Richard Duo has been waiting eagerly over the last three weeks for the outcome of the Thomas Woewiyu trial. Woeiwyu and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia have cast a heavy cloud over his family’s life. He was just three when, strapped to his mother’s back, he lost a leg when a shell exploded near the pair during Octopus crisis in 1992. His father had been killed in the Lutheran Massacre two years earlier.
So, when jurors in a Philadelphia courtroom in the United States on Tuesday found him guilty on 11 of 16 counts of criminal immigration fraud for lying to US authorities about his role in Liberia’s civil war the family celebrated.
“We are very happy,” Duo said the day after the verdict. “For we victims to live and see such thing happening. It is very much encouraging and we hope that it will continue, not only against Mr. Woewiyu but all those who committed war crimes against their own people.”
The three-week trial focused on the horrible suffering of all Liberian people during the first civil war but particularly those of the groups the NPFL targeted: Krahns, Mandingos, children recruited to be soldiers and people from other West African nationalities who were living in Liberia at the time.
The jury found Woewiyu had persecuted all these groups in his role as Taylor’s number two during the conflict. And they ruled that he had lied to US immigration authorities when they asked him whether he’d taken part in any persecution of specific groups. They also found he’d lied when he claimed he’d never tried to overthrow a legitimate regime. The jury heard repeatedly that the NPFL had wanted to overthrow President Samuel Doe from Woewiyu himself in BBC radio interviews.
Tens of thousands of Liberians died in the effort. “We are living with pain, it’s not easy,” Duo laments. “People came and committed against you, take your life backwards and affect your physical appearance. Every day, for some of us we live with that pain.
The trial also revealed that Woewiyu had at least four children who were similar ages to those children he recruited in Liberia as soldiers. Four of his children, all living in the US with graduate degrees and respectable jobs, testified to his honesty and law-abidingness. The youngest Naanco is the same age as Duo.
As Duo struggles to make ends meet on crutches, his mother still the breadwinner of the family, the difference between his life and that of Woewiyu’s children weighed heavily on him.
“They are in government, living good lives and their children abroad going to good school, while we are still suffering.”
Woewiyu was the Minister of Defense and Defense spokesman for the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NFPFL), recognized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as the largest human rights violator in the Liberian civil war (1989 – 2003) that killed an estimated 250,000. Woewiyu lied about his role in the NPFL when he applied for U.S. citizenship back in 2006.
An estimated 50,000 people died between 1990 and 1992, according to British writer Stephen Ellis in his “Mask of Anarchy”. Woewiyu was the mastermind of the Octopus, an attack on Monrovia to unseat the Interim Government of National Unity, led by Dr. Amos Sawyer.
One of the things that characterized the crisis was shelling. Several communities, particularly those around the James Spriggs Payne airfield were constantly shelled, resulting in loss of lives and properties.
“I am very happy for Thomas Woewiyu to go to jail because they are the ones who brought this trouble to us,” says Boima John, 61, who lost a leg when a rocket fell on a road in Wroto Town barely a week in the crisis. “If they had not brought the trouble, some of us wouldn’t be like this.” John says seven people were killed that morning of the blast
John had fled to his hometown of Garwula in Grand Cape Mount County but came back after a ceasefire was brokered between the rebels and the interim government. When the Octopus started, a rocket fell next to his house in Gbangay Town, not far from Wroto Town, where he would be eventually hit. He is a carpenter and cannot roof houses anymore, confined to groundwork forever.
No victim in Liberia has received reparation over the civil war here, though the TRC recommended that. John says that should be a priority.
“At least since he’s gone to jail now, when the people want to help us, let them help us with something,” John laments. “Even my artificial leg, I need money now to replace it,” he continues, displaying his prosthetic right leg as he sits new a table with a glass meant for him to cut. “This one is getting rusty and I don’t have money now to buy new one.”
‘Milestone Victory’ Meanwhile, activists and survivors’ groups have reveled in the trials of Liberians in Europe and America in the absence of a Liberian war crimes court.
Earlier this year, Mohammed Jabbateh or “Jungle Jabbah”, the former ULIMO commander, was sentenced to 30 years in a US jail for brutal war crime including systemic rape and cannibalism, in being the first Liberians to see some justice served over the civil war. Charles Taylor’s son Chuckie is serving a 97-year sentence for torture committed in Liberia, but he was tried as an American. Jabbateh and Woewiyu are the only Liberians so far to have faced justice for their crimes in Liberia.
More victims will have a taste of justice in coming months as Agnes Taylor, Martina Johnson and Alieu Kosiah go on trial in Europe for their crimes in Liberia. Commander of the Lutheran Massacre, Moses Thomas, faces a civil law suit in Philadelphia for his role in the massacre.
“The The guilty verdict of Thomas Woewiyu should be perceived as a milestone victory in our march to end impunity in Liberia,” says Aaron Weah of the Search for Common Ground. “It is also a disturbing news for those using Liberia as a fiefdom of impunity. Every time a warlord or alleged perpetrator is arrested, whether in the United States or elsewhere, it brings renewed hope for justice and gives visibility to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report.”
The U.S.-based Coalition for Justice in Liberia welcomed the guilty verdict.
“It brings relief for to those who have been yearning for Justice for crimes committed against innocent people by Tom Woewiyu and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia warring faction,” the group said in a statement. “The deceased can rejoice until justice prevails in Liberia.”
Woewiyu will be sentenced on October 15th. He faces decades in jail and a large fine. His lawyer has promised to appeal the verdict.
– by Benjamin Kesse