Liberia: Accused Lutheran Church Massacre Commander Challenges Lawsuit in the US.
Philadelphia, Pa – The civil case brought by four anonymous survivors of the 1990 Lutheran Church massacre against Moses Thomas, the alleged commanding officer of the killings, is facing a series of challenges by Thomas and his lawyers.
Report by By Tecee Boley and Adrienne Tingba
Thomas’s lawyers have filed a motion in a Philadelphia court to dismiss the civil case against brought by the US-based Center for Accountability and Justice and its Liberian partner the Global Justice and Research Project. The suit, filed in February alleges that Thomas “directed and participated in a hellish massacre of 600 Liberian civilians confined within the sanctuary of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church” which was then a Red Cross humanitarian aid center sheltering more than 2000 people.
All four of the Liberia-based survivors who are bringing the case lost family in the attack which was one of the biggest mass killings of the war and brought global attention to the conflict. One of the survivors in the case lost two brothers, his wife and their five-year-old daughter in the attack. All four survived the massacre themselves by hiding under the bodies of victims.
The case alleges that Thomas is responsible for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses committed against them and their families under the U.S. Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute, federal laws that allow civil relief in US courts for victims of human rights abuses committed overseas.
Although the lawsuit does not specifically accuse Thomas of killing anybody, it argues he bears responsibility for the murders by directing the attack, after addressing those at the church and “promising that he would guard them and ensure their safety.”
“Thomas was the head of the military unit that committed the massacre, he was present on the front courtyard throughout the attack. He was also the one who issued the ceasefire order that ended the attack, so he was in complete command throughout the massacre,” said Nushin Sarkarati, senior staff attorney with CJA.
Thomas, now 64, was named as a suspected war crimes perpetrator in 2008 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, but have never faced a trial.
The CJA case is a civil case (brought my victims), not a criminal one (brought by the state) like those of recently convicted perpetrators Mohammed Jabbateh and Thomas Woewiyu. That means Thomas, who runs the restaurant Klades with his girlfriend in South West Philadelphia, will not face jail time. If found guilty he will be liable for damages payable to the victims. US law enforcement has not ruled out bringing criminal charges against Thomas.
Thomas has denied the allegations. After the case was filed in February he told the BBC the allegation was “nonsense”.
“I don’t want to give any credence to the allegation,” he said. “No-one in my unit had anything to do with the attack on the church.”
Thomas was admitted to the US in 2000 on an immigration visa intended to assist victims of the war. The Trump administration recently revoked that visa – Temporary Protected Status – for Liberians giving them until early next year to leave the country.
Thomas’s lawyers argued the case should be dismissed because the laws have a 10-year statute of limitations. The massacre, which happened 28 years ago, would be far outside this window. They also argued that CJA and the survivors, “failed to exhaust a local remedy” to address their grievances. Thomas’s lawyers said that if there is any case that Thomas should face, it should be in Liberia where the victims live and where the alleged crime took place.
CJA’s lawyers rejected Thomas’s claims. In a filing, they argued that in the U.S. a court can extend the statute of limitations if there are extraordinary circumstances preventing a plaintiff from filing the case. CJA argues there are many such circumstances here: “Namely, a war was ravaging Liberia until 2003 and Liberia was in a post-conflict turmoil following that. Moreover, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up to investigate civil war atrocities so there was a belief that the State would investigate and prosecute perpetrators (making it unnecessary for victims to do so themselves). Lastly, Liberia was also struck with an Ebola pandemic that also made investigations in the country difficult. Most of all, our clients, who are in very rural communities, did not know that Thomas was in the US and could be reached by a US court.”
Thomas and his lawyers, also challenged the right of the four survivors to sue him anonymously. CJA argued that they would face serious risk of retaliation if their role in the case was made public.
“There has been no meaningful accountability in Liberia for perpetrators of human rights abuses during the First and Second Liberian Civil Wars,” the CJA filing said. “To the contrary, many war criminals remain in power at the highest levels of government. Liberians who previously sought accountability in other cases have been threatened with physical violence and death, and Plaintiffs face serious risks for attempting to seek justice against Thomas and for promoting accountability generally.”
In support of their claims CJA included a declaration from Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima, who detailed some of the threats received by his staff and witnesses in the case of George Boley, who was deported from the United States in 2012 after evidence came to light of his involvement in serious human rights abuses in Liberia, including conscription of child soldiers and extrajudicial killings. Werner’s statement told the court the witnesses in West Africa who testified against him in connection with the U.S. immigration proceedings were threatened and their family members attacked.
CJA’s filing also includes a declaration from Mark Kroeker, the former Police Commissioner for the United Nations Mission in Liberia, who said victims seeking justice face a security crisis. “The members of this illicit power structure oppose all accountability efforts, even efforts to hold their past or current opponents to account, because they recognize that creating a precedent of accountability jeopardizes their power,” said Kroeker’s statement. “Members of this power structure would perceive a U.S. lawsuit against any one war actor as a threat to everyone with a stake in the maintenance of impunity.”
Kroeker also rejected the idea that justice could be pursued in Liberia. “Today Liberians who need protection from the law, or who seek accountability through law, face a law enforcement system where perpetrators can quite literally buy the outcome they want. Ordinary citizens’ experiences with the legal system repeatedly bear this out, as, time and time again, corrupt outcomes underscore that no one can reasonably expect justice to prevail.”
These competing claims are now with a judge a U.S. court, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania who will decide on the competing claims.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives.