An eye witness account
Philadelphia, PA: May 16, 2014: Thomas Jucontee Woewiyu, Former Minister of Defense of Liberia’s most notorious rebel faction, National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), appeared before a 3-federal judge panel with one judge leading the charge. Mr. Woewiyu was brought into the court while in the middle of another trial in an olive green jumpsuit.
Despite being restrained by handcuffs, Woewiyu made a grand entrance by bowing down to his family members and lawyer. His lawyer responded by waving back. Also in the court watching and following the proceedings was Ms. Massa Washington, former commissioner of the Liberia Truth and Reconciliation Commission,(TRC).
Ms. Washington, a recipient of the US State Department Women of Courage Award, now a leading advocate for the implementation of the recommendations of the final TRC report was deeply pleased to see one of the perpetrators in the blooded and senseless Liberian crisis being booked.
Within the first few seconds of his court entrance, Woewiyu appeared deeply depressed. However, seeing his family members, few friends and lawyer, unleashed in him a spirit of upbeat and smile as if to say he was telling his family and friends that within minutes they will all be together again. The hearing lasted between 20 to 25 minutes before the lead judge announced her decision. However, it was not before the opening statements of the prosecutor, the defense attorneys and their rebuttal statements.
It all began when the judge asked Mr. Woewiyu to stand up as the clerk of the court began reading to Mr. Woewiyu the list of charges leveled against him. Followed by the most familiar question always posed to any defendant. How do you plead? To which Mr. Woewiyu said; “Not guilty,” also as expected of most defendants. At that point, the judge made it clear to the court as to what was to transpire. She said this was an arraignment and pre-trial hearing to determine bail for the accused. She then requested a sidebar with both prosecuting and defense attorneys to resolve any outstanding issues; especially, to make sure that all were on the same page.
After the sidebar, with all lawyers seated, the judge called on the prosecuting attorney to make his opening statement. The prosecuting attorney began by re-enforcing the charges listed in the indictment, and then began to give justifications as to why Mr. Woewiyu must be denied bail. He listed several reasons, among which were the facts that Woewiyu has lied many times.
That Woewiyu has gone in and out of the United States about 38 times; from the year 2000-2014. In addition he crossed the US border into Canada and Mexico 5 times. He also added the fact that as early as his recent arrest Woewiyu failed to mention the fact that he was running for the Liberian senate, and currently owned property in Liberia.
The prosecutor then added a reason that sealed the fate of Mr. Woewiyu. He advised the court that Woewiyu was in possession of two passports, a Liberian passport, and a passport issued by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), to which the US Department of Homeland Security has advised that it cannot monitor. The US government does not have such control. According to the prosecutor, Woewiyu, even if he turn in all his passports could easily obtain emergency travel documents from any of the 16-member states of the ECOWAS with embassy near Washington, DC. And that the US will not be able to detect until was too late.
The defense lawyer on his part came up too weak, arguments were basic, too broad, lack specifics, and felt short of details. And lacks basic knowledge of Liberia or simply arrogance. The defense argument was that Woewiyu had strong community ties in the US. That he had property in the US, in which his wife and members of his family are living. He went on to say that Woewiyu had a son who was in the US navy, and said the senate race to which Woewiyu boasted that he was in the lead was a part time position that will enable Woewiyu to stay in the US during the time of his trial even if he wins.
In his rebuttal, the prosecutor unveiled an element that could be of concern to green cards holders and naturalized US citizens who seek elected offices in their country of origin. He said it was inconsistent with the terms of a US permanent residency to seek elected position in another country. Seeking an elected position in another country while a US permanent resident means you intend to be a permanent resident of that country. And the fact that Woewiyu is a US permanent resident seeking a senate seat in Liberia means he intends to live in Liberia permanently.
Which provides no incentives for him to return to the US to attend a trial, especially when the charges against him are time sensitive regarding the statue of limitations. The defense attempt to use “strong” community ties as a reason to convince the judge was debunked by the prosecutor , who said, with a property in Liberia, his family in the US could easily join him.
The prosecutor also advised the court that Mr.Woewiyu’s ties to the Liberian president was very strong. The prosecuted noted that Woewiyu was recently appointed by the president to the Board of the Liberian Forestry Development agency (FDA), an agency that now regulates the Liberian timber, a resource that was in the heart of the Liberian crisis. He also added that Woewiyu was linked to former Liberian ruler and convicted war crimes criminal Charles Taylor who is languishing behind bars on a British island. The prosecution then stressed that Woewiyu has lied many times; and said, anything he said now for bail will also be lies.
The defense attorney who appears to be oblivious to the fact that this case has international implications, treated it as a local case. Despite the fact that the prosecutor repeatedly linked the case to the Liberian crisis, telling the court of the horrors that included mass killings, raping and tortures, and BBC recordings of Tom Woewiyu in his capacity as NPFL spokesman and minister of defense, the defense only told the court that Liberia was a new nation that depends on the US for everything.
Implying that living conditions in Liberia were not right, as such, Woewiyu would rather stay in the US than in Liberia. With his head resting in his left palm, Woewiyu seems to be following every word of his bail hearing. Following the rebuttals of the prosecuting and defense attorneys, it was now the judge’s turn to make her decision if Woewiyu was to be free until his trial, or remain in federal custody until his trial.
With everyone fixated on the judge, she began by saying it was about ‘primal facial evidence,’ which was not available or presented during the hearing. But based on all that was said, she said that she has narrowed her decision to flight risk. Siding with the prosecuting attorney that Woewiyu, due to the many times he traveled in and out of the US, (38 times), poses a flight risk.
With that the judge turned to Woewiyu and told him his bail was being denied, and that he would remain in federal custody throughout his trial.
With that announcement from the judge, Liberians who were present in the court including Woewiyu’s family members and friends left the court room. The scene outside the court room was very sad, as family, some with tears in their eyes, began consoling one another as the realization begins to set in that they were going home without their loved one. Mr. Woewiyu could face jail time for the rest of his life at the age of 68.
As news of Woewiyu’s arrest unfolded, many of his supporters were in denial dismissing the gravity of the case to be only about falsifying documents and nothing else. Assuming this was the case, under federal sentencing guidelines, Tom Woewiyu would have obtained bail if this was his first offense, and the jail time of the charge was up to six months or less.
However, like the prosecutor repeatedly said, Woewiyu has falsified documents before, even up to the time of his recent arrest. In other words, this was not the first time he misrepresented the facts to federal authorities.
So for his friends and supporters to keep dismissing the importance and gravity of this arrest is simply being in denial. Chuckie Taylor, Charles Taylor’s son, arrested few years ago at the Miami Airport, was arrested for passport fraud. He was later convicted, among other things for torture, rape, etc, in Liberia. Chuckie Taylor is now serving a 90-year sentence. What court can sentence a person to 90 years just for passport fraud?
Patrick Nimely-Sie Tuon, an eye witness at the hearing, is General Coordinator, Liberia Human Rights Campaign. Mr. Tuon can be contacted at www.liberiahumanrightcampaign.org; or at 215-276-2408.