Liberia – Uncle Sam ‘War Crimes’ Play: Recent Arrests Raise New Question
Monrovia – When U.S. Homeland Security officials picked up Mohamed Jabbateh, 49, last week in Philadelphia on immigration-related charges, it marked a familiar refrain that brought back memories of Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, a former Defense Minister to Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia picked up on similar charges and jailed.
“So, Liberia currently is a currently “impunity’s paradise”, meaning no law enforcement, killings and stealing can go on unpunished in Liberia under President Sirleaf. There is no political will because she stands to gain from the impunity environment since she herself is a war crime suspect, and the core of her inner circle including children, close relatives, cronies and friends are either suspects of war crimes or economic crimes to the detriment of the country. Her only concern now is her security outside the Presidency and how she and her family can retire with the nation’s loot in quietude and security which makes the pending elections all the more critical to the true transition Liberia craves” – Cllr. Jerome Verdier, Former Chair, Truth & Reconciliation Commission
The recent denial of visas of some prominent Liberians and the arrest of Mr. Jucontee Tom Woewiyou, Martina Johnson, Alieu Kosiah, Mohammed Jabateh and others resurrected fears that Liberia’s traditional stepfather, the United States of America and other international stakeholders are on the lookout for major players of the civil war.
But with each arrest or speculation, has come denials in some form regarding the extent of the quest to bring those responsible for the war to book. What some are calling a selective arrest of only a few is raising eyebrows and begging the question: What is Really Going on with Liberia’s muddled Post-war push for a war crimes tribunal?
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in May 2014 arrested Woewiyu at Newark Airport on his return from Liberia and charged him with lying on his citizenship application by failing to disclose his alleged affiliation with a “violent political group in Liberia.”
Woewiyu Triggered Wave of Arrests
Similarly, Jabbateh was detained following his arrest for alleging lying on his 1998 asylum application about his role in two civil wars in Liberia. Woewiyu served as defense minister in Charles Taylor’s former rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), during the civil war.
Although Woewiyu’s lawyer, Raymond Basso, argued that his client amended his citizenship application to include his participation in the Taylor regime, the former NPFL man was placed behind bars. He is currently under House arrest. Woewiyou’s arrest has since triggered a wave of immigration and war crimes related charges in both the U.S. and Europe.
In September 2014, Belgian authorities’ arrested Martina Johnson, a former commander of the rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). Johnson had been living in Belgium.
“The rebel forces for which Martina Johnson was a commander committed horrific abuses against civilians during Liberia’s first civil war, but not one person has ever been held to account for the crimes,”Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch, who described “Johnson’s indictment in Belgium is a major step to ensure justice is done for the abuses against Liberian civilians.”
In January 2015, Swiss authorities arrested Alieu Kosiah, a former commander of a Liberian rebel military faction who is accused of ordering civilian massacres, rapes and other atrocities in northern Liberia during the nation’s first civil war from 1989 to 1996. Alieu Kosiah is a former commander of the military faction – United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, known as ULIMO.
Selective Arrest Fears
For many Liberians at home and abroad the random pick up of lesser-known former rebel stalwarts while many of the bigger names are parading around, signals a sign of selective targets. In Jabbateh’s case, his lawyer argued in court last week that his client is being selectively target by some Liberians in the Philadelphia area with an ax to grind.
“This is a case of credibility,” Jabbateh’s lawyer Gregory Pagano said. “Some number of [Liberians] will come into court and say my client did these things – but I don’t know who these people are and what their political motivations might be.”
According to the indictment, Jabbateh either committed or oversaw the murders of civilians, the sexual enslavement of women, and the conscription of child soldiers while serving as a commander in the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO). Similar arguments have been made in support of Kosiah, who supporters say, is more of a victim, then a perpetrator of war.
Krahn vs. Mandigoes: Tribal Lines Fear
Some have hinted that the selective arrests are being driven on tribal lines.
Nvasekie N. Konneh, a US-based Liberian poet and writer quoted a U.S.-based lawyer, Cllr. Mameita Jabateh-Sirleaf as wondering why Kosiah was picked up, suggesting that many Liberians prefer to ignore the systematic killing and massacres committed against the Liberian Mandingoes while at the same time “demonizing the Mandingoes who fought as a matter of self-defense.”
She questioned: “Who are the seven Liberians who filed charges against Alieu Kosiah and how credible are those charges? How can we differentiate between their ethnic hatred for the Mandingoes and whatever complains they may have?”
These are some of the questions Cllr. Mameita Jabateh-Sirleaf has been asking regarding the detention of Aieu Kosiah. The seven Liberians who are said to have filed the “criminal complaints” are represented by Civitas Maxima, a Switzerland based organization fighting for the rights of victims of wars.
Despite the arrests, some are arguing that the absence of a structured pursuit of those linked to the civil war is a key reason why many are reluctant to put any serious weight behind the war crimes push in Liberia.
‘There Will be Justice’, Says TRC Chair Verdier
Mr. Samuel P. Jackson, who was one of the negotiators at the Accra Comprehensive Peace Agreement, in which Liberians put into motion a process to deal with issues of war crimes, impunity and reconciliation with a Truth and Reconciliation and Commission (TRC) contends that if Liberians want a war crimes tribunal, it should be structured according to international best practices and formatted based on Liberia’s objective of creating and sustaining social cohesion.
“The willy-nilly arrests of Liberians around the world based upon reports by other Liberians do not augur well for sustained peace and stability, especially in view of the glaring fact that major actors of the war are in high-level positions in Liberia running around with impunity.
We need to structure our efforts around a plan of action that produces justice and fair play for victims and does not appear as witch hunting.
More distressingly, we have not accepted the recommendations of the TRC after the huge amount of monies expended. If we are to move forward, it must be done based upon a framework ensures sustained peace. And so it goes.”
But Cllr. Jerome Verdier, who headed the TRC in Liberia disagrees, suggesting that the arrests of war crimes suspects may continue at random as long Liberia does not adopt an action plan on the TRC toward implementing its recommendations which may warrant the intervention of The Hague when the Security Council considers the issue of Liberia and War Crimes anytime soon when it becomes abundantly clear that Liberia has neglected its obligations under The Rome Statute and customary International Criminal Law
Asked about his views on the pursuit of lesser-known alleged war crimes figures when more high-profile ones are parading around Monrovia, Cllr. Verdier said: “Justice has a long road and its pursuit can be long and tedious, oft times slow. It may seem slow but it’s certain to yield fruits no matter how long it takes. That is true for Liberia also. There will be Justice in Liberia!”
Cllr. Verdier argued that the pendulum of Justice is shifting toward Liberia and by the time it settles there will be Justice for Economic and War Crimes committed in Liberia.
“Very shortly we will be submitting bills to the Honorable National Legislature to declare Liberia’s Universal Jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity – Which means Liberia will no more become or continue to be a safe haven for war crimes suspects and criminals. This is a consequence of lessons learned from the war as part of our collective national social, cultural and political development.”
Liberia ‘Impunity Paradise’
The former TRC chair lamented that because Liberia has no laws against human rights violations or war crimes, jurisprudence have not progressed to that level.
“That’s why acquiring universal jurisdiction over war crimes is the first step followed by development of the criminal jurisprudence to provide the laws, policies and laws to prosecute war crimes in Liberia or refer the accused to international courts existing to prosecute those crimes.
And the most Liberia can do is to agree (political will) to surrender suspects over to international courts like in the case of former President Charles Taylor. Liberia agreed through the current President to surrender him to international criminal jurisdiction.
At the moment she had resisted every other effort to advance prosecution or Justice pursuits in Liberia except Charles Taylor. Justice takes times because the processes have to be even and fair or seemed to fair and in itself a manifestation of Justice to all.”
In 2009, the Verdier-led TRC recommended a hybrid tribunal for atrocities committed during Liberia’s conflicts, but human rights monitors have criticized the government for not doing enough and are making no progress in prosecuting these crimes despite several appeals to invigorate plans for trials of civil-wars-era crimes.
Verdier says the blame lies squarely on the Sirleaf administration for the slow pace. “So Liberia currently is a currently “impunity’s paradise”, meaning no law enforcement, killings and stealing can go on unpunished in Liberia under President Sirleaf.
There is no political will because she stands to gain from the impunity environment since she herself is a war crime suspect, and the core of her inner circle including children, close relatives, cronies n friends are either suspects of war crimes or economic crimes to the detriment of the country.
Her only concern now is her security outside the Presidency and how she and her family can retire with the nation’s loot in quietude and security which makes the pending elections all the more critical to the true transition Liberia craves.”
After years of criticisms, Sirleaf last September finally submitted a letter to the national legislature urging the legislative body to help implement the recommendations of the TRC while pressing for the establishment of a criminal court which she said will require both legislative and executive collaboration.
Ironically, all of the trials for alleged war crimes perpetrators have been done outside Liberia. Former President Charles Taylor was tried and convicted in 2012 by the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, but only in relation to serious crimes committed during Sierra Leone’s civil conflict.
Charles Taylor’s son, Charles “Chuckie” Taylor, Jr. was charged and convicted by a U.S. court for torture committed in Liberia between 1997 and 2003, while he headed Liberia’s notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit during his father’s presidency. George Boley, who headed the Liberia Peace Council, was deported from the U.S.
An informed diplomatic observer who has been involved with the investigation leading to the arrest of Jabbateh, speaking to FrontPageAfrica on condition of anonymity Wednesday said those thinking that the U.S. is not involved in the pursuit of war crimes are mistaken.
“The United States have a policy that it does not give shelters to war criminals,” the source said.
“Whether Liberia presses forward with the implementation of a war crimes tribunal or not, if they lay their hands on any accused suspect, they are definitely going to go for it. The fact that these people are being picked up on U.S. and other European soils shows that the process is an organized one.”
Hotline Suggests U.S. Has Interests
Today, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security have a hotline for “Liberians who witnessed atrocities or were victims themselves” to call @ 215-717-4987
The source added: “It is not just Liberia alone. We have had cases where suspects from the former Yugoslavia, from Rwanda have been targeted and picked up. So it is about war criminals, it is a policy of the U.S. government and they as well as the EU countries are not very happy at the fact that Liberia has not been pressing more on this issue.
While it is true that the United States cannot force Liberia to enforce the TRC recommendations, the U.S. is also under obligation by their own law to pursue war criminals. So it is in that line that it is happening.”
Human Rights Watch took the Sirleaf administration to task last year for failing to make any effort to criminally investigate and prosecute the many serious crimes in violation of international law committed during its two civil wars despite a recommendation by the TRC
The source said the complainants in the Jabbateh case are from various parts of Liberia majority of who are not educated.
“In the case of Jabbateh, if you look at the charge sheet, you’re talking about murdering people based on ethnicity. You have to understand that this took place around 1994; the Mandigo people killed a lot of ethnic Krahn people and this is visible in the charge sheet.
If you remember 1994, it was when ULIMO broke up into ULIMO K, headed by Alhaji G.V. Kromah and ULIMO J headed by Roosevelt Johnson. So, there were a lot of ethnic killings on both sides. There are other people being monitored across the U.S. so whoever the U.S. policy suits will definitely become a target.”
Random Arrests Will Continue, Verdier Says
But despite these arrests, human rights advocates acknowledge that while cases involving atrocities committed abroad are complex to investigate and try, universal jurisdiction is sometimes the only available means to bring those responsible for grave human rights violations to justice.
A September 17 Human Rights Watch report highlights the importance of specialized war crimes units to investigate and prosecute these cases effectively. Belgium is one of about 13 countries that have created such war crimes units to fight impunity for the most serious crimes under international law.
A hybrid tribunal for Liberia with a majority of internationally appointed judges would advance justice efforts, but some elements of the commission’s proposal raise concerns that would need to be addressed, Human Rights Watch said.
For the foreseeable future, Cllr. Verdier believes that the arrest of war crimes suspects may continue at random as long Liberia does not adopt an action plan on the TRC toward implementing its recommendations which may warrant the intervention of The Hague when the Security Council considers the issue of Liberia and War Crimes anytime soon; when it becomes abundantly clear that Liberia has neglected its obligations under The Rome Statute and customary International Criminal Law.
“Under universal jurisdiction a country like the US and some European Countries do not permit their territories to be harbored by war crimes suspects as save haven to among other things evade justice.”
In the case of Jabbateh, who found sanctuary for some eighteen years, U.S. prosecutor, Attorney Zane Memeger in a recent interview with the Voice of America Daybreak Africa program, said there are a variety of reasons why it took 17 years to apprehend him.
“We can’t proceed with cases unless we get information that the government can rely on to investigate. That is what happened here,” Memeger said.
Memeger would not say whether US authorities were investigating other possible Liberian human rights violators who might be living in the United States or whether they are soliciting the help of Liberians for information about other possible Liberian human rights violators.
“The reality is with regard to investigations such as this that we generally do here in the United States, there are issues with regards to witnesses, their privacy, their security, we need to make sure that we are protecting them so that we can pursue our cases and make sure that justice is done,” Memeger said.
Asked whether he was currently probing other Liberians in the U.S. for possible war crimes, the U.S. prosecutor said: “I can’t disclose whether or not we’re doing that or not. That is probably a better question directly toward the Department of Homeland Security.”