MIAMI – Charles McArthur Emmanuel, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and head of a savage paramilitary unit known as the "Demon Forces," was sentenced Friday to 97 years in prison for torture overseas in the first U.S. case of its kind.
U.S. District Judge Cecilia M. Altonaga imposed the sentence after describing Emmanuel's actions against people viewed as rebels or opponents of his father as "sadistic, cruel and atrocious."
"It is hard to conceive of any more serious offenses against the dignity and the lives of human beings," Altonaga said. "The international community condemns torture."
Emmanuel, a U.S. citizen also known as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., was convicted in October in the first use of a 1994 law permitting prosecution in the U.S. for torture committed in foreign countries. Prosecutors had asked for an even tougher 147-year sentence to send a strong worldwide message against torture, while the defense asked for 20 years.
"Our message to human rights violators, no matter where they are, remains the same: We will use the full reach of U.S. law ... to hold you accountable for your crimes," said Matthew Friedrich, acting chief of the U.S. Justice Department's criminal division, in a statement.
Emmanuel, 31, showed no emotion or reaction at the sentence, but told Altonaga he would quickly appeal. Emmanuel also said he rejected an offer from prosecutors to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.
"My innocence was important to me then, as it is now," said Emmanuel, who also offered an apology of sorts to several of his victims at the hearing. "My sympathies go out to all the people who suffered in the conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone."
Emmanuel's father, a notorious warlord who left power in 2003 under U.S. pressure, is on trial before a United Nations tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, for crimes allegedly committed during the Sierra Leone civil war. Emmanuel was born to a girlfriend of Taylor's while he was a college student in Boston in the 1970s.
Victims testified that Emmanuel, as chief of Taylor's Antiterrorist Unit from 1997 to 2003, either personally tortured them or directed others to do so. People were shocked by electric devices, stabbed with bayonets, burned with cigarettes, scalding water and molten plastic, bitten by shovelfuls of ants and imprisoned in water-filled holes topped by iron bars and barbed wire.
Emmanuel personally shot several men to death at a bridge checkpoint and ordered one man beheaded with a large knife, witnesses said.
One victim, Mulbah Kamara, leaned on a metal crutch as he described continuing pain and nightmares from the beatings and abuse he withstood. Kamara said he lost three successful businesses and his home in Liberia after he was imprisoned.
"I am going through a lot of trauma," Kamara said. "I'm happy that I'm here, alive."
The sentence marks the culmination of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigation that began in 2002 with a single agent looking into illegal arms exports to wartorn western Africa. Emmanuel was initially arrested in Miami for a passport violation in 2006, then indicted on torture, firearms and conspiracy charges.
The investigation spanned seven countries, involved some 200 interviews and included the delicate task of persuading frightened Liberian torture victims to travel to Miami — some traveling abroad and staying in a hotel for the first time — to testify against a man whose unit terrorized them, said John Torres, acting Homeland Security assistant secretary for ICE.
Torres said the Emmanuel case would have immense value for "the deterrence for others who think they can come to the U.S. for safe haven. This case has raised awareness internationally that this is the type of investigation ICE will pursue. It has opened up so many doors."
Emmanuel attorney Miguel Caridad argued that his client — who arrived in Africa at age 17, after a series of crimes as a juvenile in Orlando — may have thought such atrocities were "standard operating procedure" in violent western Africa and that he was vulnerable to pressure from his powerful father.
"The defendant's life has been destroyed by a perfect storm of circumstances not of his own making," Caridad said.
Caridad also said the U.S. itself has been roundly criticized for harsh interrogations in the war on terror that many define as torture.
"Many people think what we're doing is wrong," Caridad said.
But prosecutors rejected that, and Altonaga said the U.S. is on record as condemning torture.
Also Friday, the group Human Rights USA filed a lawsuit in Miami federal court on behalf of potentially thousands of Liberian torture victims seeking unspecified damages from Emmanuel or accounts controlled by Taylor that have been frozen by the U.N.
"This is a chance for everyone else to get their day in court," said Theresa Harris, the organization's executive director.