By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008
A federal jury in Miami yesterday convicted the son of onetime Liberian leader Charles Taylor in the first test of an American law that gives prosecutors the power to bring charges for acts of torture committed in foreign lands.
Roy M. Belfast Jr., also known as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor, 31, will be sentenced early next year on the charges, which include conspiracy, torture and firearms violations. He faces the possibility of life in prison.
Authorities say Taylor led a violent security force in Liberia while his father served as president of the African nation. The elite anti-terrorist unit initially protected the country's leaders and other dignitaries. But the squad later turned its energy toward training fighters and cracking down on political opponents, according to court papers.
Prosecutors accused Taylor of taking part in atrocities and directing subordinates to torture victims using hot irons, guns, knives and electrical devices from 1999 to 2002.
One victim who testified in the case told the jury that his arms bore lingering scars from hot plastic dripped on him by Taylor's anti-terrorist squad.
U.S. Attorney R. Alexander Acosta said he hopes the case will serve as a "model" for future prosecutions. The lengthy investigation was conducted in concert with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI's Washington field office.
"We must . . . ensure that those who come here seeking freedom and the rule of law do not have to fear that their persecutor may become their neighbor," said Julie L. Myers, who heads ICE.
Human rights groups hailed the prosecution as a rare but critical use of a 14-year-old law that allows U.S. authorities to charge citizens with atrocities committed abroad. The law also applies to offenders who are in the United States, no matter their national origin. Taylor, who was born in Boston, had been in custody since late 2006, when he pleaded guilty in a separate case of passport fraud.
"Today's verdict is a signal to torturers around the world to beware," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel to Human Rights Watch. "The Department of Justice should make sure that when the appropriate case arises, they make use of these laws."
Federal public defenders representing Taylor did not return calls yesterday. But during the four-week trial, they maintained that many of the government's witnesses had bent the truth for their own purposes.
Taylor's father faces trial on Liberian war crimes before a U.N. tribunal in The Hague.