MIAMI Federal prosecutors say former Liberian President Charles Taylor's son poured molten plastic on the skin of the regime's opponents, rubbed salt in their wounds and shocked them with electricity during a horrific three-year campaign of intimidation in Africa.
Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., is set to go on trial here this week as prosecutors test, for the first time, a 1994 law making it a crime for U.S. citizens to commit torture overseas.
Prosecutors say Emmanuel brutalized at least seven people by pressing hot irons on their flesh, shocking them and even shoveling stinging ants on one naked victim who was forced into a dirt pit.
Emmanuel, 31, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a combined possible sentence of life in prison. His attorney contends the people who say they were victims are lying to get political asylum.
Emmanuel, born in 1977 in Boston while his father was a college student there, is also charged with conspiracy in the shootings of three people at a bridge checkpoint in Liberia in 1999. At the time Emmanuel was commander of the elite paramilitary Anti-terrorist Unit in his father's government a unit called the "Demon Forces" by many Liberians.
"Chuckie Taylor was a monster who had no respect for the law and cared little about the Liberian people," said David Crane, a Syracuse University law professor and former chief prosecutor for a U.N. tribunal on Sierra Leone war crimes.
Charles Taylor is currently on trial at a special U.N.-backed court in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of orchestrating violence in neighboring Sierra Leone's bloody civil war, which ended in 2002. His son's alleged crimes took place between 1999 and 2002 in Liberia, where prosecutors say his job was to intimidate and silence Taylor's opponents by any means necessary.
Jury selection is scheduled to begin this week, with the trial likely to last at least a month.
Emmanuel has been in U.S. custody since March 2006, when he arrived at Miami International Airport from Trinidad carrying a U.S. passport he obtained after falsifying his father's name on an application. Emmanuel pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 11 months but claimed at a sentencing hearing that the torture case is a politically motivated attempt "to make me pay for being the son" of Taylor.
"A lie can run halfway around the globe, your honor, before the truth can lace its shoes," Emmanuel said.
Many witnesses for both sides are being flown in from Liberia and other African nations, with special plans being made to ferry them to and from court under federal protection. The identities of the torture victims have been kept secret before trial.
Emmanuel attorney Miguel Caridad said the case will turn on the credibility of six key witnesses, five of whom are living in the U.S. and other Western countries as refugees. Jurors will have to decide if they had reasons to lie about Emmanuel's deeds to escape their often violent and poverty-stricken homeland.
"Might they exaggerate or fabricate torture at the hands of the defendant in order to seek and obtain asylum in the West? The question answers itself," Caridad said.
Caridad has also sought access to a classified list of approved U.S. interrogation techniques to support "our defense that the defendant's actions do not constitute torture ... because they are similar or analogous to approved interrogation techniques." Whether that list will be produced is still an open question.
The trial marks one of the few times an alleged perpetrator of atrocities in West Africa faces justice, said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.
"After years of war, Liberia has not tried cases involving serious crimes and no existing international tribunals have the mandate to prosecute past crimes in Liberia," Keppler said.
The U.S. Justice Department is confident. Alice Fisher, former chief of the department's criminal division, said Emmanuel was indicted after officials spent years crisscrossing the globe to gather evidence and interview witnesses.