Judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit on Thursday July 15 2010 issued a decision affirming the conviction of Charles Taylor Jr., aka Chuckie Taylor, who was convicted in October 2008 by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and sentenced to 97 years imprisonment for “committing numerous acts of torture and other atrocities in Liberia between 1999 and 2003,” while he served as head of the country’s “ Anti Terrorist Unit” (ATU) during the presidency of his father, Charles Taylor Sr.—who is himself presently being tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting in The Hague for allegedly controlling and supporting rebel forces who fought and committed heinous crimes in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002. Mr. Taylor Sr. has denied the charges against him.
Mr. Taylor Jr. was convicted and sentenced in 2008 under a United States domestic statute-the Torture Act– which establishes the basis for prosecution of United States citizens for crimes of torture committed abroad. Mr. Taylor Jr., a United States citizen by birth, sought a reversal of his conviction on the basis that the “Torture Act is unconstitutional.” According to Mr. Taylor Jr., while the Torture Act derives its authority from the obligations owed by the United States as a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Torture (CAT) of 1984, the Act “impermissibly exceeds the bounds of that authority, both in its definition of torture and its proscription against conspiracies to commit torture.” Mr. Taylor Jr., also challenged his conviction on several other grounds, including based on a section of the Torture Act which makes it a criminal offense to use or possess a firearm in connection with a crime of violence, that the said provision “cannot apply extraterritorially to his actions in Liberia,” and that his trial was unfair based on several procedural errors, and that the United States District Court erred in sentencing him after his conviction.
After assessing all the facts of the case, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit issued a decision that Mr. Taylor Jr.’s convictions were constitutional, and that it was within the powers of the United States Congress to criminalize torture as well as conspiracy to commit torture. The Court of Appeals also ruled that contrary to Mr. Taylor Jr.’s suggestions, “both the Torture act and the firearm statute apply to extraterritorial conduct, and that their application in this case was proper.” According to the Court of Appeals Mr. Taylor Jr.’s trial and convictions “were not rendered fundamentally unfair by any evidentiary or other procedural errors, and that his sentence is without error.” The convictions and sentence of the District Court were affirmed in entirety by the Court of Appeals.
At age 20, Mr. Taylor Jr., called mostly in the Court’s judgment as “Emmanuel” was appointed as head of Liberia’s ATU, which was also known as “Demon Forces” after his father, Mr. Taylor Sr. became the democratically elected president of Liberia in 1997 after having led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) rebel group in a bloody war that sought to unseat the government of Master Sergeant Samuel K. Doe. The ATU was charged with the responsibility of providing security to the Liberian president and his family.
As head of the ATU, Mr. Taylor Jr. recruited men into the Unit and established its training camp at a place called the Gbatala Base. As described in Court by one of the ATU recruits Wesley Sieh, under the direction of Mr. Taylor Jr., ATU soldiers dug “twenty grave-size prison pits,” and covered them with “metal bars or barbed wires.” The base also contained a holding cell for ATU soldiers who became disobedient and an educational training center called the “College of Knowledge.” The commander of the Gbatala Base was David Campari, who took his orders from Mr. Taylor Jr. According to the Court, the ATU was Mr. Taylor Jr.’s self described “pet project” and that all ATU affiliates called him “Chief” and that his car license plate carried the inscription “Demon.” The Court noted that from 1997 to 2002, Mr. Taylor Jr. wielded his power in a terrifying and violent manner, torturing numerous individuals in his custody who were never charged with any crime or given any legal process. Several witnesses testified at Mr. Taylor Jr.’s trial including victims such as Sierra Leonean refugees who were arrested at checkpoints and tortured at the Gbatala Base, and Liberian nationals who were arrested and tortured because they were perceived as being affiliated with groups opposed to Mr. Taylor Sr.’s presidency in Liberia. Witnesses also spoke about individuals being executed based on orders from Mr. Taylor Jr. After his father, Mr. Taylor Sr., left the Liberian presidency and sought asylum in Nigeria before he was finally taken into the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Mr. Taylor Jr. left Liberia in July 2003. In March 2006, as he attempted to enter the USA from Trinidad and Tobago, Mr. Taylor Jr. was arrested at the Miami International Airport for attempting to enter the country using a false passport. When his luggage was searched, US lawmakers discovered a book on guerilla tactics and notes of rap lyrics which made reference to the ATU. In November 2007, a grand jury sitting in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida issued an indictment against Mr. Taylor Jr., with charges relating to “conspiracy to commit torture in Liberia against seven unnamed victims — with death resulting to at least one victim — by seizing, imprisoning, interrogating, and mistreating them, and by committing various acts with the specific intent to inflict severe physical pain and suffering, conspiracy to use and carry a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, and committing substantive crimes of torture against five named victims…” in violation of the US Torture Victim Protect Act of 1994 (The Torture Act). In October 2008, after a trial which lasted for one month, Mr. Taylor Jr. was convicted on all counts and sentenced to an imprisonment term of 1,164 months or 97 years.
Mr. Taylor Jr. appealed his conviction and sentence before the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. On said appeal, the Court of Appeals noted the following:
On Mr. Taylor Jr.’s appeal that the Torture Act is “invalid because its definition of torture sweeps more broadly than that provided by the CAT [ UN Convention Against Torture],” the Court of Appeals noted that “Notably, the existence of slight variances between a treaty and its congressional implementing legislation do not make the enactment unconstitutional; identicality is not required. Rather…legislation implementing a treaty bears a “rational relationship” to that treaty where the legislation “tracks the language of the [treaty] in all material respects.”
“Applying the rational relationship test in this case, we are satisfied that the Torture Act is a valid exercise of congressional power…because the Torture Act tracks the provisions of the CAT in all material respects…and the CAT declares broadly that its provisions are “without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application…Put simply, the CAT created a floor, not a ceiling, for its signatories in their efforts to combat torture,” the Court of Appeals said.
On Mr. Taylor Jr.’s appeal that “the Torture Act oversteps the bounds of the CAT by criminalizing not only consummated acts of torture, but acts done with no more than the “specific intention to inflict” severe pain or suffering, whether or not such pain or suffering is actually inflicted,” the Court of Appeals noted that “The CAT expressly directs state parties to punish unconsummated crimes of torture. Specifically, it requires that state parties criminalize not only torture, but also attempts to commit torture.”
“In simple terms, an attempt to commit torture is exactly the same as an act done with the specific intent to commit torture,” the Court of Appeals said.
The Court of Appeals also rejected Mr. Taylor Jr.’s claim “that the Torture Act is invalid because its official-conduct requirement uses the phrase “under the color of law,” rather than the phrase “in an official capacity,” as found in the CAT. The Court responded that based on an explanation given by the Senate Executive Committee charged with evaluating the CAT, “there is no distinction between the meaning of the phrases “under the color of law” and in “an official capacity.”
“In sum, we can discern no merit to any of Emmanuel’s constitutional challenges to the way in which Congress defined torture in the Torture Act. If anything, the arguably more expansive definition of torture adopted by the United States is that much more faithful to the CAT’s purpose of enhancing global efforts to combat torture,” the Court of Appeal said.
Mr. Taylor Jr. also challenged the “Torture Act as unconstitutional because it applies during armed conflicts.” The Court of Appeals referenced Article 22 of the CAT itself, which provides that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
“Accordingly, there is no merit to Emmanuel’s contention that the CAT, or legislation authorized by the CAT, cannot apply during armed conflicts,” the Court said.
The judges also rejected Mr. Taylor Jr.’s argument that “he cannot be prosecuted for torture committed before Liberia became a signatory to the Convention Against Torture in 2004.” According to the judges, “nothing in the CAT limits its application to torture committed within the territorial borders of its signatories.”
The Court of Appeals stated that “The Supreme Court made clear long ago that an absent United States citizen is nonetheless “personally bound to take notice of the laws [of the United States] that are applicable to him and to obey them.”
“Emmanuel was a United States citizen at all relevant times — when the Torture Act was passed and when he committed all of the acts for which he was convicted. As such, he is bound by United States law “made applicable to him in a foreign country…For disobedience to its laws through conduct abroad, he was subject to punishment in the courts of the United States. Thus, there was nothing improper about application of the Torture Act to Emmanuel’s conduct in Liberia before that country signed the CAT,” the Court said.
The Court also said that Mr. Taylor Jr. was wrong in his challenge that the “Torture Act does not apply to the extraterritorial conduct of a United States citizen.” The Court noted that the US Congress has the authority to regulate the extraterritorial conduct of US citizens and that this is exactly what the Congress did in the Torture Ace.
“It has long been established that Congress has the power to regulate the extraterritorial acts of U.S. citizens,” the Court said.
Mr. Taylor Jr. sought to argue that he should not have been prosecuted for his actions because “all of his alleged acts in furtherance of the conspiracy to commit torture were “governmental self-preservation tactics.” The Court rejected this argument, noting that “the CAT thus anticipated prosecutions such as this one, where torture is committed by a regime in order to maintain its brutal control over an unhappy populace.”
Mr. Taylor Jr. also appealed his conviction on the basis that the District Court had made multiple errors which had had a huge effect on his fair trial rights as an accused. The Court of Appeals rejected this claim.
“As this Court has explained, evidentiary errors are not grounds for reversal “unless there is a reasonable likelihood that they affected the defendant’s substantial rights; where an error had no substantial influence on the outcome, and sufficient evidence uninfected by error supports the verdict, reversal is not warranted,” the Court of Appeals said.
On Mr. Taylor Jr.’s objection that notes of rap lyrics obtained from him had been used as evidence against him, the Court of Appeals ruled that the language used in the lyrics were relevant and that their probative value was not outweighed by any unfair prejudice.
“The rap lyrics were relevant and their probative value was not outweighed by any unfair prejudice that might have arisen from their admission into evidence. Specifically, the lyrics stated such things as: “Take this for free, six feet is where you gonna be. ATU niggas on the scene. Body bag is all you see”; “More sweat in my training means less blood in my life. So with the shots from guns keep it dead and precise. Bull-doze ambushes in the midst of a fight. Try to cut my supply, you’ll be losing your life”; and “army thugs united.” Such lyrics were probative on multiple fronts,” the Court said.
According to the judges, they were not persuaded by Mr. Taylor Jr.’s argument that his 1,164 months or 97 years imprisonment was invalid.
As the Court of Appeals judges concluded their judgment, they stated that “In sum, we affirm [Mr. Taylor Jr.’s] convictions and sentence in full. The Torture Act’s proscriptions against both torture and conspiracy to commit torture are constitutional, and may be applied to extraterritorial conduct…Finally, Emmanuel’s advisory Sentencing Guidelines range was correctly calculated by the district court, and the sentences imposed violate neither the CAT nor the Constitution.”