Liberian prisoners tell of horror of Taylor's regime

They staggered out of jail as scarred stick figures. A few slumped on the pavement in exhaustion—too ill to show any emotion about their newfound freedom. One prisoner was so traumatised he no longer recognised his sister.

The men and boys, some as young as 13, were among 51 political prisoners unexpectedly released Friday from three jails in Monrovia—bearing witness to a brutal system of punishment and terror meted out by President Charles Taylor, whose regime now appears to be crumbling.

“My people must think that I am dead,” Junior Mulbah (13) said weakly as he gazed around him, looking vainly for signs of a familiar face among the crowd outside the jail.

The sudden and unexplained release comes amid growing international pressure for Taylor to step down after years of sanctions against his regime.

The government of the former warlord-turned-president, who launched Liberia’s 1989-96 civil war, is besieged by rebels trying to oust him.
Taylor was isolated further by a war crimes indictment issued against him last month by an international court in Sierra Leone, where Taylor supported a brutal rebel movement known for cutting off people’s limbs and facial features.

Liberians tell of equally brutal treatment. Emaciated from dysentery and hunger, Mulbah said he was detained for a time in a basement room in the president’s sprawling executive mansion. He was later thrown into a crowded, dark and dank cell called Kampala. Newcomers and youngsters like Mulbah slept in a corner of the room where the prisoners urinated and defecated on the floor

Some prisoners died and were wrapped up by their fellow inmates in cloth and carried away by prison guards.

“Only we survived,” said Mulbah, who said Taylor’s government accused him of being a dissident.

Robert Johnson, a 24-year-old rebel prisoner of war, emerged from one month in detention with gaping sores on his lips and cheeks, wounds that he said were caused by his captors who stuffed flaming brands into his mouth.

Alaja Sherriff’s 19-year-old brother Mohammed was so traumatised that he didn’t recognise her when he left the jail and asked a policeman if he could go back inside.

Abu Dolley, with long matted hair, said he was seized by officials nearly a year ago while the 30-year-old man was selling music cassettes on the streets of Liberia’s war-torn capital, Monrovia.

Others told of being rounded up randomly in the street because they are members of the Mandingo tribe accused by Taylor’s government of supporting the country’s rebel insurgency. As unexplained as their arrests were, so too was their sudden release.

Information Minister Reginald Goodrich told journalists the prisoners were being freed because “we are committed to the peace process” involving talks between Liberian rebel and government negotiators in neighbouring Ghana.

Other observers said it was a further sign of Taylor’s weakening hold on power in this West African nation founded 150 years ago by freed American slaves.

Since the war crimes charges were first revealed, calls for Taylor to step down have intensified. Taylor has repeatedly promised to resign, but has demanded international peacekeepers be deployed first to avoid a chaotic transition.

Since last week, an American military team has been touring airstrips, refugee camps and other Liberian facilities to gather logistical information ahead of a possible US peacekeeping or humanitarian effort.

US President George Bush, who also has called for Taylor’s resignation, has said he has not decided yet whether to send US forces. Many Liberians would welcome the move.

Sheik Sackor, an employee of a local charity, spent a year behind bars after being arrested, blindfolded and thrown into a cell for writing reports on the kind of human rights abuses he would personally endure. Police accused him of “trying to overthrow the government.”

“It was astonishing,” Sackor said of his time in jail. “It is hard to imagine the personal trauma.” - Sapa-AP

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