Liberia: Woewiyu Sentencing delayed Again; Nuns’ Murder to Play Key Role in Court’s Decision

Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, former Defense Minister and spokesman of the NPFL

MONROVIA – The sentencing hearing for Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, former Defense Minister and spokesman of the NPFL, has been postponed again. It was to go ahead on Tuesday, April 30. There is no new date given, nor did the court give a reason for the delay. This is the third time the sentencing hearing for Woewiyu, who was convicted of criminal immigration fraud for lying to US immigration authorities about his role in the Liberian war in a Philadelphia court last July.

Report by Tecee Boley, New Narratives Justice Correspondent

Earlier this week the government prosecution team released the sentencing recommendation memo it had sent the judge to take into account in her consideration of a sentence. The prosecutors, US Assistant District Attorneys L.C. Wright and Nelson Thayer, argued forcefully that Woewiyu, 72, should get the maximum sentence of 30 years for his crimes in part because, they said, his actions led to the murder of five American Catholic nuns during Operation Octopus in Monrovia in 1992.

Woewiyu was charged in 2016 with 16 counts of immigration fraud and perjury for lying to US immigration authorities about his role in the Liberian civil war during applications and interviews for US citizenship.  Woewiyu pleaded not guilty.

A US investigation into the nuns’ murder was abandoned in 2012 because of a legal technicality but investigators had built a case against “General Mosquito” also known as Christopher Vambo, a former Taylor commander. In the recommendations memo to Judge Brody the prosecutors argue that Vambo was acting directly under the orders of Woewiyu and thus Woewiyu should be held responsible for their murders. 

“The evidence at trial established that Woewiyu was active in the planning and execution of Operation Octopus, forcibly recruiting child soldiers he led to the battle; delivering ammunition to the frontline fighters and their commander, Mosquito (whom Woewiyu told Dutch investigators he trained) and getting personally briefed by and encouraging Mosquito at the battle front,” said the sentencing memo. “In his role as Defense Minister and chief spokesperson Woewiyu promulgated these legal NPFL polices from his position at the very top of the chain of command down to the frontline fighters who shot their way into the nuns’ convent compound.”

Arguing for the maximum sentence prosecutors called Woewiyu a “high level” war criminal and said, “even among human rights violators who have been prosecuted in US courts for immigration fraud.. Woewiyu is an outlier in the breadth and scope of his personal responsibility for appalling acts he committed during Liberia’s first civil war.”

During the three-week trial, the court had banned mention of the term “nuns” because the defense had argued that the nuns’ murder would prove so inflammatory for jurors that they may not be able to fairly assess the evidence against Woewiyu. The nuns were referred to only as “aid workers” and there was little mention of their fate. Now, free of those restraints, the prosecutors argued the judge should take full account of the murders and Woewiyu’s role in them.

“The five American citizens murdered that day were Catholic nuns of the missionary order the Adorers of the Blood of Christ who had been serving the local Liberian population for many years from their convent in the Gardnersville neighborhood of Monrovia,” the memorandum reads.

“The killing of Sisters Kathleen McGuire, Agnes Mueller, Shirley Kolmer, Barbara Ann Muttra and Mary Joel Kolmer during the Operation Octopus on October 15, 1992 has been the subject of discussions in the media and many other public functions. The Catholic church in Liberia, has held programs and named institutions in their honor. Holy Martyrs Catholic Church in Barnesville stands as a testimony to their contributions and tragic end. The church compound bears their images reminding all who enters it of what happened to them.”

Prosectors brought more than twenty witnesses from Liberia to testify to various crimes committed by the NPFL under Woewiyu’s command including torture, genocide and recruitment of child soldiers. A cast of non-Liberian witnesses appeared including journalists Mark Huband of the Financial Times and Elizabeth Blunt whose BBC reports were used in the evidence against Woewiyu. American diplomats former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen and former US ambassador to Liberia James Bishop also testified.

Throughout the trial the defense conceded that Woewiyu had played a leading role in the NPFL but they denied his actions amounted to war crimes saying he was acting legally to remove a dictator from office. They also said he did not ever lie about his role in the NPFL to US immigration.

Woewiyu has been under house arrest with an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements. He appeared very confident at the start of the trial telling journalists but by the end of the trial Woewiyu and his family appeared angry and refused to speak to press. His lawyer said there were big problems with the trial and they planned to appeal.

Supporters of the nuns welcomed their inclusion finally in a legal case.

“We are happy that justice will be done,” said Rev. Father Roland Biah who served Holy Martyrs Church for 8 years. “God is merciful but he is also a God of justice. If Woewiyu is related to their murders and he has been tried through a proper system and is guilty then we will say we are happy.”

The church is not the only place where their lives are memorialized. A white concrete cross stands by a fence at “Bend and Stop” the last intersection before entering E. Jonathan Goodridge Estate in Barnesville Township. It is the only memorial to the spot where two of the nuns were killed. Today, Youmoyou Gaye, 32, walks very closed by, unaware of the significance of the cross.

“I have heard of the killings of the nuns but this is the first time someone will get punished for what happened to them. Those people left their homes to come and help us,” said Gaye.

Miles away in the US, the prosecution team has reminded the judge of their deaths and the tens of thousands of others who died under Woewiyu’s rule. The prosecution team is agreeing that Woewiyu should spend more time in prison because of the gravity of his crimes.

“Anything less than the requested thirty-year term of imprisonment would be grotesquely inadequate as just punishment for Woewiyu’s crimes and his underlying wartime conduct,” the memo said.

According to the prosecution, they are stressing the 30 years because will deter others from committing similar criminal conduct.

“The United States has a vital public interest in deterring human rights violators from seeking to gain entry, refuge and safe haven in this country. Deterrence requires that the sentence send a signal to others similarly situated in order to create a disincentive to manipulate the U.S. immigration system.”

Woewiyu, is the highest-ranking official to be convicted for crimes committed by a Liberian in the Liberian civil war.  The NPFL is guilty of the most war crimes and human rights violations reported to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission accounting for for 39 percent of all wartime atrocities reported.

Another member of the NPFL was scheduled to be tried in London on February 25, 2019.  Agnes Reeves Taylor, ex-wife of war crimes convict Charles Taylor appearance in court was delayed 10 days before it was set to begin. Like the Woewiyu sentencing, there was no reason given for the delay. The next hearing in the case is set for June this year.

Mohammed Jabbateh, of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO K). ULIMO-K accounts for 4 percent of human rights violations reported to the TRC. He (Jungle Jabbah) was tried for similar offenses in April of 2018 and was the first person imprisoned in the United States for offenses linking to their role in the Liberian civil war.This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Funding was provided by Australian Aid. The funder had no say in its content.