Defense Claims TRC Report Exonerates Woewiyu, – Jury Out for Deliberation

PHILADELPHIA– The defense team for Tom Woewiyu delivered a powerful closing statement at the end of his 3-week trial on 16 counts of criminal immigration fraud. Defense attorney Catherine Henry challenged the jury saying Liberia’s own “3 year, $7m” Truth and Reconciliation Commission had already found him innocent of war crimes. For a US jury to convict, “a 73-year-old grandfather” was “un-American” Henry said.

By Adrienne Tingba and Tecee Boley in Philadelphia and James Harding Giahyue in Monrovia

“The case of Tom Woewiyu vs Liberia has already been decided,” said Henry.

Henry made the TRC Report the crux of the defense case. The fact that Woeiwyu had not made it onto the list of those recommended for prosecution undermined the entire case made by the prosecution over the last three weeks according to Henry. She made much of the fact that Woewiyu shared a place on the list with former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was reelected after the report and went on to receive the Nobel peace prize.

Court observers said the Philadelphia jury will be unfamiliar with the question marks over President Sirleaf’s involvement with the NPFL and her status as a Nobel laureate may well be persuasive to jurors. However they will likely have read Woewiyu’s own 2005 letter indicting the former president which was submitted as evidence by the prosecution.

Henry denied Woeiwyu was Charles Taylor’s number two despite the fact that the jury had heard Woewiyu’s own words proclaiming as much on BBC tapes aired earlier in the trial. Henry claimed Woeiwiyu was simply the spokesperson. She said witnesses had only once seen him in military fatigues. The only witness, journalist Mark Huband, who had seen him with a gun, said he fumbled with it and didn’t look very comfortable.

“He tried to buy arms, twice. But he failed. He wasn’t very good at it,” Henry told the jury, trying to portray her client as a mild-mannered advocate for democracy in his homeland, a man driven simply by his desire to see what he believed was an illegitimate dictatorship (of Samuel Doe) driven from Liberia.

“It’s not like the NPFL were the aggressors,” Henry said citing the Lutheran Church massacre by the AFL as evidence “this was a war.” “All of the factions committed human rights violations against civilians,” she said. “This is an immigration case. There are no victims in this case. There isn’t a person in this room that doesn’t think the Liberian people have a story to tell. But this is not the place for it.”

Henry made much of the fact that the government’s witnesses against Woewiyu – multiple former child soldiers, Krahn and Mandingo survivors of ethnic cleansing efforts by the NPFL – had not appeared before the TRC.

 “There’s no way for us to test those stories. It wasn’t until April of 2018 that a lot of these witnesses decided to come to America to tell these stories. Were these people really desperate to tell their stores now or were they keen for an all-expenses paid trip to the US and a witness fee?” she asked seeking to place doubt in the jury’s mind.

Hitting back at the defense team’s use of the TRC Report, TRC commissioner Massa Washington said the effort “speaks to how manipulative Woewiyu is.  He had refused the TRC his fullest cooperation and openly said he does not support the TRC’s Final Report yet, he is using his status on the Sanction list of the TRC to argue that he is less culpable. As the number two man in the NPFL, if his organization is responsible, then he too is responsible. There would’ve been no NPFL without the people behind the name.”

John Stewart, another of the nine TRC commissioners, also rejected to the defense team’s claim that Woewiyu was exonerated of war crimes. “You have to look at it in a wider context. First of all, the TRC recognized that the NPFL was the largest violator of human rights. Woewiyu was in the leadership of the NPFL; the NPFL is indicted in our report. So, I will take it by extension that the leadership of the NPFL were also indicted in that report.”

Henry condemned the US immigration official who had taken Woewiyu’s 2009 citizenship interview saying she did “a terrible job”. Woewiyu and his lawyer had claimed she had rushed him through the interview and not given him time to mention his membership of the NPFL. “She misrepresented to you here in court how that interview went. If she had done her job, we would not be here today,” claimed Henry. The jury will be left to decide who was lying: Woeiwyu and his attorney or the US immigration official.

Earlier in the day, doors opened to a heavily crowded courtroom as observers were seated eagerly awaiting the start of closing arguments from the prosecution and defense. US Federal Prosecutor Linwood C. Wright began the government’s closing arguments, drawing the attention of the jury to the value of an American citizenship.

“It is a privilege to be born here, it is an honor to be born here. It is a gift to be a citizen here,” he said. Reminding the jury of some Liberian witnesses who have since obtained American citizenship, he further explained that this gift of American citizenship is something that other people of Liberian descent have obtained in an honest way, unlike Thomas Woewiyu.

Wright continued his arguments, highlighting four core elements of the government’s charges against the defendant:

  1. 1. Recruitment and use of child soldiers by the NPFL
  2. 2. Persecution of people based on ethnicity
  3. 3. Lying under oath about his involvement with the NPFL,  CRC, and NPRAG
  4. 4. Lying under oath about any previous convictions

Wright recalled for the jury Woewiyu’s conversations with Robin White of the BBC Focus on Africa while acting as defense minister for the NPFL talking about child soldiers. In the BBC interview Woewiyu refutes claims of the NPFL’s use of child soldiers saying “they are not babies. They are 12 or 13-year-olds”. Wright then drew the attention of the jury of a contradicting statement made by Woewiyu regarding the same issue after he broke away from Charles Taylor. The jury has also heard from 4 of Woewiyu’s now grown children. It will weigh on their minds that his own children were the same ages as those in the ranks of the NPFL’s child soldiers according to court monitors.

“He was the minister of defense in 1990, 1991, 1992. But when he broke away from Taylor, he changed the narrative to fit his purpose. What he said was older than 13-year-olds when he spoke to the BBC while with Taylor, became 8-year-olds when the narrative changed,” said Wright.

With the close of arguments the jury was then released for deliberations on all 16 counts of criminal immigration fraud brought against J. Thomas Woewiyu by the U.S. government. Court watchers expect the jury to come back quickly, perhaps Tuesday before the US July 4th vacation. If he is found guilty Woewiyu will be taken into custody in the courtroom to await a sentencing hearing at a future date. Woewiyu faces a maximum penalty of 110 years in federal prison, and $US4m fine.

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by Civitas Maxima. The funder had no say in the story’s content.

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