PHILADELPHIA, Pa – It was a highly inflammatory letter that threatened then-candidate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s presidential campaign and prompted her to sue the writer, Thomas Woewiyu. The letter accused the soon-to-be president of having a far greater role in the uprising led by Charles Taylor and his NPFL than she’d admitted.
Report by Tecee Boley and Adrienne Tingba
Yesterday US government prosecutors used the letter against Woewiyu in his trial for immigration fraud based on the war crimes the government alleges he committed during the civil war.
Excerpts from the letter dated September 15, 2005 titled; An open letter to Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was read in court drawing attention to Woewiyu’s knowledge and role in the war.
“My first trip to the Ivory Coast to meet with Charles Taylor, Harry Yuan, Moses Duopu and others to assess the level of military plan of action for the purpose of removing Doe was sponsored by you and others in the wake of the failed Quinwonkpa coupe (sic) in which you played a major role,” the excerpt read.
This part of the letter underscored the prosecution’s case that Woewiyu lied in answering immigration questions because, as the letter shows, he was engaged in military activities for the NPFL for the purpose of overthrowing the Doe regime.
“Upon my arrival back in the United States, I went straight to your sister’s house on Long Island where you were living. While we were discussing the issue of Taylor leading this round of arm (sic) rebellion, Byron Tarr arrived. When you told him what you were putting Taylor up to, he totally opposed on grounds that Taylor was corrupt. He gave in only when you asked him if he had any other viable alternative, given that you people had tried more than 10 times to get rid of Doe but failed,” Woewiyu wrote.
Woewiyu then went on to highlight a highly disputed quote from Johnson-Sirleaf commanding the attack on Monrovia. He alleges that she acted as the commander-in-chief of the NPFL forces when she ordered the attack on Monrovia, thus initiating Operation Octopus in 1992.
“You said, ‘Level Monrovia, we will rebuild it,’ and not ‘Level the Executive Mansion’ as contained in your statement of apology. As you said, you regret making what you now term as a ‘stupid comment.’ If you truly regret making a statement that resulted in the death of thousands of your fellow countrymen and women, why replace it now with a false one?” Woewiyu continued.
The letter’s appearance in Liberian newspapers during the 2005 presidential election came as a shock to many Liberians. For weeks, it was at the center of political debates. Since the letter was published, it has been at the center of discussions around the why and how of the Liberian civil war. On many occasions, this document has been quoted at intellectual centers and live on air discussions in Monrovia.
In the letter, Woewiyu wrote that he knew how much money former president Sirleaf had contributed to the war. He wrote: “Let me refresh your memory on the financial contributions to the Taylor war efforts from you and your sources. Twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000.00) was the initial amount by your consortium (Clarence Simpson and Taylor Major), when the war started.” He goes on to allege that he estimates she spent at least $500,000.
In her testimony before the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), former President Sirleaf testified that she gave the NPFL ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for what she said were humanitarian purposes.
Also read for the jury was another publication in which Woewiyu detailed his breakaway from Taylor after his appointment as Labor Minister in the Liberia National transition Government (LNTG). In the publication titled “Turning the Table”, Woewiyu issued an apology to the Liberian people for the horrors they experienced during the war as a result of the NPFL’s actions. In the publication, he stated that the NPFL, under Charles Taylor’s leadership, had shifted away from its original purpose – liberating and uniting the Liberian people. The new purpose under Taylor as described by Woewiyu, became a cause of vengeance against the Liberian people for the deaths of the 13 Americo-Liberian cabinet members assassinated by Samuel Doe.
As the day of evidence against Woewiyu ended, the attention of the jury was taken outside of Liberia and into America. Not too far from the war happening in Liberia, Woewiyu is alleged to have attempted to smuggle arms out of America in support of the deepening tensions in Liberia.
The prosecution admitted into evidence secret FBI recordings showing Woewiyu’s negotiator, Eugene Cox and the prosecution’s witness, special agent Gary Lang in negotiations about smuggling arms to Liberia via the Ivory Coast. This was the first time the court received evidence linking Woewiyu to arms deals.
In the audio-visual tape, Cox is overheard negotiating with undercover U.S. agents about acquiring large quantities of M-16s, AK47s, and surface-to-air missiles to support his “friend” who was overthrowing a government. Cox went on to explain that the deal would not be a cash deal, but rather an exchange of resources, as the witness described. In this exchange, resources from Liberia, including gold, diamond, oil reserves, and iron ore, would be sold and 25% of those sales would go to the witness as payment for the weapons and ammunition needed forCox’s friend. That friend, Lang described, was the defendant Thomas Woewiyu. The cost of the arms was US$2.3 million.
With the presentation of several more visual tape recordings into evidence, the prosecution attempts to further solidify in the minds of the jury the gravity of Woewiyu’s involvement in the arms smuggling deal. Although the recordings itself did not depict the defendant or his voice, Cox is heard speaking excitedly about details of Liberia and its war. Direct involvement of Woewiyu in the negotiation of the arms deal, however, was only alleged by the witness in his testimony of subsequent meetings with the defendant. Lang claimed to have met Woewiyu directly on three occasions. None of those were played today but they could be played tomorrow.
In a late surprise the court learned that Woewiyu himself may still testify. His lawyer revealed that the defense has not yet made a decision on that front.
The defense has a lot to weigh according to Emily Rosendahl, court monitor with Civitas Maxima. “He could appear arrogant or unlikeable to the jury or open himself up to question by the prosecute,” said Rosendahl. However, there are good reasons to testify. “He is the only person who can really speak to his own state of mind when he filled out the immigration forms,” said Rosendahl. “Putting him on the stand allows the defense to ask question that may make him sympathetic to the jury.”
At the end of Monday day nine (9) of trial proceedings, the prosecution is left with one more day to prove its case against Thomas Woewiyu. Woewiyu faces charges of 16 counts of immigration fraud against the United States. If convicted, he is faced with a maximum penalty of 110 years in prison, and $US4M fine.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by Civitas Maxima. The donor had no say in the story’s content.