Charles Taylor: Plymouth’s War Criminal
PLYMOUTH- A picturesque seaside village in New England is an unlikely place for a convicted war criminal to begin his career, but then again, it was an extenuating set of circumstances that brought Charles Taylor to Plymouth in 1985.
This past Saturday marked the 27th anniversary of Taylor’s escape from the Plymouth County Jail, where he was being held on charges of embezzling over $1 million from his countrymen as an agent of the Liberian government.
Exposed and disgraced, Taylor broke for the United States to avoid a lengthy term in a Liberian prison. It wasn’t long before authorities caught up with Taylor. He was arrested in Somerville during late May of 1985 by two marshals on the foreign warrants, and transferred to the most secure prison in New England.
Or so they thought.
By mid-September of that same year, the extradition hearing against Taylor was all but wrapped up. Liberian prosecutors had flown to Boston to assist the US Attorney General in court and Taylor sat in a Plymouth cell waiting for the hearing to finish.
The American prosecutors never saw Taylor again.
Like a scene from Shawshank Redemption, Taylor became the first inmate to escape from the Plymouth County Jail by sawing through the bars of a cell and climbing down a rope made from tied-together bed sheets.
Along with four other inmates, Taylor met his sister-in-law at nearby Jordan Hospital and fled to Staten Island. It would be the last time Taylor set foot in the United States.
Taylor’s next stop would be Mummar Gaddafi’s Libya, where he would receive the guerilla training he used to unleash a reign of terror on his tiny country.
In 1989, Taylor finally returned to Liberia as the commander a rebel faction backed by Gaddafi dollars. Like a swarm of locusts, Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia poured across the border from their bases in the Ivory Coast, and in keeping with the analogy, Taylor and his men destroyed everything their path.
Samuel Doe, the Liberian president who sacked Taylor, was soon tortured and murdered. The country fragmented and the conflict became ethnic as various groups vied for power, resulting in a deepening of the conflict for Liberia until 1996.
At the end of the First Liberian Civil War, Taylor announced his candidacy for president using a chilling and foreshadowing campaign slogan that turned heads around the world.
“HE KILLED MY MA’, HE KILLED MY PA’, BUT I’LL STILL VOTE FOR HIM”
Taylor won the election with ease carrying 75% of the vote. He cleansed the military of any personnel who remained loyal to his predecessor and replaced them with mercenaries tasked with serving as Taylor’s private army.
Just across the border in Sierra Leone there remained no internationally recognized president as the country remained in the grips of a bloody civil war. In the horrors of war, Taylor saw opportunity.
Taylor began brokering deals with the Sierra Leone rebels known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), exchanging black market Liberian weaponry for diamonds mined by RUF slaves. The RUF’s practice of slavery garnered worldwide condemnation and sparked global outrage which ultimately led to the term “blood diamonds.”
The weaponry was not enough for the RUF as they remained in fierce territory battles across Southern Sierra Leone with what remained of the government forces. Taylor began actively recruiting children from Sierra Leone, as well as some from his own country, to join the ranks of the RUF. Reports surfaced from children captured by Taylor’s men that they had been forced to kill and rape their parents.
“Recruited” is not a proper term when describing Taylor’s child soldiers. Most all of them were kidnapped from village streets where they played soccer with friends, and some were as young as eight. The child soldiers were notorious for their cruelty and universally feared throughout the zones of conflict.
Despite a peace treaty signed in October of 1997, RUF forces continued their assault on provisional government forces. When the RUF lost control of the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, in March of 1998, the provisional government forces allowed them to flee into the countryside hoping they would lay down their arms.
When the United Nations’ mission to Sierra Leone attempted to organize a national election the RUF responded by entering villages and amputating the arms of potential voters, under the logic that somebody without arms could not vote.
Less than a year later, Taylor began commanding RUF operations personally and broke the fragile peace by unleashing a barbarous assault on Freetown appropriately dubbed “Operation No Living Thing” by the RUF.
Human rights groups catalogued the gruesome atrocities that occurred during the Siege of Freetown and recorded a use of tactics that were considered heinous, even among Taylor’s war-weary West-African counterparts. Summary execution of citizens, mass rape, and torture were all an intricate part of Taylor’s campaign against his alleged political enemies.
Taylor’s freedom to mingle in the affairs of neighboring countries was limited, however.
By 1999, a Guinea backed rebellion had sprung up in Northern Liberia, ushering in the Second Liberian Civil War. It would also signal the beginning of the end for Taylor. Several years later a second rebellion had emerged in Southern Liberia with the support from the Ivory Coast.
Only a few months after the Ivorian-backed rebellion surfaced, Taylor controlled less than a quarter of Liberia. In the summer of 2003 the rebels reached Monrovia under the banner “Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy.”
Holed up in his presidential palace, Taylor watched as world opinion shifted against him. George W. Bush demanded that Taylor cede power and leave Liberia. Similar statements emerged from France, the UK, and Portugal.
With his back to the wall, Taylor announced he would resign his office on August 10th. The next day, Taylor left Monrovia as an exiled ex-patriot once again, this time for Nigeria.
While in Nigeria, an international arrest warrant was issued for Taylor through Interpol.
Taylor was wanted for crimes against humanity.
Only three years after he fled his country in disgrace, Charles Taylor was released to the Special Court for Liberia, despite the lack of an extradition treaty between Nigeria and Liberia.
Taylor was charged with 11 counts of crimes against humanity and moved to the Netherlands where he would stand trial for his horrible deeds.
This year, Taylor received another dubious distinction. He became the first former head of state convicted of war crimes since World War II.
Interpol does impose life sentences or the death penalty and Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison, setting his release date for April 27, 2062.
Taylor will be 114 if he is ever released.
During the trial, Taylor’s escape from prison in Plymouth was revisited and Taylor claimed that he was an agent for US Intelligence and that the CIA had helped him escape from jail.
Originally, the CIA vehemently denied Taylor’s claim as ridiculous lies, but soon after released information that cited Taylor as a CIA associate sometime in the mid 1980’s.
However Taylor escaped from prison we may never know.
Regardless, while this past Saturday was the 27th anniversary of Taylor’s escape from the Plymouth County Jail, it was the first time since that fateful night in 1985 that Taylor has been held accountable for his grotesque crimes against civilization.
Thus, the dark chapter in Plymouth’s unlikely association as the place where Charles Taylor got his second chance comes to an end, 27 years later.