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From the archives: July 16, 2009

Charles Taylor claims US helped spring him from Plymouth jail

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in The Boston Globe on July 16, 2009.

WASHINGTON -- Breaking two and a half decades of silence, former Liberian president and accused war criminal Charles G. Taylor said today that his infamous prison break from the Plymouth County Correctional Facility in 1985 was aided by the US government, addressing for the first time widely circulated conspiracy theories about his return to Liberia.

In the second day of his testimony in his war crimes trial that could settle the long-standing mystery, Taylor said that on the night of Sept. 15, 1985, his maximum-security prison cell was unlocked by a guard and he was escorted to the minimum-security part of the facility.

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According to news reports from The Hague, he said he then escaped by tying sheets together and climbing out a window and over a prison fence where he said a car with two men he assumed were agents of the US government drove him to New York, where his wife was waiting with money to get him out of the country.

”I am calling it my release because I didn’t break out,” Taylor, 61, told the Special Court for Sierra Leone of the episode that has long been alleged to have been orchestrated by the US government. “I did not pay any money, I did not know the guys who picked me up. I was not hiding (afterwards),” Taylor testified in The Hague.

The FBI and other government agencies could not be immediately reached to respond to Taylor’s claims, which could not be independently verified. Many observers have suggested that the claims could be designed to change the subject from his alleged war crimes by trying to falsely implicate the United States in his path to power.

Charles E. Waterman, a former CIA officer who briefly worked for Taylor in the 1990s as an international business consultant, said he didn’t know whether Taylor’s claims about the prison saga are true or not.

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”I asked him the question,” Waterman said in an interview today. “He didn’t want to talk about it at all.”

After the prison break, Taylor said he traveled freely in the United States and Mexico before returning to Africa. “My name was on my passport. No-one asked me any questions.”

Four other inmates who escaped along with Taylor were soon recaptured.

The escape occurred just days before a Taylor ally, Thomas Quiwonkpa, launched an unsuccessful military coup against the Liberian leader Samuel Doe.

Taylor said in his testimony that he was “100 percent positive” that the Central Intelligence Agency was arming Quiwonkpa.

Doe’s government accused Taylor of embezzling money and Taylor was being held in Plymouth pending extradition to face charges in his home country.

Taylor first arrived in the Boston area as a college student in 1972, but returned to Liberia in the early 1980s. He briefly held an economics post in Doe’s government but fled back to Massachusetts in 1983 in the face of the embezzlement charges.

After his breakout in Plymouth, Taylor told the court, he recruited 168 men and women for the National Patriotic Front for Liberia and trained them at a former US military base in Libya. His forces eventually attacked Liberia in 1989, sparking a revolution and a bloody reign in which he is accused of arming child soldiers, ordering the killing of civilians and aiding rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in the death of hundreds of thousands of people.

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