Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Developments in the Civil Suit Against Chuckie Taylor and Q&A with International Justice Project Director, Piper Hendricks

Charles Taylor Jr. (also known as “Chuckie”) is the son of Charles Taylor, the former President of Liberia and was a key instigator in the Liberian Civil War in which hundreds of thousands of civilians were injured, tortured, or killed. Taylor Jr. was born and raised in the United States but moved to Liberia in 1997 to live with his father. There, he became the head of a brutal paramilitary group known as the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) or the “Demon Forces.” Under Taylor Jr.’s vicious command, many Liberians were subjected to various forms of torture at the hands of the ATU soldiers.

In 2006, when Taylor Jr. entered the United States via the Miami International Airport, U.S. agents were ready and arrested him. The Department of Justice later indicted and prosecuted Taylor Jr. for the acts of torture and conspiracy to torture that he committed in Liberia. Human Rights USA served as amicus (or "friend of the court") and provided expertise on international law. Taylor Jr.'s trial was the first ever in the United States under the “Torture Statute,” a federal law that criminalizes torture and gives U.S. courts jurisdiction over cases involving torture, in keeping with the United States’ obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture. Under the Torture Statute, U.S. courts have jurisdiction over torture committed outside the United States if the offender is a U.S. national or is present in the United States at the time of the arrest, regardless of nationality. On October 20, 2008, a federal jury convicted Taylor Jr. of multiple counts of torture and conspiracy to torture. On January 9, 2009, he was sentenced to 97 years in prison.

Though that trial held Taylor Jr. criminally accountable and provided some remedy to seven of his victims, his serving time in prison does not address all of their losses. In order to hold Taylor Jr. civilly accountable and provide a remedy for medical expenses, lost wages, and other harms inflicted by Taylor Jr. and his subordinates, Human Rights USA is representing five survivors of torture by Taylor Jr. and the ATU in a civil suit. Here, Piper Hendricks, the International Justice Project Director at Human Rights USA answers some questions about the suit and what it means for the enforcement of human rights in U.S. courts:

Q: What is the reason for bringing a civil suit against Charles Taylor Jr. after his conviction and sentencing for multiple counts of torture and conspiracy to torture?

PH: Though the 97-year sentence in the criminal case is essentially a life sentence for Taylor Jr., the civil case allows more victims to have their own “day in court” and gain a better sense of closure. Additionally, unlike the criminal case, the civil case offers the possibility of monetary damages, hence an opportunity to reach Taylor Jr.’s assets and cover medical bills, lost wages, and other serious financial losses the plaintiffs have suffered.

Q: How is a civil suit different from a criminal suit?

PH: Only the government can bring a criminal suit, and such a suit focuses on a conviction and prison time, not damages. A civil suit such as this one is useful in ensuring that wrongs towards specific victims are recognized and reprimanded, and that damages are awarded to those victims.

Q: How is HR USA working with Taylor Jr.’s victims in Liberia on this case?

PH: Currently, HR USA is in close contact with the Liberian plaintiffs by phone, and in the coming weeks, we will be traveling to Liberia to meet with the plaintiffs and arrange for their travel to the United States as we prepare for the civil trial.

Q: Have there been similar situations in the past when civil suits were brought against torturers to ensure justice for victims?

PH: Yes. Because of the Alien Tort Claims Act (also known as the Alien Tort Statute or ATS), which was adopted in 1789, U.S. federal courts can be used as venues to sue for wrong-doing, even if such acts occurred outside the United States and the plaintiff and/or defendant are not U.S. citizens. The ATS has been used to hold accountable a former Filipino dictator and a Peruvian military general, among others.

In 1992, Congress added the Torture Victims Prevention Act to the ATS to allow U.S. citizens also to bring suit in federal courts for torture and extrajudicial killings against those who were acting in official positions (“under color of law”) when those acts were committed.

Q: What would be the ideal outcome of this civil suit?

PH: The good news is we already have a positive outcome in the criminal trial and we have won on the merits (by default judgment) in the civil suit. Now, the ideal outcome of the civil trial – which will focus only on damages - would be for the judge to recognize the grievous nature of the crimes that occurred and award damages accordingly, and thus reimburse our clients for their medical costs and lost earnings and allow them to resume their lives in Liberia.

Human Rights USA encourages you to continue to check our blog and website for more updates as the civil case progresses and we hold our trial on damages in December!

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