been on an airplane.

He told the court that Taylor had ordered an Anti-Terrorist Unit officer, David Kampari, to "cut his nuts."

"I felt very bad," Kpadeh said. "I felt as if I was losing my life."

But after Kpadeh's testimony wrapped up for the day, the cultural obstacles to the prosecution's case became immediately apparent. Judge Cecilia Altonaga told the prosecution, "I'm understanding about 50% of what's being said." A core issue the jury will face is not only whether these acts happened but if they actually constitute torture.

The question of what defines torture in the statute under which Taylor is being tried has been an issue for the Bush Administration since 2002, when the CIA sought clarification from the White House on the legality — under the same law — of certain "enhanced interrogation methods." In what became known as the Bybee Memo, John Yoo of the Office of Legal Counsel wrote that to constitute torture, the pain inflicted on a detainee "must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death."

Though the Bush Administration has since distanced itself from those conclusions, the Bybee Memo resurfaced in Taylor's trial when his defense lawyers attached a copy of the memo to proposed jury instructions in the case.

But Morton Sklar, executive director of world organization for Human Rights USA, a group representing one of the witnesses, said the Bybee Memo had been an attempt to bypass international torture-treaty standards in the context of the war on terrorism and that Yoo's interpretation of the law "was way out of kilter with what the international standards require."

Taylor faces life in prison if convicted. But human-rights advocates are hoping that whatever its outcome, Taylor's case won't be an isolated event but instead will signal an expansion of international human-rights prosecutions in American courts.

(Click here for photos of Liberia's bloody civil war.)

(See TIME's pictures of the week here.)