After dismissing the case against him as “lies” and “misinformation,” former Liberian President Charles Taylor implied the CIA freed him from a United States prison in 1985 only days before a coup it had armed and backed failed to overthrow the then Liberian government.
Though speculation about United States involvement in Taylor’s jailbreak has abounded for more than two decades, this was the first time Taylor publicly gave his version of events. He offered no proof of his claim beyond a description of events in 1985, and the Central Intelligence Agency – the US’ premier spy agency — denied Taylor’s claims in international media reports this week.
On Wednesday, Taylor told the Special Court about the night of his escape from US prison. With his prison cell unlocked by a US prison guard late one night in November 1985, Taylor walked out of the maximum security area of the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in Massachusetts, Taylor said. He was escorted by the same guard to the minimum security area. Tying a sheet to a window, Taylor climbed out the window and over the prison fence, where a car containing two men was waiting to whisk him to New York, he said.
Taylor told the court that he believed the guard who set him free “had to be operating with someone else.” Taylor also said he assumed that the car that took him to New York “had to be a [US] government car” because the men driving him feared he may be “picked up” if Taylor changed cars to be with his then wife, who had driven to meet the escape car with money to get Taylor out of the country.
Taylor was in US custody in 1985 pending a US government decision on an extradition request by the Liberian government on charges of embezzlement.
Taylor’s escape took place only days before his friend and Liberian military leader, Thomas Quiwonkpa, staged an unsuccessful coup against the Liberian government of President Samuel Doe in November 1985. Taylor alleged that the CIA was arming and planning with Quiwonkpa to overthrow the Doe government in the months leading up to the coup attempt.
Taylor told the court that he was “one hundred percent positive” that the weapons Quiwonkpa was using “were paid for by the CIA.”
This revelation came amid a week of dramatic testimony as Taylor took the stand as the first witness in his own defense on Tuesday. His lawyer, Courtenay Griffiths, opened his examination of Taylor with a question: what did Taylor have to say about an indictment which labelled him as “everything from a terrorist to a rapist”?
Taylor dismissed the prosecution case against him as full of “disinformation, misinformation, lies and rumors.” Taylor said the charges against him — 11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sierra Leone after November 1996 — were “quite incredible, very unfortunate.” Taylor said he has fought all his life to pursue justice and that the prosecution’s characterization of him was “completely false.”
Courtenay Griffiths, Taylor’s lawyer, was as much of a central character in this week’s events as Taylor. Griffiths – a compelling and charismatic advocate who quoted Bob Marley in his opening statement, winked at the public gallery in rare moments of levity, and showed onlookers a sign stating “Charles Taylor is innocent” one day before court started — set out the defense case on Monday to a gallery packed with media, diplomats and civil society.
Griffiths cast Taylor as a peacemaker, not a war monger, in the Sierra Leone conflict. Taylor, he said, had become a scapegoat of his West African peers who had pleaded with him to exert leadership in the Committee of Five – a group set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to bring peace to Sierra Leone.
It was the Special Court’s then prosecutor, David Crane, that had “scuppered peace” by unsealing the indictment against Taylor as he attended peace talks in Ghana in 2003, Griffiths told the court. He said Crane later described this move as an effort to “publicly strip this warlord of his power.” Griffiths pondered “such ego and hubris” before quoting a Bob Marley lyric: Crane, he said, was “working iniquity to achieve vanity.”
The central question of the case, Griffiths went on to tell the court, was whether the prosecution could show that Taylor was responsible for the alleged crimes. As Liberian President, not only was Taylor fully occupied with attacks on his own country which would not allow him to “micromanage” a conflict in a neighboring country, but as a West African leader and member of ECOWAS, he was “placed on the frontline” to bring peace to Sierra Leone, Griffiths said.
As testimony continued during the week, Taylor described the period leading up to the Sierra Leone war, including military training for 168 NPFL troops in Libya between 1987 and 1989 and Taylor’s own efforts to launch a “revolution” in Liberia starting on December 24, 1989 and with the civil war that ensued ending in 1995.
Throughout Taylor’s testimony, Griffiths elicited from Taylor information about his efforts to discipline troops found to have terrorized the Liberian civilian population through rapes, beatings, and executions; Tayor’s efforts to adhere to the laws of war in the Liberian “revolution”; and Taylor’s use of children to help military efforts through cooking, carrying rifles and searching vehicles, but not as combatants.
During the week, the judges agreed to the defense request not to sit on Fridays as Taylor gives his evidence. Taylor will return to the stand on Monday.