The man who plunged his country and Sierra Leone into war could play a major role in Liberia's political future -- and its hopes for peace -- even as he stands trial at a special UN-backed court

BONG COUNTY, Liberia -- Not long after becoming president of Liberia in 1997, Charles Taylor established an extralegal security squad and placed it under the command of his son Chuckie, a 20-year-old with an interest in SWAT teams and a fondness for action movies. The Anti-Terrorist Unit, composed of some of Taylor's most experienced fighters from the civil war that preceded his rise to power, quickly became notorious for its abuses against suspected rebels, ordinary civilians, and even its own inductees: the torture administered during "training" proved, in many cases, fatal. Residents of Gbatala, in central Liberia's Bong County, learned to avoid the hilltop ATU training facility just outside town. Those who strayed too close were known to disappear.

Taylor's ATU, like the man himself, often operated above the law. In the early 1980s, while serving in the government of former President Samuel Doe, he allegedly embezzled nearly $1 million, sending the money to a U.S. bank account. Arrested in Massachusetts by U.S. deputy marshals, he fought extradition before escaping from a maximum security prison in 1985. He made his way to Libya, where he received revolutionary training from Muammar Qaddafi's government. On Christmas Eve, 1989, he led a group of about 100 rebels into Liberia to overthrow Doe, eventually igniting civil wars that lasted until 2003 and killed more than 250,000 people. Replete with widespread rape, civilian massacres, and the deployment of child soldiers, the conflict transformed Liberia -- once a haven of African stability -- into the very epitome of lawlessness.

But the law has caught up with Taylor. In 2006, newly elected President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf requested that Taylor -- who had sought asylum in Nigeria after stepping down in 2003 -- be sent back to Liberia. She immediately transferred him to the UN, which in turn transferred him to the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a hybrid international tribunal that indicted Taylor for his alleged role in that neighboring country's similarly horrific civil war. Prosecutors have accused him of, among other things, backing Sierra Leone's brutal Revolutionary United Front rebels and sending Liberian forces to fight there.

The trial has helped keep Taylor at the forefront of Liberia's political discourse even from The Hague. In proceedings that spanned three years, judges heard testimony from Mia Farrow and Naomi Campbell on his alleged trafficking in blood diamonds; victims who described how they were raped and maimed; and a former death squad commander who accused Taylor of ordering his troops to engage in cannibalism. Court sources told me a verdict is expected in late October, though no announcement has been made.

Alpha Sesay, who monitored the trial for the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the verdict "could go either way," partly because of the complicated nature of the charges. Because Taylor is on trial for charges related to the conflict in Sierra Leone, not Liberia, it is potentially more difficult to link him to crimes on the ground. Prosecutors say they've done that; the defense says the evidence is insufficient.

The timing could be awkward. Liberia is gearing up for a national election on October 11 that some observers predict will be close, resulting in a presidential runoff in early November. This means the verdict could revive discussion of the war years at the precise time that candidates here -- many of whom have been involved in Liberian politics for decades -- are trying to distance themselves from their wartime records. But Taylor's remaining supporters are holding out hope that, in the event of an acquittal, the former president could eventually come home and turn Liberian politics upside down, rendering the election meaningless.

These days, the Anti-Terrorist Unit facility outside Gbatala sits abandoned, disturbed only by the hammer-wielding boys who crush rocks into gravel along the road leading up to it.  More than a dozen squat brick buildings are largely shrouded in overgrowth. Many have faded to an ashen gray, though a few retain their original paint:  dark green camouflage accented with orange and pink.

In town, not far from a road sign that reads "The war is over," Rachel McCarthy, 28, leans against a wall nursing her baby son. Although Liberia is now at peace, McCarthy said she preferred the Taylor years -- in large part because staple foods, mainly rice, were less expensive. "Yes, there was war, but we had food. Today, although we're free now, and we have peace, it's not easy," she said.

Asked how she would react to an acquittal, McCarthy said, "I will be too happy. I want for Mr. Taylor to come back. He's got more support here. As I speak, I will vote for him. He's a leader who knows leadership. He knows how to make things easy."

Such views are common in Bong County, which has long been a Taylor stronghold (he formed an unofficial government there in 1991). In the county capital, Gbarnga, Thomas Harris, a 47-year-old ex-combatant who fought for Taylor from 1990 to 2003, said Taylor's support would be readily apparent if he returned to Liberia, and even more so if he returned to politics. "People would walk from here, from all over Liberia, to go to Robertsfield to greet him," he said, referring to the airport. "They would walk from all over! Liberia would shake. And if he runs, he will win."

Harris, known as General Smile during the wars ("When I'm talking you think I'm playing, but I'm serious"), continued, "You know why people like Taylor? Because he was fighting a war but he was still feeding people day and night. Day and night. And you remember that election slogan in 1997 -- 'He killed my ma, he killed my pa, I'll vote for him'? Why do you think that was? It was because he was feeding the people."

Taylor's popularity has  long puzzled Liberia watchers. Reporting on the 1997 elections, in which Taylor received 75 percent of the vote, The Washington Post led their story, "Liberia has chosen a strange way to end -- if it is ended -- the seven-year civil war that has shredded their 150-year-old West African country." The general consensus is that Liberians believed Taylor would only stop fighting if he won, and that's why they voted him in.

Liberian journalist Gabriel Williams, in his 2006 book Liberia: The Heart of Darkness, argues that many voters actually saw Taylor as preferable to the political establishment, which has cemented a reputation for corruption and bickering. "Besides electing Taylor as a way of bringing the war to an end, the Liberian people were seen to have voted the way they did simply to show that they were just sick of the low dealings of the politicians," he wrote.

It is difficult to assess just how much support Taylor retains here, though Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer who worked on Taylor's prosecution from 2006 to 2008, told me he thinks that Taylor loyalists make up an outspoken minority -- and not a majority -- of the population. Speaking with Liberians, he said, "You can have the impression that, 'Oh my god he still has a lot of support.' I don't know that that's true. It's just a matter of who is vocal."

Thomas Juaclomie, 52, who runs a construction materials store on Broad Street in Gbarnga, predicted that the return of Taylor would bring instability to a country teeming with unemployed former fighters. "We don't want him to come to Liberia, because once he's free, those children, those boys, will be giving us trouble again," Juaclomie said. "Those boys are here. He will not shut up his mouth. He will be in front of those boys and, continually, we will have trouble in the country."

Taylor's lead defense counsel Courtenay Griffiths claimed, in an interview over the phone, that Taylor remains "extremely popular" in Liberia, adding that this suggests he is innocent. "Taylor is being demonized as this dictator -- indeed, cannibal -- who has terrorized not only the people of Sierra Leone but also the people of Liberia," Griffiths said. "How does one square that with his continued popularity?"

"If Taylor would return to Liberia tomorrow it's likely that he could win a presidential election," Griffiths said. "The question remains: Would this be acceptable to Washington and London given their efforts to remove him from the region?"

Taylor's defense has argued repeatedly that his trial has nothing to do with his actual crimes and everything to do with geopolitics. Recently, Griffiths has cited a Wikileaks cable released in December, as the trial was winding down. "The best we can do for Liberia is to see to it that Taylor is put away for a long time," reads the cable from the embassy in Monrovia, dated March 2009. "All legal options should be studied to ensure Taylor cannot return to destabilize Liberia." These options included, according to the cable, "building a case in the United States against Taylor for financial crimes" or "applying the new law criminalizing child soldiers or terrorism statutes."

For Taylor's supporters, the cable affirmed their suspicions of U.S. designs on Liberia. "America is involved in regime change," said Sando Johnson, the 43-year-old official Taylor "family spokesman" who served as a political officer for him from 1990 to 2003, including a stint as majority leader in the House of Representatives.

"The Liberian people are convinced that Mr. Taylor is indeed a charismatic leader," Johnson said. "They are convinced that he was not involved in Sierra Leone. And they are convinced that he is going to walk out of there a free man. They have drawn a conclusion that Mr. Taylor cannot be found guilty, unless America decides to twist it." He added, "If Mr. Taylor had been arrested for crimes committed in Liberia, then it may have some logic. But Mr. Taylor did not go to Sierra Leone."

Liberia so far has not seen any trials for war crimes or for crimes against humanity. One problem with pursuing prosecutions is the sheer number of people who could be implicated. In 2009, the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its final report recommending, among other things, that 49 people be barred from any political activity for 30 years because of their alleged associations with warring factions. Among them was Johnson-Sirleaf, the sitting president, who sent money to Taylor early on (she has since apologized, saying she did so "to challenge the brutality" of Doe's "dictatorship"). Unsurprisingly, Liberia has taken few steps to implement the recommendations (the Supreme Court has deemed the political bans unconstitutional).

Johnson, the family spokesman, touched on this problem when asked about the possibility of trying Taylor in connection with the Liberian conflict. "If you want to try him because of the war, then you must try all political stakeholders in Liberia," he said. "There are a lot of warlords here. There are a lot of boys around. So he is not the only one."

When he launched his assault on Doe's government in 1989, Taylor was accompanied by a senior commander named Prince Johnson. But by the time rebels reached Monrovia the following year, the two men had split, with Johnson forming the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia. Johnson came to control most of the capital while Taylor held most of the rest of the country. On September 9, 1990, Johnson captured Doe and oversaw his execution, which he recorded on videotape. The footage can still be purchased on the streets of downtown Monrovia. As Doe pleads for his life, rebels cut off his ear while Johnson sips a Budweiser. "I cut off his ears and made him eat them," Johnson later boasted.

The former warlord now lives in a two-story, tan-and-red house in Paynesville, on the outskirts of Monrovia and not far from Taylor's old mansion. He became a senator here in 2005, running a campaign the International Crisis Group has described as "incongruously based on his wartime record and security credentials," and is now running for president on the National Union for Democratic Progress ticket. He receives visitors to his compound in a large palaver hut outfitted with the trappings of candidacy: bodyguards, aides, cell phones that don't stop ringing.

Johnson insists that Taylor's enduring popularity is widespread. "He still has maximum support in Liberia," Johnson said in an interview, laughing a little. "I don't know what kind of power he has to get that support even in absentia."

But Johnson is not worried that Taylor will harm his chances in the October 11 election -- to the contrary, he says it will help. "[Taylor's] popularity does not in any way fear me," he said. "I trained all of his men as special forces commander. Those are my boys. With Taylor in prison, they are all with me."

Johnson, like General Smile, believes all of Liberia would welcome Taylor's return. "Liberians will be happy," Johnson said. "We don't want our former president to be in jail for any reason. We would be glad to see him back."

He even said there might be room for Taylor in a Prince Johnson administration. "If Taylor is let off the hook by the international community, it means he has committed no crime," he said. "As a former president, he could be an adviser." Asked which portfolio Taylor might receive, Johnson suggested foreign affairs.

Reporting contributed by Stephen S. Binda, a journalist for Liberia's Daily Observer.

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