MIAMI – A federal jury on Thursday convicted the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor in the first case brought under a 1994 U.S. law allowing prosecution for torture and atrocities committed overseas.
Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., was convicted of torture, firearms and conspiracy charges on the second day of jury deliberations. He faces life in prison, with sentencing set for Jan. 9.
Prosecutors said the 31-year-old Emmanuel was involved in killings and torture as head of an elite antiterrorist unit in his father's government also known as the "Demon Forces." From 1999 to 2002, Emmanuel's job was to use his paramilitary soldiers to silence opposition to Taylor and train soldiers for conflict in neighboring African countries, according to trial testimony.
Miami U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said the case, investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and FBI agents who traveled the globe finding victims and witnesses, will serve as a model for future prosecutors involving foreign torture allegations.
"It is truly historic. It's the first case of its kind, but it won't be the last of its kind," Acosta said.
Charles Taylor is on trial before a United Nations tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly overseeing the murder, rape and mutilation of thousands of people during Sierra Leone's bloody 10-year civil war.
A succession of African witnesses described Emmanuel's involvement in at least three killings and torture using electric shocks, lit cigarettes, molten plastic, hot irons, stabbings with bayonets and even biting ants shoveled onto people's bodies.
Many of the victims were accused of being anti-Taylor rebels or sympathizers and were held at a base known as Gbatala, often in pits partially filled with water and covered with iron bars and barbed wire.
"I want the world to know what happened to me so it will not happen again in the future," former prisoner Rufus Kpadeh testified. He showed jurors scars on his arms from molten plastic he said was dripped on him.
Emmanuel did not testify in his own defense. His court-appointed lawyers suggested that many of the witnesses lied in a bid to win political asylum in the U.S. or to settle political vendettas against Taylor and his government.
Defense lawyer Miguel Caridad said he was "disappointed" by the verdict.
"It's tough to defend a case where everything happened across the ocean," Caridad said.
In Monrovia, Liberian Information Minister Laurence Bropleh said "the government believes his conviction sends out a strong signal that international human rights standards must be respected by citizens of every country wherever they find themselves."
Cyrial Allen, a close associate of Charles Taylor and former chairman of Taylor's National Patriotic Party, said: "This is not about justice. It's about Chuckie's link to Charles Taylor. It seems that the conviction was predetermined."
The verdict was hailed by the Human Rights Watch organization, which pushed hard for Emmanuel's prosecution and has spent years documenting crimes and violence in west Africa.
"Today's verdict is a milestone for ensuring justice for atrocities," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel for the organization's International Justice Program.
Emmanuel is a U.S. citizen who was born in 1977 in Boston to a girlfriend of Taylor, who was a college student there at the time. Emmanuel's mother later remarried and moved the family to Orlando.
Court records show Emmanuel was involved in a long string of crimes, eventually leaving the U.S. to join his father in Liberia in 1997 and using the name Chuckie Taylor. After the elder Taylor left office in August 2003, Emmanuel fled to Trinidad and eventually decided to return to the U.S.
The torture trial took place in Miami because Emmanuel arrived here in March 2006 with a passport he obtained after giving a false name for his father on its application. Emmanuel pleaded guilty to passport fraud and was sentenced to 11 months in prison, then stood trial on the torture indictment.
Taylor came to power in 1997 after a long civil war and resigned under pressure from the Bush administration in August 2003. At the time, Taylor was one of Africa's most infamous warlords, allegedly involved in recruitment of child soldiers and arms sales for so-called "blood" diamonds.