Using U.S. Courts to Promote Accountability for the 1990 Liberian Church Massacre and Beyond

Between 1989 and 2003, civil war consumed the small West African nation of Liberia, resulting in the estimated deaths of 150,000 to 250,000 men, women and children, and the displacement of over half the country’s population. All parties to the conflict, government and rebels alike, were responsible for grave crimes and human rights atrocities, including torture, rape, sexual slavery, summary executions, and forced conscription of child soldiers. Since 2003, Liberia has made significant progress on security, yet major obstacles remain to long-term growth and sustainable peace, not least an enduring culture of impunity for civil war-era atrocities.

The civil lawsuit that the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) filed recently on behalf of four survivors of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church Massacre aims to help rectify this impunity. On July 29, 1990, soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) executed approximately 600 unarmed men, women, and children—mostly of the Mano and Gio tribes—that had sought refuge from the violence of the civil war at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia. At the time of the attack, the church was providing shelter and humanitarian assistance to over 2,000 civilians and the compound was clearly marked by Red Cross flags on all four corners. Some of the survivors of the attack, including CJA’s plaintiffs, were forced to hide under dead bodies while witnessing the slaughter of their loved ones with guns and machetes.

Plaintiff Jane W and her family were sleeping inside the church when government soldiers entered. Jane’s daughter and aunt were killed before her eyes, while her husband tried in vain to rescue their youngest child and flee. Plaintiff John X survived the massacre by hiding under dead bodies. His wife, daughter, and two brothers, however, were all killed in the massacre. Plaintiff John Y, only 12 years old at the time, hid near the pulpit at the front of the nave. In the chaos, his aunt and cousin were killed and a bullet hit John Y in the leg. John Y and his father survived the attack but were separated from his mother and brother for two years in the aftermath of the massacre. Plaintiff John Z was sleeping outside in the Church compound when soldiers entered the front courtyard. John Z hid amongst the bodies and was bayoneted in the arm by a soldier trying to make sure victims were dead. The plaintiffs must remain anonymous given the current security situation in Liberia and the real risk of reprisals.

The survivors of the attack brought this case against one of the alleged commanders of the Lutheran Church Massacre, the former head of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit of the AFL, Col. Moses Thomas, who has sought safe haven in the United States since 2000 and currently lives in the outskirts of Philadelphia. The case, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, was brought pursuant to the Alien Tort Statute (ATS) and Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA), two federal statutes that permit civil suits in U.S. federal courts to remedy a limited set of human rights violations, including those that occurred abroad. The complaint alleges that Thomas is liable for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity—including the war crime of targeting a building designated for religious and humanitarian purposes, and crimes against humanity for mass execution and persecution of civilians based on their tribal affiliation.

To date, no one has been held responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre. Although in 2009 Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended the creation of an Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of civil-war-era crimes, including the Lutheran Church Massacre, Liberians are still waiting to see whether an in-country court will be established. The lawsuit is the first seeking to hold accountable a commander of then-President Samuel Doe’s government forces for grave violations of international law, and the first to confront a high-ranking commander for the perpetration of one of Liberia’s deadliest attacks on civilians during the country’s civil war.

This case comes in the context of an international effort by victims of the Liberian Civil War to be heard on a global scale, a movement which will continue to grow in 2018. The case against Thomas follows the successful 2009 U.S. prosecution of Charles “Chucky” Taylor, the son of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, for torture; and the successful 2017 Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh immigration fraud case in Philadelphia. Expected cases in 2018 include the trial of former National Patriotic Front (NPFL) Defense Minister Tom Woewiyu in the United States for immigration fraud related to human rights abuses in Liberia; NPFL Commander Martina Johnson in Belgium for atrocity crimes in Liberia; United Liberation Movement (ULIMO) Commander Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland for crimes against humanity and torture; and Agnes Reeves Taylor in the United Kingdom for her alleged role in NPFL abuses in Liberia.

It is true that the country where an international crime occurred is the preferred jurisdiction to obtain justice for victims. On a practical level, the collection of evidence, including the participation of witnesses, is much easier when a trial is held closer to the crime. The territorial state’s courts may also be more attuned to the needs and arguments of the parties. The reality in Liberia, however, is that the culture of impunity is rampant. Despite the potential of the TRC created in 2003, Liberia has done little to implement the body’s recommendations related to prosecutions, sanctions, an alternative justice mechanism, reparations, and memorialization. Although the lack of prosecutions can be partly attributed to the state of Liberia’s legal system, some commentators also point to a lack of political will. Others, including former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, have expressed concern that implementing the TRC’s recommendations for prosecutions would create instability in Liberia, and should be ignored in the interest of peace. It is unclear whether incoming President George Weah will follow suit. Presently, no international criminal tribunal has jurisdiction over Liberia’s wartime atrocities.

U.S. Justice Robert H. Jackson, then chief U.S. prosecutor, noted in his opening statement before the Nuremberg Tribunal that the law must reach those who “make deliberate and concerted use of [power] to set in motion evils which leave no home in the world untouched.” Twenty-eight years after that tragic day in Monrovia, this profound aphorism rings hollow to the victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre. Indeed, U.S. law may not provide reliable criminal sanctions for war crimes, like those committed during the Lutheran Church Massacre, even when alleged perpetrators have sought safe haven within U.S. borders. For example, the 1996 War Crimes Act provides that an offense is prosecutable only if the perpetrator or the victim is a U.S. national or member of the U.S. armed forces. Other criminal statutes, such as the 1994 Torture Act, were enacted after the Massacre and may not be applied retroactively. In fact, the Torture Act has been used only once (coincidentally for post-1994 atrocities in Liberia by “Chucky” Taylor). These legal limitations thus result in prosecutions of alleged human rights abusers based on immigration crimes, rather than on war crimes or torture (as was the case with the prosecution of Mohammed Jabateh). With no hope of accountability in Liberia, CJA’s plaintiffs—as well as other victims of earlier mass atrocities whose perpetrators are in the United States—must resort to the civil remedies provided by the ATS and the TVPA.

CJA’s brave clients have waited a long time to discover the truth of what happened the night of July 29, 1990, and to have their day in court. Civil litigation through the ATS and TVPA may give them that chance. Moreover, this case and others may ultimately propel the Liberia accountability movement forward with respect to the many other perpetrators of human rights violations during the war, including and especially in Liberia itself. As the victims themselves recognize, only through accountability within Liberia will the country be truly en route to a robust rule of law and sustainable peace.

For more information about CJA’s work in Liberia visit cja.org/where-we-work/liberia. Follow updates on the Liberian Quest for Justice Campaign, maintained by Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), on Facebook and Twitter #Quest4Liberia.

 

*The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the organization for which they work. 

About the Author(s)

Cristian González Cabrera

Legal Fellow at the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) Follow him on Twitter @cristianfergo.

Nushin Sarkarati

Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Justice and Accountability