PHILADELPHIA – Tom Woewiyu was denied US citizenship because of his involvement in the Liberian wars according to the senior US immigration official who made the decision. The officer testified to the federal court in the last day of the prosecution case alleging Woewiyu is guilty of criminal immigration fraud for lying about his war activities on his immigration application.
Report by Tecee Boley and Andrienne Tingba
Woewiyu served as defense minister and spokesperson of the rebel NPFL whose goal was to overthrow the Samuel Doe government in the early 1990s. In 2009, he told immigration officers that he did not participate in the removal of a government by force or violence, he didn’t list NPFL among groups he had been a member of and said he had never persecuted a group for its ethnic, religious, political affiliation.
After searching all of the government’s law enforcement databases and the internet – where she found the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report and Woewiyu’s 2005 “Open Letter to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf” – the officer found that Woewiyu had been untruthful. Woewiyu’s application had been referred to the officer, Peggy Lin Chang, because she was in charge of the national security and public safety unit that looked at cases suspected of being terrorists or war crimes.
In the report sent to Woewiyu denying his application for citizenship, Chang said she had concerns that Woewiyu had lied in his interview testimony, that he lacked good moral character as a result of possibly lying and for his involvement in the NPFL, his physical presence as a permanent residence in the United States was divided, and whether or not he lawfully acquired a permanent residence card.
Prosecutor Nelson Thayer asked Chang what she discovered in her internet search that caused her to believe Woewiyu had been involved in human rights violations.
“Because of all the bad things that were said about the NPFL and because he’s number 2 and Minister of Defense, it seemed to be there was direct involvement or a high level of involvement,” Chang told the court.
This testimony brought to life arguments and counter arguments over immigration questions answered by Woewiyu during his application for US citizenship. The jury stayed engaged as the exchanges are at the heart of the U.S government’s case against the defendant.
The Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission report made another appearance in the court as Chang testified that it was also a major factor in her decision to deny Woewiyu’s citizenship application.
“I relied heavily on it (the TRC Report) for my decision. Just the factual findings of the report impacted my decision,” she explained. Many passages from the TRC Report were quoted in Chang’s letter to Woewiyu denying his citizenship application.
Along with the TRC report, the witness testified of other factors impacting her decision to deny the defendant citizenship.
As part of the protocols of special naturalization cases such as that of Woewiyu’s, Chang recalled conducting more investigations using the FBI’s TECS database. In this investigation, she stumbled across the FBI’s records of Woewiyu’s alleged involvement in the exportation of weapons to Liberia. This discovery, according to the witness, seemed consistent with what she found concerning Woewiyu’s involvement with the NPFL and the Liberian civil war.
Woewiyu’s own words came back to haunt him as Chang disclosed that a major part of her decision to deny him citizenship came from her discovery of his 2005 letter, An Open Letter to Madam Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In this letter, Chang said, Woewiyu gave clear evidence of his involvement with the NPFL.
“I think it (the letter) confirmed that he was part of the NPFL and other organizations which he did not disclose. Because it came from him, I found it more credible,” she said.
The testimony of this witness and that of the previous immigration officer who interviewed Woewiyu marks a crucial part of the case, according to court observers. With their testimonies, the jury was granted more understanding of the citizenship process in the United States. With the benefit of extensive research and access to all of the US government’s information on Woewiyu the immigration officer said she was clear that Woewiyu was guilty of war crimes and not eligible for citizenship in the US.
“Her job is to weigh Woewiyu’s credibility. She told the jury he was not credible. The strong language and her gravity must have impressed them,” said Emily Rosendahl, court monitor for Civitas Maxima.
In cross examination defense attorney Catherine Henry sought to discredit Chang’s decision and the prosecution’s interpretation of the TRC Report. She said Woewiyu had appeared in the same list of names recommended for public sanction as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Sirleaf, Henry said, had gone on to win the Nobel Peace Prize and be reelected to a second term of government after the release of the report. Henry’s inference was that if Woewiyu was in Sirleaf’s company in the report, why was he being prosecuted for criminal immigration fraud based on those activities, while she was being celebrated by the international human rights world.
The fact that Liberians reelected Sirleaf, Henry inferred, suggested Liberians did not want to see him prosecuted. Why then should the US?
The prosecution rested its case this afternoon after 11 days of testimony. The defense will begin its case tomorrow. Woeiwyu’s son, a naval officer, based in Connecticut, will testify by video link tomorrow. At the close of court Woeiwyu’s lawyers were still scrambling to assemble the witnesses they intend to call.
The court has not yet heard whether Woewiyu will testify himself. Woewiyu is being tried for 16 counts of criminal immigration fraud against the United States. He faces up to 110 years in jail and $US4m in fines if convicted.
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.