For the second time in less than a year, evidence of war crimes in Liberia have been presented in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia. On July 3, Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, former defense minister and spokesman of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), was convicted of 11 counts of immigration fraud, false statements and perjury stemming from his lies to U.S. authorities about his role in the rebel faction and the war crimes he committed. When Woewiyu applied for naturalization papers in 2006, and was interviewed in 2009, he failed to disclose his membership in the NPFL, despite having founded the group alongside Charles Taylor in 1984. Woewiyu is the highest-ranking official to be held accountable for crimes committed during Liberia’s civil wars, the 14-year conflict that resulted in the death of over 200,000 Liberians and the displacement of half the population.
Throughout the three-week trial, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania heard from 39 witnesses, including journalists, high-ranking Foreign Service officers, U.S. immigration officials and victims who courageously travelled from Liberia to testify about the atrocities committed by the NPFL. Testimony focused on the first three years of the civil war and the forced recruitment of child soldiers, the NPFL policies of ethnic and political persecution, and the murder of five American humanitarian aid workers during “Operation Octopus,” one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in West African history.
“Thomas Woewiyu’s trial is crucially significant for Liberia,” said Hassan Bility, Liberian human rights defender and the director of the Liberia-based NGO the Global Justice Research Project. “Never before were the crimes of the NPFL described in such detail in a courtroom. An important piece of our history was documented during this trial.”
Woewiyu was convicted for lying about his persecution of perceived political opponents, and members of the Krahn and Mandingo tribes. The jury heard testimony that NPFL rebels and conscripted child soldiers interrogated civilians at checkpoints in order to classify them based on tribe and dialect; a wrong answer meant death. One witness testified that over the course of the war, the NPFL broadened its search for objectionable dialects from those of the Krahn and Mandingo tribes to those of nations who had provided peacekeepers to the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) force that entered Liberia in 1990. According to the testimony of former child soldiers, Woewiyu characterized these peacekeepers as “the enemy.” Prosecutors tied these statements to Woewiyu’s direct perpetration of persecution during the war, with one witness testifying that Woewiyu ordered her 17-year-old brother to be taken away after he was accused of spying for the NPFL’s military enemies. The prosecution also offered evidence of Woewiyu’s incitement of ethnic violence: on widely heard BBC broadcasts, he declared, “the good Krahn man is the dead Krahn man.”
The defense characterized ECOMOG as a force given to atrocity crimes (indeed, the Final Report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission noted ECOMOG’s culpability in violence directed at civilians), implying that it was a legitimate target of the NPFL. The defense also pointed out in its closing argument that the jury had not heard “persecution” defined at all during the trial, telling the jurors that this was because it has different meanings for different people. Ultimately, however, the jury convicted Woewiyu of 11 counts related to the concealment of his persecution and his advocating the overthrow of Samuel Doe’s government.
The jury found Woewiyu not guilty of three of the four charged counts related to his failure to disclose his association with the NPFL, and two counts related to his failure to disclose his 1970 conviction for falsifying business records. These were the charges the defense attacked most strongly during the trial. Although the defense did little cross-examination of prosecution witnesses who testified to their experiences in Liberia during the war, the defense vigorously questioned the U.S. immigration officers involved in Woewiyu’s naturalization application process. In its cross-examination, the defense argued that Woewiyu later disclosed information regarding his involvement in the NPFL, and that information as to his 1970 conviction was already in the hands of the immigration officers, an approach that clearly resonated with the jury.
Woewiyu’s conviction has been widely celebrated in Liberia and follows the April conviction of Mohammed Jabbateh, the battalion commander of another rebel faction involved in Liberia’s civil wars. As the global push for accountability for Liberia’s victims of war crimes continues, these cases are just some of the first of many more to come. Under universal jurisdiction laws, another member of the NPFL, former Commander Martina Johnson, will be tried in Belgium for atrocity crimes. United Liberation Movement (ULIMO) Commander Alieu Kosiah will be tried in Switzerland for crimes against humanity and torture, and Agnes Reeves Taylor, former President Charles Taylor’s ex-wife, will be tried in the United Kingdom for her alleged role in NPFL abuses in Liberia. There is also the civil suit against Moses Thomas brought by the Center for Justice & Accountability under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
These cases are also tied to a renewed push for accountability within Liberia. As these cases in foreign courts move forward, campaigns such as the Liberian Quest for Justice, created by Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice Research Project, are working to raise awareness and build support for a war crimes tribunal in Liberia.
Woewiyu’s sentencing is scheduled for October 15. He faces up to 110 years in prison.
Image: Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu stands outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia, during a break from his immigration fraud trial in Philadelphia, on June 11, 2018 (David Maialetti/The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP)