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Liberian torture case traces back to Orlando

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published February 6, 2007


Charles Emmanuel grew up in a tan two-story home in a middle-class Orlando neighborhood 9 miles from Universal Studios.

His stepdad was a welder. His mom was a homemaker. Emmanuel liked computers.

In 1994, he ran afoul of Orange County sheriff's deputies. So he flew to the west African nation of Liberia to live with his biological father.

Today, the boy from Orlando is known as Charles "Chuckie" Taylor Jr., son of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia and one of Africa's most feared warlords.

As the head of his father's security unit, Emmanuel developed his own reputation.

"His unit did things like beating people to death, burying them alive, rape - the most horrible kind of war crimes," said Elise Keppler, counsel for Human Rights Watch's International Justice Program.

Emmanuel, now 29, sits in a Miami detention center awaiting trial. He will be the first person prosecuted under a 1994 law that makes it illegal for a U.S. citizen to commit acts of torture abroad. If convicted, he could face more than 60 years in prison.

The trial will be watched closely in the United States and elsewhere. Human rights activists hope it will encourage American prosecutors to more aggressively pursue overseas abusers. Legal scholars believe it will give the courts a definition of torture that could be applied to the treatment of prisoners at places like the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For pure spectators, the case will provide a view of a troubled young man from Central Florida who wound up in the middle of an international scandal.

The early years

Emmanuel's mother met Charles Taylor at Bentley College in Boston, where he was an economics student.

Taylor returned to his native Liberia in the early 1990s. He served as the country's president for six years and now faces a U.N.-backed war crimes trial for alleged atrocities during Sierra Leone's civil war.

Emmanuel was born in Boston in 1977 and moved to Orlando in 1987. Shortly after, he changed his name to Roy Belfast Jr., after his stepfather.

He had his first brush with the law in Florida in 1990 when he was charged with auto theft, according to court records. In 1993, he was arrested on six counts, including aggravated assault, retail theft and grand larceny, court records showed.

The most serious charge came in 1994, when sheriff's deputies said he and two friends tried to rob a young man on a west Orlando street. When confronted by the victim's father, Emmanuel pulled out a .38-caliber handgun and pointed it at his head, according to a sheriff's report.

A psychiatric evaluation performed at the time said Emmanuel had anger management problems.

Facing a potential felony conviction, he fled to Africa, court records showed. The charges were eventually abandoned.

Serious accusations

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Emmanuel was the head of his father's antiterrorist unit in Liberia.

After his father's regime was overthrown, Emmanuel moved to Trinidad. When he attempted to return to the United States in March, he was intercepted at Miami International Airport carrying a falsified passport.

The law used to prosecute Emmanuel was passed to comply with a U.N. treaty, said Luz Nagle, a professor at Stetson University College of Law. It prohibits Americans from committing or attempting to commit torture overseas.

The United States faced growing international pressure to exercise the law.

"Everyone was waiting to see what kind of action the United States would finally take," Nagle said.

Defense attorneys Monday challenged the law's constitutionality and asked a federal judge to dismiss the case. U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff did not immediately rule.

The defense's main complaint is the government's refusal to identify the man who said he was tortured by Emmanuel and others. Miguel Caridad, Emmanuel's lawyer, said he needs the identity to prepare a defense.

"How can we do anything but speculate at this point when confronted by four-year-old allegations of misconduct in a foreign country we may not be able to visit that has been racked by ten years of civil war?" he wrote in court documents.

But prosecutors want to protect the man's identity for his safety. They say circumstances described in the indictment are specific enough - detailing the time, place and events surrounding the alleged torture - that the name is unnecessary.

According to the indictment, the unidentified victim was abducted from his home.

Emmanuel supervised questioning at the presidential residence, known as Whiteflower. The man was then taken to another site where the interrogation continued with torture.

Prosecutors say Emmanuel and his co-conspirators pressed a hot iron into the man's flesh, shocked him with electrodes, rubbed salt into his wounds and forced him at gunpoint to hold scalding water in his hands.

Emmanuel's federal trial is scheduled for Sept. 4 in Miami.

Beyond the constitutional questions, the case raises questions about the definition of torture, said Julian Ku, associate professor at Hofstra University College of Law.

If a judge finds Emmanuel guilty of torture for committing certain acts, it will create a standard that could be applied to U.S. agents who interrogate prisoners in foreign countries.

"Before, no one really knew what torture meant under the 1994 law," Ku said. "Now, there will be a better definition and that could pose a problem for the administration."

'A bad man'

No one will be watching Emmanuel's trial more closely than human rights advocates and Liberian refugees.

Moses Allison, 32, fled Liberia in the early 1990s to avoid the bloody civil war Emmanuel's father helped start. Now living in Clearwater, he gets updates from friends and family still in Liberia. They anxiously await Emmanuel's trial.

"A lot of people were very scared of him," Allison said. "He is a very bad man."

Staff researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at cweimar@sptimes.com or 813 226-3416.