Secret Recordings of $US2.3m Arms Deal Dominate Woewiyu Trial Day 10
PHILADELPHIA, Pa – It was a deal that would give Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebel group what they craved most: the power to bring down ECOMOG jet bombers that were stopping their efforts to take the final areas of the country they didn’t control in 1993. ECOMOG stood between the NPFL and the Executive Mansion in Monrovia and between Taylor and his ambition to finally become president of the country.
Report by Tecee Boley and Andrienne Tingba
The task of getting the missiles that could attack those bombers fell to Defense Minister Tom Woewiyu. In a series of negotiations in the US Woewiyu set up a $US2.3m deal to secure dozens of rockets and thousands of guns and ammunition for NPFL forces.
In his trial for criminal immigration fraud in the US on Tuesday, prosecutors played secretly recorded tapes of Woewiyu negotiating the deal with an undercover agent. It was the first time these recordings or the deal have been made public. The deal was set up by a man named Eugene Cox. Cox, who has since died, was the target of the sting operation. The court heard he was prosecuted for his role in the deal. Woewiyu was not. The agent David Lang, who testified in court, was not asked why Woewiyu was not prosecuted.
The court heard that Cox arranged the illegal arms deal between GFL Trading Group – an undercover arms trading company used by U.S. Custom agents in Miami, FL. — and the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG), the self-declared government Charles Taylor established for the 90% of the country that he then controlled.
In the recordings, Woewiyu is heard conspiring with the witness and his own negotiator, Cox, for the acquisition of arms in support of the deepening war in Liberia. In the audio, Woewiyu is heard devising a plan the disguise the arms as medical supplies so it can overcome the international arms embargo on Liberia and be shipped with little hassle.
As explained by the witness, it was Woewiyu’s idea to disguise the $US2.3m worth of arms as medical supplies. Lang described that a “wet lease” with an aircraft company was arranged by the witness to transport the “medical supplies” to Liberia.
“Yeah, the medical supplies. They are all over the place.” Woewiyu jokingly stated, speaking of the weapons being used for the war in Liberia. “Medical supplies” became the code term used by the parties instead of “weapons” for the much of the negotiations.
The weapons and ammunitions Woewiyu and Lang discussed included 1,100 M-16s rifles,
1.1M M-16 rifle bullets, 14 surface-to-air missiles (at a cost of $15,000 each), 150 grenades, 24 M-16 machine guns, and 20,00 bullets for the machine guns. Total cost of these rounded up to a little over USD2.3M. As the tapes progressed, however, it became clear that the NPRAG did not have the cash. The pressure was on Woewiyu to improvise, so he devised a plan, explained the witness.
Lang recalled meeting with Woewiyu and Cox on another occasion in June 1993 in Washington, DC. The purpose of this meeting was for Woewiyu to provide a promissory note detailing the “medical supplies”, as agreed in their previous meeting. Woewiyu provided the list of supplies, but there was an issue with the note. It had been agreed that the original document signed by Taylor and Woewiyu would be provided for the agent, but Woewiyu was only able to provide the copy.
Lang told them the copy would not suffice. Woewiyu desperately tried to have him accept the promissory note. Lang said he had the sense that Woewiyu was under immense pressure to make the deal happen.
“Everyone was relying on the Defense Minister Tom to get this accomplished,” the witness said. Woewiyu told him, “We are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
The undercover agent was not compromising his stance on having the USD2.3M paid in cash. Woewiyu and Cox’s had tried to persuade Lang to take payment through a 25% stake in a company set up to sell Liberia’s resources such as “gold, diamond, iron ore, etc.”
In his opening statement prosecutor Nelson S. Thayer told the jury the fake deal fell through when Woewiyu could not pay to have the weapons transferred to Liberia.
Later in the day Marsillina Eikerenkoetter, the immigration officer who assessed Woewiyu’s application for US citizenship, got to the crux of the charges against him: The moment that the government alleges Woewiyu lied in his immigration application.
Eikerenkoetter said she asked Woewiyu in his January 30th, 2009 interview: “Have you ever been a member of or associated with any group in the US or any other place?” She said Woewiyu answered “no” originally on paper but said “yes” in the verbal interview and so she changed the form to “yes”. He named the United Liberian Associations in the Americas. He said he was not a member of any other group.
Eikerenkoetter asked him verbatim: “was he a member of a terrorist organization?” He answered “no”.
The she asked verbatim: “Have you ever advocated either directly or indirectly for the overthrow of any government by force or violence?” Again Woewiyu answered “no”.
Eikerenkoetter asked Woewiyu verbatim: “Have you ever persecuted either directly or indirectly any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership of a particular group or political opinion?”
Woewiyu answered no.
Eikerenkoetter also refuted defense claims that the interview had been rushed. She said she had told Woewiyu that he had as much time as he liked to finish the form.
The immigration agent’s testimony will continue tomorrow.
Woewiyu appeared more confident than he has been in recent days as the prosecution case came to a close. His wife and children were present in the court for the first time since the early days of the trial. One son has been the only constant presence among his supporters since the start of the trial. It is likely they will serve as character witnesses for the defense. One of his sons was dressed in the uniform of the US navy from which he has taken short leave from his station on Rhode Island. They were in court in case the prosecution case finished early enough for them to begin their case. Both teams forecast it was likely that the case will run into Monday next week.
The defense still has not decided whether Woewiyu will appear in his own defense. If Woewiyu is convicted of the 16 counts of immigrated fraud charges against him, he faces 110 years imprisonment, and a $US4M fine.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives with funding from Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in the story’s content.