Yesterday’s indictment of Roy Belfast, Jr. aka Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was understandably applauded by human rights groups. Taylor was the head of Liberia’s Anti-Terrorism Unit (ATU), which according to Human Rights Watch “committed torture, including various violent assaults, rape, beating people to death and burning civilians alive.” Taylor was indicted by a grand jury in Miami under a federal law (18 USC sections 2340A and 2441) that allows the US to prosecute citizens (Taylor was born in Boston) who commit torture abroad. His arrest and indictment is an act of justice. But don’t hold your breath waiting for more torture prosecutions.
Last May, the UN Torture Committee slammed the US for limiting prosecution of torture to extraterritorial cases and for failing to prosecute even those acts that fall under its jurisdiction. Indeed, to date, Taylor’s indictment is the first and only case in the law’s 12-year history. Moreover, the Military Commissions Act (aka the torture bill) passed by Congress this fall essentially legalizes all but the worst forms of torture in the war on terror, ensuring that US interrogators, contractors and higher-ups are immune from prosecution. Taylor stands accused of burning his victim with a hot iron and scalding water, electrically shocking genitalia and other body parts and rubbing salt into his victim’s wounds. These acts appear to constitute the “serious physical pain or suffering” prohibited by the torture bill, but the administration has made it abundantly clear that waterboarding, extreme sensory deprivation (see the Padilla case) and other techniques do not. And when Congress passed the Military Commission Act, it (and by extension the American people) agreed.
In a press release announcing Taylor’s indictment, Homeland Security Assistant Secretary Julie Myers, who heads the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office (ICE), said “This is a clear message that the United States will not be a safe haven for human rights violators.”
It will take more than one case to prove to the world that we, a nation of torturers, are not a safe haven for human rights violators.