Former Liberian President Charles Taylor's son housed political opponents in dirt pits, shocked their genitals and even beheaded some, federal prosecutors said Monday during opening statements.

The trial marks the first test of a 1994 law that makes it a crime for a U.S. citizen to commit torture overseas.

Charles McArthur Emmanuel headed the "Demon Forces," an elite paramilitary anti-terrorist unit in his father's government in west Africa. The unit trained soldiers and tortured prisoners with acts like "running the rim," which prosecutors say forced victims to carry telephone pole-sized logs on their shoulders and run in circles while being whipped.

"Men were burned, prodded with electrical prods, sodomized, all to encourage them to confess to nonexistent crimes," U.S. prosecutor Christopher Graveline said during opening statements, showing the jury pictures of alleged torture victims' scars.

Emmanuel, 31, has pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a combined possible sentence of life in prison.

The Boston-born Emmanuel moved to Liberia during his teens to live with his father. He is also charged with conspiracy for the shootings of three people at a bridge checkpoint in Liberia in 1999.

Charles Taylor is currently on trial at a special U.N.-backed court in The Hague, Netherlands, on charges of orchestrating violence in neighboring Sierra Leone's bloody civil war, which ended in 2002. His son's alleged crimes took place between 1999 and 2002 in Liberia, where prosecutors say his job was to intimidate and silence Taylor's opponents by any means necessary.

Emmanuel was caught at Miami International Airport in 2006 trying to re-enter the U.S. from Trinidad, carrying a U.S. passport he obtained after falsifying his father's name on an application.

Defense attorney John Wylie called the torture allegations a lie and said Emmanuel's alleged victims fabricated the stories for financial gain and political asylum. He also painted a sad picture of a war-torn and impoverished Liberia riddled with disease: "Who wouldn't want to get out of that situation?" Wylie asked.

Many witnesses for both sides are being flown in from Liberia and other African nations, with special plans being made to ferry them to and from court under federal protection. The identities of the torture victims have been kept secret before trial, which is expected to last six to eight weeks.

The trial marks one of the few times an alleged perpetrator of atrocities in West Africa faces prosecution, said Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch.