The Miami judge imposed the prison term after Charles McArthur Emmanuel, also known as Chuckie Taylor, was convicted under a U.S. law that allows prosecutions for torture committed anywhere in the world. Emmanuel was accused of leading a paramilitary group from 1997 to 2003, which was blamed for killing and beating political opponents.
The court on Friday heard from several victims, who said they were tortured by Emmanuel and his group, the Demon Forces. One woman cried when she said her husband was committing no crimes when he was shot by forces loyal to the Charles Taylor government.
Momoh Turay said he was detained and tortured, leaving him incapacitated for several years. He said he is amazed he is still alive, and he welcomed the prison term against Emmanuel.
"At least, today is my happiest day, for I got justice in my life that I did not get from Africa," he said.
U.S. prosecutors said Emmanuel should spend 147 years in prison because of the abuses, which included giving electric shocks to at least one man and burning another with a hot iron. Witnesses at trial said he also shot at least three men, and ordered the torture and murder of many others.
Defense attorneys said they planned to appeal the sentencing decision.
The trial against Emmanuel is the first time prosecutors have invoked the 1994 law that allows punishment for torture abroad. U.S. authorities said the case resulted from an investigation into illegal weapons sales in Liberia and other parts of western Africa.
Officials say they have conducted more than 200 interviews, and collected evidence to help build the torture and weapons cases.
Acting assistant secretary for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, John Torres, says, in one case, U.S. agents visited an underground torture chamber he says was used by Emmanuel’s paramilitary group.
"Where some of the victims said they were covered in barbed wire, they [investigators] were able to pull some of that barbed wire out of the holes down there and bring it back to be introduced as evidence," he said.
Torres says the weapons probe is continuing, and may result in criminal charges against former members of the Liberian government or people in other countries.
Currently, Charles Taylor is on trial at a United Nations-backed court in The Hague, for crimes against humanity and war crimes during a conflict in Sierra Leone.
Also Friday, the Washington-based group Human Rights USA filed a class action suit against Emmanuel, to seek civil penalties for the torture claims. The group’s executive director Theresa Harris said the case would allow for dozens of other alleged victims not involved in the criminal trial to have their stories heard.
She said it also advances the need for justice in Liberia, where local courts have yet to prosecute those responsible in the nation’s conflict.
"The laws in Liberia are not up-to-date to where war crimes, crimes against humanity or torture are actionable crimes," she said. "So what would they prosecute them for?"
Harris said a civil penalty against Emmanuel could also allow for restitution payments to victims of Emmanuel and the Taylor government. The United Nations has been working to track down and freeze assets belonging to Taylor around the world.