A jury of eight men and four women was selected Monday to decide the fate of a Delaware County man who federal prosecutors say oversaw brutal atrocities committed during Liberia’s first civil war and later lied about it while seeking U.S. citizenship.
Thomas Woewiyu — a 72-year-old grandfather in Collingdale and a leader in the region’s Liberian diaspora community — served in the early ’90s as chief spokesman and defense minister to Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, who later became president and in 2012 was convicted of crimes against humanity.
During his association with Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), prosecutors say, Woewiyu delivered arms and gave orders to forces who conscripted child soldiers and committed acts of ethnic cleansing, torture, rape, and dismemberment.
Woewiyu’s lawyers maintain that their client never purposefully hid his past from American authorities and served during the war as a constant advocate for a peaceful resolution to what has since become known as one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern African history.
Both sides are expected to deliver opening statements Tuesday. They spent Monday quizzing potential panel members on topics including whether any had served in combat, knew Liberia’s history, or could handle the potentially gut-wrenching testimony about the horrific violence there.
More than 200,000 Liberians were killed and millions more displaced in the multifactioned war that ravaged their country between 1989 and 1997. But before last year, no one had been held criminally responsible for the documented atrocities committed by all sides in the conflict.
Taylor’s war crimes conviction stemmed from his conduct during another civil war in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Federal authorities arrested Woewiyu at Newark Liberty International Airport in 2014 as he returned from a trip to Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, to announce his intention to run for that nation’s Senate.
Despite the allegations of wartime atrocities prosecutors have lodged against him, Woewiyu is charged only with perjury and immigration violations stemming from lies they say he told on his 2006 application for U.S. citizenship.
But to prove his alleged deceptions, prosecutors are expected to call as witnesses former U.S. diplomats, war correspondents, and about a dozen victims of war crimes committed by forces under the command of Taylor and Woewiyu.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Linwood C. Wright Jr. and Nelson S.T. Thayer Jr. used the same tactics last fall to convict Mohammed Jabateh – a Liberian warlord who adopted the nom de guerre “Jungle Jabbah” — on similar immigration charges. Jabateh, 51, of East Lansdowne, fought against Taylor’s NPFL and was accused of committing or overseeing horrific acts of murder, rape, enslavement, and cannibalism. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison – one of the longest terms imposed in a case of its kind.
Unlike Jabateh, who moved to the Philadelphia suburbs in 1998, Woewiyu has lived in the United States since before the war began.
It was in this country in the ’80s that he, Taylor, and others began discussions that would lead to the founding of the NPFL to oppose Liberia’s then-leader, the American-backed Samuel Doe.
Since the war’s end, Woewiyu has served multiple roles in the Liberian government — including stints as labor minister and president pro tempore of its Senate — while living here as a legal permanent resident of the United States. It was on a citizenship application he filed in 2006 that prosecutors say he tried to hide his past associations to Taylor’s movement.
If convicted, Woewiyu could face more than a decade in prison. He may also face deportation proceedings no matter the result of his trial.