Woewiyu convicted of hiding past as Liberian war criminal

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Photo: by Jeremy Roebuck

 A Delaware County man accused of hiding his past as a top lieutenant to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor was convicted Tuesday on federal immigration fraud charges – the second historic verdict of its kind in Philadelphia and one that recharged calls for an end to impunity in the West African nation where war criminals have largely gone unpunished for decades.

Thomas Woewiyu – a 73-year-old grandfather and former spokesperson and defense minister for Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) – is the highest-ranking official to be found guilty of crimes tied to the numerous documented atrocities that occurred during Liberia’s first civil war, a protracted, multifaction conflict that ravaged the country between 1989 and 1997.

Woewiyu was convicted of 11 counts including immigration fraud, perjury, and making false statements. He was acquitted of five additional counts.

As the verdict was read, Woewiyu sat stone-faced, as he has through much of the trial. His family, also in the courtroom, did not visibly react. Woewiyu hugged his lawyer and his family as he left the courtroom.

Sentencing is set for Oct. 15.

Woewiyu’s conviction comes months after a Liberian expat in East Lansdowne –Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh, a brutal warlord loyal to another faction during the war – was sentenced to 30 years in a U.S. prison for similar crimes.

Neither Woeiwyu, of Collingdale, nor Jabateh was specifically charged with the acts of torture, ethnically targeted killing, and conscription of child soldiers that government witnesses attributed to them or their fighters. But federal prosecutors and human-rights advocates claimed victory in jurors’ decision to convict both men for lying to U.S. immigration authorities about those misdeeds.   

It took the jury of eight men and four women about eight hours to reach their decision on the 16 counts of immigration fraud and perjury he faced. The verdict came after 11 days of testimony, much of it from 14 witnesses the government flew in from Liberia to recount their horrifying experiences during the war.

Some testified they sought to flee the violence, only to be herded through NPFL checkpoints decorated with severed heads and strings of human intestines where civilians were routinely shot. Two men described how Taylor’s rebels rounded up and fatally shot nearly every man in their peaceful Muslim farming community in the country’s northern border.

And in perhaps the most wrenching testimony of the trial, a former child soldier showed jurors his mutilated hands, damaged eyes and shrapnel wounds on his shoulders – combat injuries he sustained at the age of 12 after he was kidnapped and pressed into fighting by men under Woewiyu’s command.

But unlike Jabateh, who dismissed much of the testimony from his countrymen as liesduring his trial in October, Woewiyu rarely questioned the truth of the horrifying wartime accounts that government witnesses relayed about their treatment at the hands of the NPFL.

Instead, his lawyers Mark Wilson and Catherine C. Henry repeatedly questioned what any of it had to do with their client’s case.

Since his 2014 arrest at Newark International Airport, Woewiyu has maintained he was unaware of the worst excesses of Taylor’s regime and that he had always been open with U.S. authorities about his ties to the NPFL.

At the height of the conflict in the ‘90s, he had frequent conversations he had with U.S. State Department officials and later discussed his role in depth with FBI agents investigating another alleged Liberian war criminal in 2012.

His lawyers chalked up his initial failure to mention his prominent position in Taylor’s regime on his 2006 application for U.S. citizenship as a mistake born out of confusion about the questions on the form. .

“There was no reason to hide his past,” Henry said during her closing arguments to jurors Monday. “It was all over the Internet.”

Indeed, many of those who testified against Woewiyu – even those who had never directly encountered him during the war – instantly identified him in court.

Whether as a voice espousing NPFL rhetoric from tinny radio speakers or as a military adviser in the field who helped raise and arm a militia of conscripted children to fight on Taylor’s behalf, the erudite Woewiyu became one of the most recognizable names for many during the war.

And though he has primarily lived in the United States as a legal permanent resident since the ‘70s, he has held significant positions in the Liberian senate and presidential cabinet over the past three decades.

His stature both in his home country and the Philadelphia area’s 15,000-strong Liberian expat community only fueled interest in his case both here and across the Atlantic.

Newspapers in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, closely covered the proceedings, granting it a totemic status that extended beyond any specific crimes Woewiyu himself may have committed.

More than 200,000 civilians died during the war but no one has ever been held criminally responsible in Liberia for the documented atrocities committed by factions on all sides.

Taylor, who went on to become Liberia’s president, was eventually convicted of war crimes by an international court in 2012 – but for actions tied to a civil war in neighboring Sierra Leon. It took a U.S. court to sentence his son – known as “Chuckie” Taylor – to prison in 2009 for his own barbaric behavior in the nation’s second civil war between 1999 and 2003.

Some former rebel leaders now hold positions of power within the government in Monrovia – a fact Woewiyu made much of in his trial, pointing out that Liberia’s immediate past president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was both a founding member of the NPFL and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.

The nation’s current president George Weah was elected during Jabateh’s trial last year amid renewed calls for a home-grown war crimes court to settle the debts of the past.

So far though, he has largely brushed off those demands, leaving the war’s victims to turn to foreign courts for justice.

At least three other rebel leaders – including Taylor’s former wife and one of his top lieutenants – face upcoming trials in Europe, while another Philadelphia-area man, Isaac Kannah, is set to be sentenced on perjury charges connected to his wartime role at a hearing in Rochester, N.Y., next week.

– by Jeremy Roebuck, Staff Writer