Global Policy Forum

Liberia’s Charles Taylor, Now Facing Trial, Was No Stranger to Washington



By Colum Lynch

February 15, 2010

UNITED NATIONS -- Charles Taylor, the former Liberian warlord and president on trial in The Hague on war crimes charges, saw the value of purchasing a good reputation in Washington.

International prosecutors say that even as Taylor terrorized West Africa in the 1990s in pursuit of power and control over the region's diamonds, gold and other natural resources, he spent millions to recruit a group of Democratic and Republican lobbyists to burnish his image abroad and secure access to powerful American politicians, including presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

Those efforts -- estimated at a cost of at least $2.6 million and involving top former state department officials, businessmen and a pastor -- ultimately failed to undo his rogue status in the West or to keep him in power.

But with the support of several influential lobbyists, he was able to routinely make his case to top U.S. policymakers. One lobbyist, Lester Hyman, organized a meeting between Taylor's wife, Jewel Howard Taylor, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady, to discuss micro-enterprise in Africa. Hyman also sought to arrange a meeting for Taylor and President Bill Clinton along the sidelines of a U.N. General Assembly meeting, but Taylor ultimately declined to travel to New York. Hyman also met directly Madeleine K. Albright, then secretary of state, in a bid to have Taylor's criminal record cleared on charges related to his escape from a Massachusetts prison in the mid-1980s.

Hyman and several other lobbyists who defended Taylor in the United States said they were motivated primarily by humanitarian or religious concerns, not by greed or profit. "Money was never the factor. It was a great loss for me and for the firm," said Hyman, whose former company, Swidler & Berlin, received about $630,000 from Liberia from September 1997 to April 1999, according to the prosecution. "I was never representing Charles Taylor. I was representing the 3 million citizens of the country. They were the ones who were really suffering. I was trying to see if I could resolve some of the problems between the United States and the Liberian government."

But Hyman, who was awarded a concession to oversee Liberia's shipping registry, and the others also had significant economic interests in the region. The conservative evangelical preacher Pat Robertson received a 1999 concession to run a gold-mining exploration in southeastern Liberia.

Robertson, meanwhile, offered to approach top Bush administration officials on Taylor's behalf, Taylor told prosecutors. Frustrated that the United States would not do anything to prevent Taylor's fall from power, Robertson lashed out at Bush in 2003, accusing him of "undermining a Christian, Baptist president to bring in Muslim rebels to take over the country."

A spokesman for Robertson, Chris Roslan, acknowledged that Robertson was awarded the gold concession by the Liberian government but said there was no "quid pro quo" to provide Liberia with political favors in return.

U.N.-backed prosecutors have charged Taylor with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity for lending support to the brutal Sierra Leonean rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front, which allegedly killed and maimed thousands of civilians during the country's civil war in the late 1990s. The prosecution maintains that Taylor armed the RUF in exchange for access to Sierra Leone's diamond mines. Taylor has denied the charges.

But Taylor believed his public relations strategy in Washington was bearing fruit. He credited Hyman with exploiting his contacts in the State Department to persuade Massachusetts authorities to expunge his criminal record after his escape from prison in Plymouth. "I'm sure State had something to do with it," Taylor said.

Hyman said he personally urged Albright to clear Taylor's record after he'd won Liberia's presidential elections. But he said she refused. "Madeleine Albright's position was that this is a matter that has to be resolved by the commonwealth of Massachusetts," he said. "The most Madeleine would say was that [the State Department] would abide by whatever decision the district attorney there made."

Albright, who is traveling in Russia, was not available to comment, according to a spokeswoman.



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