A Liberian war criminal tried to conceal his past but a US court finds him guilty

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Wednesday, July 25, 2018 - 18:47

Former BBC correspondent Elizabeth Blunt reported on the horrors of the Liberian Civil War from the heart of the conflict. In Monrovia and elsewhere, she witnessed many of the killings that would qualify as crimes against humanity. She's recently testified in a US court against Tom Woewiyu, a man who fanned the flames of the Liberian war. But the question now is what sentence he might get, having been found guilty of immigration fraud and perjury. In this piece, Blunt explains how her scrupulous recordkeeping helped seal Woewiyu’s fate. And considers whether this kind of trial is the best way of combatting impunity.

By Elizabeth Blunt

In 1989 Tom Woewiyu, a Liberian businessman living in the States, helped his old friend Charles Taylor launch a rebellion back in his home country, a rebellion which turned into a brutal civil war and unleashed murder, torture, rape and other atrocities right across Liberia and in neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone.

This week, almost thirty years later, a jury in Philadelphia listened to shocking testimony from victims of that war, and then found Woewiyu guilty on eleven charges.  He could now go to prison for the rest of his life.

But was it a war crimes trial?  Not really. 

The actual charges were of immigration fraud and perjury, committed when he later applied to become a United States citizen.  The survivors' evidence was brought to show why he lied – to conceal the war crimes he had committed in the past.

It is only now that the perpetrators of the atrocities of the Liberian Civil war are starting to face justice. And while that will certainly be welcomed by campaigners against impunity, there is something fundamentally unsatisfactory about how it is having to be done.

Liberia itself has had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission which recommended the worst criminals for prosecution, but political sensitivities mean that no war crimes cases have yet been brought.

So the campaigners have had to be creative. 

Some Liberian war crimes cases are going ahead in European countries which have acceded to those international conventions allowing them to prosecute under universal jurisdiction.  Charles Taylor's wife, for instance, is facing a possible trial in the UK, where she has been living discreetly for a number of years.   But this is a fairly random process.  Agnes Taylor wasn't singled out because she was the worst of war criminals, but purely because she happened to be living in London.

And most Liberians who went abroad didn't settle in Europe, they went to the US, which has long-standing historic ties with Liberia and which many Liberians treat as their second home. The US has been very slow to accept international justice and universal jurisdiction.

Which is why I found myself in Philadelphia, giving evidence for the Prosecution in what was nominally a case about immigration fraud.  I had been the BBC correspondent in West Africa in 1990, and had dealt regularly with Tom Woewiyu, who was the official spokesman for Charles Taylor and his National Patriotic Front of Liberia.  He was a good choice for a PR man, a fancy dresser and a great talker, with just a whiff of the used car salesman.

Most of my evidence was straightforward.  Woewiyu had claimed during the naturalisation process that he had never been a member of any political group and had never advocated the overthrow of any government.  I could testify that he was heard regularly on the BBC speaking on behalf of the  NPFL, calling for the then President of Liberia, Samuel Doe, to get out, and threatening to go all the way to Monrovia and get rid of him, if he didn't go of his own accord.  And also that when the BBC named an interviewee, they were pretty well always who the BBC said they were.

I also gave evidence of the events of 1990.  I am not good at throwing things away, and my files, containing all the written reports I did as the BBC's West Africa correspondent, are now a very useful resource for anyone attempting to establish what happened when.

In response to a Prosecution question, I told the dramatic story of the day in September 1990 when rebels burst into Monrovia's port authority building and carried off President Doe to his death, right under the noses of a West African peacekeeping force.  I was cowering, terrified, in a downstairs room during what felt like an endless gun battle. And in response to a Defence question I confirmed that the President's abduction and murder was nothing to do with their client; it was the work of a rival, breakaway rebel group.

I had been dreading cross-examination (I'd seen too many American court-room movies) but it was painless.  Woewiyu was not denying anything I had said.  He didn't deny he was the NPFL spokesman and had called for the overthrow of the government (it would have been difficult, given that the BBC recordings were played in court). He wasn't denying that bad things happened in the war, that his group used child soldiers, that people suffered terribly.

The Defence argument was that all these things were irrelevant.  This was not a war crimes trial, despite the way the prosecution had tried to present it. It was about immigration. The lawyer told the jury they would “not be able to convict [Woewiyu] of ….. crimes he was not charged with.”

The jury found Woewiyu guilty on 11 of the 16 charges, but that doesn't mean that the Defence has necessarily lost the argument.  Sentencing is not until October, and we won't know until then whether he will receive a sentence appropriate for immigration fraud – perhaps a hefty fine and deportation – or whether he will be sentenced as a war criminal. 

If he receives the maximum sentence on every charge and they run consecutively, he could go to jail for the rest of his life. It is the sentence, more than the verdict, which is going to show whether this kind of prosecution is an effective way of combatting impunity.

Photo: Tom Woewiyu collection 

For more on recent efforts to bring Liberians to justice: 

Justice for Liberia: The Way Forward After Historic Verdict and 30-Year Sentence https://justicehub.org/article/justice-liberia-way-forward-after-histori...

My Fellow Liberians: accountability is needed now more than ever https://justicehub.org/article/my-fellow-liberians-accountability-needed...

Jonathan Okutoro

I think former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and others that founded and supported the second NPFL should also be tried for their roles in the Liberian civil war.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018 - 20:46

Justice is being served.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018 - 23:57
Emmanuel T. Tarbleh

An investigation based on the defendant's alleged violation of US Immigration laws that could well be turned into a war crime case. But I strongly believe that this case has a war crime undertone disguised into a US immigration laws violation.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018 - 11:00
Varney Gray

It's time for justice,liberian needs the right justice which was taken away for years ago.am begging the international community to please bring those individual to public justice.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018 - 13:26
Prince Jarteh

We need justice too in Liberia those who supported crimes against humanity need to be prosecuted by law.

Monday, July 9, 2018 - 09:41
Mohammed Kromah

This is what should be done to everyone who participated in the civil war. however once he is in the best situation to face justice, let it prevail.

Sunday, July 8, 2018 - 20:54
Benjamin Kollie

What so ever good or bad a man do much follow every where he goes, so let's justice be done

Saturday, July 7, 2018 - 17:48
Theophilus James

That's great no impunity for perpetrators, let justice be done to all men.

Saturday, July 7, 2018 - 07:49