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'The Man Is Essentially a Common Criminal'

The U.S.-educated Liberian president faces U.N. war crimes indictment. He has not set a timetable for leaving his country.

July 07, 2003|Davan Maharaj | Times Staff Writer

Liberian President Charles Taylor's record reads like a rap sheet: U.S. jail escapee, diamond smuggler, arms trafficker. But it was last month's indictment by a United Nations-backed court that makes him cringe the most.

Wanting to avoid the label "war criminal," Taylor said he would reject any peace agreement with rebels closing in on his capital, Monrovia, until the indictment was quashed.

Analysts say the response was typical: He was willing to hold his nation of 3.3 million people hostage because he wanted to be seen as having political legitimacy.

For two decades, international human rights groups say, Taylor and his armies killed hundreds of thousands of people to further his main goals: to seize power and get his hands on Liberia's gold, diamond and timber resources. By running the country as his personal fiefdom, Taylor has become one of the richest men in Africa, amassing billions of dollars in Swiss bank accounts while Liberians remain among the poorest people in the world.

His presence now draws almost daily pronouncements from the White House that Taylor must leave Liberia. His departure is considered a precondition for international peacekeepers -- possibly headed by a U.S. contingent -- to arrive in the war-ravaged country. On Sunday, Taylor said he would be willing to accept asylum in Nigeria, but the questions of whether he would actually go, and whether he would ever face war crimes charges, remained unclear.

If Taylor leaves, it could mark the end of the road for a man who has gone from being a student and gas station mechanic in Massachusetts to what his critics regard as one of the most destabilizing figures in West Africa. Taylor stands accused of sowing insurrection in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Ivory Coast.

David Crane, the chief prosecutor of the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which unsealed the war crimes indictment against Taylor a month ago, told the Los Angeles Times that he had no plans to drop the indictment.

"There can be no soft landings for war criminals," said Crane in a telephone interview from his office in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. "Charles Taylor is the centerpoint of a joint criminal enterprise that has terrorized and destabilized West Africa. To allow this man to walk away for the things he has done -- 500,000 people killed, raped and maimed -- would be a grave injustice."

Much like Liberia's, the 54-year-old Taylor's political roots began in the United States. Those who know Taylor said he nurtured his ambition to become president while he was an economics student at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., in the 1970s.

Like other children of Americo-Liberians, the descendants of freed American slaves who returned to found Liberia in the mid-19th century, Taylor had come to the United States seeking a college education. He helped to pay his way through school by working in a gas station, a toy factory and in other low-paying jobs.

He became an active member of the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas, a group dominated by young Liberian intellectuals opposed to the then-government of William Tolbert Jr. Taylor attended meetings hosted by Liberian students on campuses along the East Coast. Colleagues remembered him as a flamboyant showman famous for extravagant partying.

"He stood out from the crowd," said Bai Gbala, who was ULAA president in the late 1970s. Gbala, who served as an advisor to the Liberian president until Taylor imprisoned him a few years ago, now lives in Philadelphia.

Gbala also was with Taylor when he returned to Liberia in 1979. They had been invited to visit Liberia by Tolbert after they disrupted his speeches during the president's U.S. visit.

When the ULAA group returned to the U.S., Taylor remained behind, saying he had to take care of personal matters, according to Gbala. Tolbert was later overthrown by Samuel Doe, a 28-year-old master sergeant in the Liberian army, and disemboweled in his bed. The coup ended 143 years of domination by the descendants of freed American slaves, who many agreed had denied freedom and equal treatment to Liberia's native people.

According to Gbala and others, Taylor became head of Doe's procurement agency simply by marching into the office following the coup and throwing out the incumbent. Heading the procurement body presented Taylor with vast opportunities to enrich himself and he did that by embezzling $900,000, according to court papers filed in Liberia and the United States.

Doe's government sought to charge Taylor with embezzlement, and he fled to the United States in 1983. Taylor was jailed for 15 months at the Plymouth County House of Correction in Massachusetts awaiting extradition before he and four petty criminals used a hacksaw to cut through the bars of their cell and then climbed down a knotted bedsheet to freedom.

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