Last year - before the first international television news crews began arriving there to cover the military assessment team dispatched by President George W.

Last year - before the first international television news crews began arriving there to cover the military assessment team dispatched by President George W. Bush to scout out what is shaping up to be latest front line of the America's global police beat and certainly long before many Americans heard of the place - The Economist, in its annual survey of the world, awarded Liberia the dubious distinction of being "the worse place to live in 2003." With a negative GDP growth rate of 5 percent for 2002 (with another 8 percent dip forecasted for 2003) and a life expectancy of just under 48 years, the 2.9 million Liberians who have not yet fled their homeland are among the worse off people in the world by almost any quantifiable measure of economic or social well-being. 

However, it is not so much the underdevelopment of its economic and social structures that distinguishes Liberia from its neighbors - in this respect it is not much different from neighboring Guinea and Sierra Leone - as the poverty of its political and legal system.  Since the end of its fratricidal eight-year civil war in 1997, Liberia has been ruled by Charles Ghankay Taylor, whose last known address before launching that war with the support of Libya's Muammar Ghaddafi was the Plymouth House of Corrections in Massachusetts.  And it is largely due to the personal contributions of "Doctor Taylor," as he likes to style himself, rather than any other factor, that his country earned the not-so-coveted title from The Economist. 

Even by the flexible standards employed by some African heads of state, Taylor sets some new lows with his record on human rights.  Although he did lift the "state of emergency" late last year and a token political opposition is allowed nowadays in Monrovia (the only part of the country the Taylor regime effectively controls), critics of the Taylor government have been routinely harassed, the more articulate among them being subject to arrest, torture, and imprisonment.  This was the case with prominent human rights lawyer Tiawan Gangloe and Hassan Bility, editor of the independent Analyst newspaper, both of whom were jailed in 2002, the latter allegedly for communicating via e-mail with the Guinea-based Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebel movement that advanced within fifteen miles of Monrovia in early 2002 before being beaten back and that now shares control of two-thirds of the country with its Ivory Coast-based offshoot, the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL). 

At the same time, Frances Johnson Morris, director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and former Chief Justice of Liberia, was arrested after she presented a paper at a public forum questioning the "state of emergency" declared by Taylor.  She was detained at the central police prison among male inmates until international protests brought about her release.  The official excuse that Taylor's police chief, Paul Mulbah, gave to diplomats was that it was a case of "mistaken identity."  Sure. In any event, Morris fared better than Henry Cooper, an official of the opposition Unity Party, who was taken into custody at the same time:  his body was later found riddled with bullet holes.  Contemporaneously, five members of the National Human Rights Center of Liberia, an umbrella organization of nine non-governmental human rights organizations, were arbitrarily arrested on Good Friday 2002.  When they managed to get a court to rule several weeks later that their arrest without charges went against the Liberian constitution and to order their release, they were immediately arrested again by the Taylor government on the charge of "criminal malevolence" and "resisting arrest."  The basis of the latter charge was that they contested the previous arrest! 

Nor are the abuses limited to political opponents. In its desperate fight for survival, the Taylor regime has taken once more to pressing children into combat units, using its ironically named Anti-Terrorist Units (ATUs) to sweep whole neighborhoods.  Missionary groups and other non-governmental organizations have had to scramble to establish "safe houses" for the boys, many as young as ten or twelve years old, fleeing from being "volunteered" to do their "patriotic duty" of defending the regime. 

The forced induction of children into the military is reminiscent of the now-defeated Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in neighboring Sierra Leone's just-concluded civil war.  The RUF's leader, Foday Sankoh, is presently on trial for war crimes before the United Nations-sponsored Special Court for Sierra Leone.  Among the charges that will figure in his indictment will be the use of the infamous "child soldiers" to mutilate over 100,000 people in a terror campaign.  Before being defeated by a British-led UN force, Sankoh and the RUF were supported by Taylor, who also facilitated RUF sales of the so-called "conflict diamonds" by providing false certification of origin in Liberia.  Observers believe that up to 5,000 former RUF fighters, rather than be disarmed by the UN peacekeepers, have taken service with Taylor as members of the ATUs.  The Special Court, citing the Liberian leader's role in the Sierra Leonean conflict, recently issued an arrest warrant for Taylor, making him only the second sitting head of state to be indicted by an international criminal tribunal.