Liberia: Case Against Woewiyu Includes Secret Arms Deal Recording; BBC’s Blunt to be among Witnesses


Philadelphia – In their opening statement today US prosecutors laid out their case that Thomas Woewiyu had violated US immigration laws in an egregious manner by lying about his role in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia during Liberia’s civil war.

Report by Jackson Kanneh and Tecee Boley

“The only person higher in the organization was Charles Taylor,” US Assistant District Attorney Nelson S. Thayer told the jury of 12 Philadelphians and 4 alternates. In the early 1990s, Mr. Woewiyu served as chief spokesman and defense minister to Taylor, who later became president and in 2012 was convicted of crimes against humanity.

Thayer told the jury of Woewiyu’s extensive support for Taylor and the NPFL in the lead up to the NPFL’s invasion in 1989 and then in the years following the toppling of President Samuel Doe. Woewiyu’s recruitment and use of child soldiers particularly of the infamous “small boys unit” will be a central part of the prosecution’s case.

“You will hear that Tom Woewiyu expected those children to put their lives on the line for him as his bodyguard,” Thayer told the court.

Prosecutors say Mr. Woewiyu delivered arms and gave orders to forces who conscripted child soldiers and committed acts of ethnic cleansing, torture, rape, and dismemberment.

Some 200,000 Liberians lost their lives in the civil war and half the population was displaced.

One surprise in the opening came when prosecutors revealed that they would be including a recording of Woewiyu negotiating a deal to buy $2.35m in arms from undercover agents in Miami in the early 90s. The sting was set up to catch another person but the agents also recorded Woewiyu who was negotiating the deal on behalf of the NPFL.

Thayer said the court will hear Woewiyu making a deal to buy surface to air rocket launchers from undercover US agents in Miami in order to shoot ECOMOG peacekeeping jets from the sky. The deal fell apart because NPFL couldn’t find the cash to pay for transport according to Thayer.

In her opening statement Thomas Woewiyu’s defense lawyer Cathrine Henry surprised some court watchers by conceding immediately that Woewiyu had been a leader of the NPFL.

“Tom has never tried to hide who is was,” Henry told jurors.  “We agree that Tom was in the NPFL. We agreed that NPFL soldiers committed violent acts and we agree that child soldiers were used by the NPFL.”

She told the jury of 12 men and four women that the prosecution had no reason to put them and the witnesses through a retelling of the horrors of the war.

“The only reason the government is going to [raise the war] is to emotionally manipulate you,” Henry told jurors. “This case is about whether Woewiyu lied on his immigration forms and he did not.”

Henry argued this was not the forum to try anyone for Liberia’s civil war. She said it was simply about immigration fraud. And of that, she said, her client was innocent.

Henry foreshadowed what many court watchers believe will be an effort to implicate US government officials in Liberia’s troubles saying her client’s identity and presence in the NPFL were known by the U. S. government because he lived in the U.S. while he was the NPFL spokesman. She insisted Woewiyu’s motivation was simply to overthrow someone he believed was a dictator with no constitutional authority.

“Tom’s participation in the NPFL was to remove a usurper and replace him with a constitutional government.”

The first Liberian witness to take the stand was an emotional James Kokulo Faseukoi, the photographer whose photographs came to provide the visual record of Liberia’s long civil wars.

Faseukoi repeatedly thanked God as he told of the murder of his Krahn neighbor by NPFL troops in Gardnersville in 1992. He had to stop repeatedly to compose himself. In his final anecdote of the day he told a visibly moved jury that dogs were eating the dead bodies as he and his family fled their home for safety. His final words, “I came to hate the family dog,” hung in the air as the jury left the court room.

Faseukoi’s testimony will continue tomorrow.

The court also released the trial memo which laid out the witnesses who will appear. Prominent among them was Elizabeth Margaret Blunt, a former BBC reporter who was a household name to many Liberians, for much of the civil war era. Also on the list was Mr. Herman J. Cohen, a former deputy US Secretary of State for African Affairs and Mr. Gerald Rose, a former Deputy Chief of Mission in Liberia.

Blunt was a major figure in the coverage of the civil war. As a correspondent for the BBC during the early years of Liberia’s civil unrest in 1989 and 1990, she braved the storm to report on the civil war that killed thousands. Her report for the popular BBC’s Focus on Africa program was one of the most reliable coverage of the war era.

Former Secretary of State Cohen served as United States Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993. He previously helped broker an end to the Eritrean Ethiopian War in 1991 and conflicts in Angola and Mozambique.

Mr. Rose, another key witness was former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy during much of the civil war and has been involved in the pursuit of justice for five American nuns killed allegedly by NPFL rebels. “I don’t think many American people remember that there were five American citizens killed during the Liberian war,” Rose told ProPublica and FRONTLINE in a May 2015 report. “I think if the American people were aware of that, they too would feel that justice was not done.”

More than twenty Liberian witnesses will also be flown in to testify. Their names will be withheld to protect their identity.

The US prosecutor also promised to provide, during the trial recordings from the British Broadcasting Corporation on which Mr. Woewyu expressed the NPFL’s assurances that the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe would be removed from power.

The defendant was noticeably less confident today than he had been on day one of the trial. He sat passively through the testimony and had a pronounced shake in his hands as he leafed through documents on the defense desk.

Many of his family including some of his children and 21 grandchildren were also in the court.

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