Bail denied for Liberian politician from Delco

Juncontee Thomas Woewiyu

To hear U.S. prosecutors tell it, Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, the Liberian politician and one-time ally of that country's disgraced former President Charles Taylor, has every reason to flee this country.

He is facing a potentially lengthy prison term in the United States for immigration fraud, even as he is mounting a political comeback in his home country with a run for the Liberian Senate.

And despite living for the last four decades as a legal permanent resident in Delaware County, he and his wife maintain extensive real estate holdings, including a rubber farm, in the West African nation.

"He is very, very much involved in public life in Liberia," said prosecutor Linwood C. Wright. "He has an infrastructure there and on the continent of Africa that is more substantial than what he has here."

On Friday, a U.S. magistrate judge agreed and ordered Woewiyu, 69, held without bond while he awaits trial on allegations he lied to immigration officers about his past with Taylor, a convicted war criminal serving a 50-year term in a British prison.

But in arguing for his release, Woewiyu's lawyer, Benjamin G. Perez, suggested that what government attorneys misunderstood was that having a life on both sides of the Atlantic is the norm for much of Southeastern Pennsylvania's 15,000-member Liberian expatriate community.

In the African hair salons and grocery stores that have sprung up along thoroughfares such as Woodland Avenue, shoppers tell tales of family living here and there. Rivalries cross oceans, and men in T-shirts and jeans are equally likely to introduce themselves as café owners or dignitaries from nations thousands of miles away.

Such was the manner in which Liberian expat Jeffrey Harmon introduced himself Friday in the hallway of the federal courthouse.

"This is all political," he said of Woewiyu's arrest. "This all has to do with politics back at home."

His concerns mirrored conspiracy theories snaking their way through the Liberian immigrant community in the days since Woewiyu's arrest. Homeland Security detained him Monday at Newark Liberty International Airport as he returned from a campaign trip to Monrovia, Liberia's capital.

The charges against him stem from a 2006 application for U.S. citizenship. Asked on the form whether he had ever advocated for the toppling of a foreign government or persecuted minority groups, Woewiyu said no.

Prosecutors, however, call him a war criminal - linking him to the worst atrocities of Taylor's regime.

Throughout back-to-back civil wars that wracked Liberia from 1989 to 2003, Woewiyu served as the U.S.-based spokesman and defense minister to Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

The party had mounted a violent campaign to wrest control from Taylor's predecessor, Samuel Doe, in 1996, but then turned its weapons on countrymen in an effort to hold on to power - executing political opponents, conscripting boys into child armies, and forcing girls into prostitution. Taylor was convicted of those crimes by an international court in 2012. Woewiyu - who served as labor minister in Taylor's government and president pro tempore of the Senate before breaking politically with Taylor - remained here.

For years, he has resided with his wife in a two-story home in Collingdale. They have enjoyed a prominent role in Delaware County's immigrant community.

He earned a bachelor's degree in labor studies from Rutgers University in 1981. He is pursuing a master's from Pennsylvania State University while earning a living through real estate development.

Six of his grown children also live in the United States. One is a lieutenant in the Navy.

"I am very surprised," said the Rev. Moses Dennis of Faith Immanuel Lutheran Church in East Lansdowne, which caters to a large Liberian congregation. Woewiyu occasionally attended services at there.

"He comes across very genuine," Dennis said. "He's a politician. A politician, you know."

Others preferred to keep their opinions to themselves, fearful that anything said here could mean trouble for family abroad. For, as U.S. prosecutors said Friday, Woewiyu maintains a high profile in his homeland.

Since 2002, he has traveled back and forth between here and Liberia at least 38 times. Some of those trips were taken with a diplomatic passport issued by the Economic Community of West African States.

A 2011 feud with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf over their respective roles in the nation's civil wars garnered extensive coverage in the African press - as did accusations Woewiyu lodged against Taylor, that the ex-president not only murdered Doe during the wars but also drank his blood.

And more recently, Woewiyu announced his intention to return to politics with the run for a Senate seat. When he was arrested Monday at Newark International, he was on his way to Iowa to rally support among the expats there.

All that should give U.S. courts cause for concern, Wright said Friday.

"He could head to any number of embassies, get on a plane, and be out of here at any time," he told the judge.

Perez disagreed.

"He's accused of lying in an attempt to stay in this country," he said. "He has no inclination to run. He's looking forward to his day in court."

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Inquirer staff writer Jeff Gammage contributed to this article.