Trial Day 2: Opening Statements & Government’s First Witnesses
The Thomas Woewiyu trial commenced in Philadelphia on Tuesday morning with Judge Anita B. Brody reminding the jurors of their sworn duty to base their ultimate decision about Woewiyu’s guilt on the evidence presented at the trial. “I play no part in finding the facts,” she said, telling the jury not to take into account anything she says or does during the trial, but instead to pay strict attention to the witnesses they hear and the documents they see over the next few weeks. She instructed the 12 jurors and the four alternates not to let sympathy, prejudice, or fear influence them, and told them not to concern themselves with any punishment that might occur if they find Woewiyu guilty. Their focus must be on the whole testimony of every witness, deciding on the truth of what each says.
Judge Brody reminded the jury that Woewiyu cannot be convicted based on any of the jury’s assumptions about him; they may only find him guilty if they are convinced of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge explained that a “reasonable doubt” is a “fair doubt based on logic, reason or experience,” that might arise from the evidence itself or from a lack of evidence. She reminded the jurors that at the close of trial, for them to find Woewiyu guilty of any or all of the 16 charges against him, the verdict must be unanimous on each charge.
Woewiyu has pled not guilty on each of the 16 fraud, false statement, and perjury charges the prosecution will seek to prove.
Prosecution Opening Statement
Assistant United States Attorney Nelson S. T. Thayer, Jr., delivered the opening statement for the prosecution, outlining the government’s case and previewing the evidence the government intends to present against Woewiyu. “This case is about lies,” he said, lies that Woewiyu told to obtain U.S. citizenship. Thayer told the jury that the evidence will show that while Woewiyu was under oath, he lied on official U.S. government forms, in particular his Citizenship Application Form N-400, and that he repeated those lies, again while under oath, in a subsequent interview with an Immigration Officer.
Thayer began by taking the jury step by step through each of the questions on the Citizenship Application that the government alleges Woewiyu answered by lying. The first such question on Form N-400 asked, “Have you ever been a member of or associated with any organization, association, fund, foundation, party, club, society, or similar group in the United States or in any other place?” Thayer displayed an extract from Woewiyu’s Form N-400, showing that Woewiyu answered by checking a box marked “No.” The next question Thayer read to the jury asked, “Have you ever advocated (either directly or indirectly) the overthrow of any government by force or violence?” Thayer again showed the jury an extract from Woewiyu’s Form N-400, showing that Woewiyu again answered no. The third such question Thayer read asked an applicant for citizenship, “Have you ever persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion?” Thayer again showed an extract from Woewiyu’s Application, and told the jury that the evidence will show Woewiyu answered no under penalty of perjury. The last part of the government’s case rests on a question about prior convictions; Woewiyu answered that he had never been convicted.
“Why did Thomas Woewiyu lie?” Thayer asked the jury. “What motive did he have to lie?” Thayer said that the evidence will show Woewiyu had “a powerful motive to lie,” trying to conceal that he was in fact a founding member of the National Patriotic Front for Liberia (“NPFL”), and that the NPFL started the First Liberian Civil War. Thayer stated that the evidence the prosecution presents to the jury will show Woewiyu in his role as a leader of the NPFL committing acts of persecution and human rights abuses, including the forced recruitment and use of child soldiers, and ordering the torture of bound and beaten prisoners. Woewiyu committed these acts not as a low-level soldier, Thayer said, but as a founder, the chief spokesperson, and the Minister of Defense of the NPFL. According to Thayer, in those roles Woewiyu promoted, endorsed, and promulgated NPFL policy, and in many ways “personified that policy,” particularly in his use of child soldiers.
Thayer acknowledged that the war in Liberia was thousands of miles away from Philadelphia and happened over 20 years ago, and that the jurors may ask themselves why they should care about what a man in his seventies wrote on a government form in 2006, and said to a government officer in 2009. He explained that the United States has a “vital interest” in ensuring that its immigration system works “to welcome those truly deserving of the rights historically offered to people all over the world.” He said that the citizenship process depends on truthful answers to questions that help Immigration Officials determine a candidate’s good moral character, and described how a candidate is interviewed after submitting a Citizenship Application. Thayer said that the immigration process was a “gatekeeping process,” and it required lots of form-filling in order for the government to gain “the most accurate, truthful, and complete picture” of the applicant that the government could. Thayer said that for a foreign-born person, U.S. citizenship is a privilege, not a right, and that the forms ensure that only those most deserving can obtain citizenship.
Thayer told the jury that they would hear evidence about Woewiyu’s immigration interview, which occurred in January 2009. He said that when the Immigration Officer went over Woewiyu’s forms with him in that interview, she pressed him about whether he truly belonged to no organizations. According to Thayer, Woewiyu acknowledged that he belonged to a union of Liberian associations in the United States, but did not disclose his role in the NPFL, according to Thayer. Thayer then showed the jury a photograph of Charles Taylor, with Woewiyu standing just behind him, and said that Charles Taylor was the only person more senior than Woewiyu in the NPFL. Thayer told the jury that they would hear Woewiyu’s words for themselves, accompanying evidence like the photograph, as in a 1994 press conference where he referred to himself as a founder of the NPFL, and in an affidavit given in a Dutch case in the 2000s.
Thayer told the jury, “You will hear from journalists, photographers, United States Department of State employees, diplomats, and ordinary Liberians who all knew Thomas Woewiyu was serving at the highest echelons of the NPFL.” He listed some of the journalists who will testify, including Elizabeth Blunt and Mark Huband. Thayer said that Mark Huband was captured by the NPFL, and taken in to the jungle to see Charles Taylor, and that while there Huband saw Woewiyu with Taylor, dressed in military fatigues, and sitting with an “AK-47 machine gun between his knees.” Thayer said that Woewiyu acted as a Minister of Defense by recruiting fighters, obtaining ammunition and supplies, delivering those to the fighters, visiting the fighters at the battlefront, and briefing the fighters. Thayer said that Woewiyu also acted as chief spokesperson, giving interviews on the radio and in-person. Thayer told the jury that Elizabeth Blunt performed many interviews with Woewiyu, who was the “acceptable face” of the NPFL, although the methods the NPFL used “were far from acceptable.” He explained that the Liberian witnesses who will testify come from different tribes and different parts of Liberia, but that the one thing they have in common is their “fateful contact” with Woewiyu.
Some of the witnesses are expected to testify to Woewiyu’s use of child soldiers, including as his personal bodyguards. Thayer told the jury that the child soldiers were used “like any other weapon of war” by the NPFL. Thayer told the jury that they were used like other weapons, and they were “used” meaning “abused and manipulated.” Many of the children were photographed with AK-47s that were bigger than they were. Thayer called the child soldiers “the tip of the spear, tools of terror for the bloody civil war.” He described how the children were put at checkpoints which became the hallmark of horror set up all along the roads of Liberia. Instead of a wooden gate, he said, the checkpoints were crossed by human intestines and had human skulls perched along the sides. “As you listen to the evidence, you must ask yourselves,” Thayer told the jury, “is it any wonder that Thomas Woewiyu didn’t write down the four central letters NPFL, and is it any wonder he couldn’t utter them during his citizenship interview?”
Thayer then described Woewiyu’s alleged involvement in an attempt to procure armaments, in a deal involving surface-to-air missiles, M16s, and ammunition.
Thayer completed the prosecution’s opening statement by giving the jurors a brief overview of the context of the First Liberian Civil War, describing how Americo-Liberians settled in Liberia and subjugated its people prior to the 1980 coup led by Samuel Doe, and how the NPFL responded to the Doe government. “You will hear from a number of witnesses who survived” the war, he said, “who will tell how the NPFL went about the business of war.”
Thayer ended by telling the jury that based on the evidence they will hear, “the lies Thomas Woewiyu told matter.”
Defense Opening Statement
The defense opening statement was presented by Catherine Henry, who began with a simple argument: that Woewiyu “never lied; he had no reason, no motive.” She told the jury that the only dispute in this trial is whether Woewiyu made false statements in four questions on his Citizenship Application and in his subsequent 15-minute immigration interview, and told the jury that the defense would show his answers were not lies.
Henry explained that the defense agrees that Woewiyu was in the NPFL, sometimes as a spokesperson and sometimes as the Minister of Defense. She characterized the NPFL’s goal as to oust Samuel Doe, an evil dictator, and told the jury that the defense does not dispute that some members of the NPFL committed violent acts in a brutal war. “We also agree there were child soldiers in the NPFL,” she said. Henry then asked the jury to consider why, if both sides agree, the government is bringing witnesses to Philadelphia to relive what happened to them and “to force you to listen to horror stories” when “there is nothing the court can do to fix what happened,” “much as we might want it to.” Henry suggested that the government’s strategy is to emotionally manipulate the jury, to distract them from the truth of the questions asked on Form N-400.
“There’s enough blame to go around,” Henry said, arguing that it was “a mess over there” and that Samuel Doe was a “bad man” whom Liberians around the world wanted to get rid of; that was why, she explained, Woewiyu in 1987 became part of a group to get rid of Doe. According to Henry, the United States had an interest in the subsequent conflict, because of the rubber plantations in Liberia, and played both sides, at times giving help to the NPFL. She told the jury that because “this was war, reasonable minds can differ and debate can go on,” but that the jury’s duty is not to pass judgement about what happened in the First Liberian Civil War, and only to pass judgement in the immigration fraud case.
Henry argued that the citizenship process is complicated and subjective, and told the jury that Form N-400 is now 20 pages long to clarify the “confusing” questions that existed when Woewiyu filled it out in 2006, when it was ten pages long. She told the jury that Woewiyu filled the form out with his attorney, who will appear as a defense witness, and that the attorney also accompanied Woewiyu to his immigration interview. Henry explained that Woewiyu then filled out a follow-up form, an N-14, that included more information about groups to which he belonged, including the AFL-CIO union, various church groups, and the NPFL. According to Henry, Woewiyu’s alleged perjury and immigration fraud cannot be taken in a vacuum as occurring on his Citizenship Application and in his interview, but must be considered in light of the subsequent information he gave. She called his Application, the Form N-400, “a living and breathing document.”
Henry described Woewiyu as an “open book” who came to the United States in 1969 on a student visa and who has since lived here legally, and argued to the jury that “our government knew who he was.” According to Henry, Woewiyu met with Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) agents as well as with immigration officials twice in his capacity as a spokesperson for the NPFL, long before his immigration interview. She described FBI agents reaching out to Woewiyu as part of an attempt to deport the Liberian national George Boley from the United States, saying that they put Woewiyu on a list to be called as a witness in that case.
Henry agreed with the prosecution that U.S. citizenship is “precious,” but argued that the government cannot say that Form N-400 would be the basis of a citizenship decision, because the government already knew about Woewiyu’s past. She pulled out a copy of Woewiyu’s “A-File,” a large thick file that the immigration officers had when he applied for citizenship, containing information like updates he made to his Legal Permanent Resident information. According to Henry, the government knew everything about Woewiyu, so they cannot now claim that he lied.
Henry argued that it is not criminal to misunderstand or differently interpret Form N-400, and reminded the jury that they can only find Woewiyu guilty if they believe he deliberately lied. According to Henry, during the immigration interview Woewiyu tried to answer the question about groups he belonged to, but when he reached into his briefcase for his resume to show the Immigration Officer his affiliations, she said the interview was only 15 minutes long and that they could reschedule. Henry told the jury that Woewiyu only had time to name an umbrella organization that included the NPFL and other Liberian associations.
Henry described Woewiyu’s replies to subsequent questions as based on his subjective interpretation, and not deliberate lies. She told the jury that Woewiyu did not consider Doe’s dictatorship a government, so he could not have answered “yes” to advocating its overthrow. She said that while political scientists may say that Doe had a form of government, that was not the case in Woewiyu’s mind. Similarly, she said that while the First Liberian Civil War was brutal, Woewiyu was not the one “laying hands on people,” he was a “press secretary” and “believed he was just fighting a war” to bring democracy, so he did not answer that he ever persecuted anyone. Furthermore, she said, because Woewiyu firmly believed that his aim was to help rid his country of a vicious dictator, he did not single anyone out based on race or ethnicity, and saw the acts carried out as “trying to defeat the enemy.” Lastly, Henry told the jury that Woewiyu never tried to hide the petty conflict with American police for which he was convicted; she said that although he answered “no” to the question on Form N-400, he described his conviction later in the same form.
Henry told the jury that the government did not dispute that the later-filed form, the N-14, was correct. Henry told the jury that the government had received all of Woewiyu’s information during the immigration application process, and so following the government’s adjudication and denial of Woewiyu’s application, the matter should be over. She said that instead, the government attorneys travelled to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Liberia in order to create witness lists and build their case.
Henry then alleged that the United States cannot prosecute war crimes, saying the prosecutors are using immigration law to prosecute the war in Liberia here. She told the jury that Liberia has already had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, “a former President and a Noble Peace Prize Winner,” herself decided that they should not be prosecuted.
Henry ended her statement by focusing on Woewiyu’s having answered these questions “to the best of his knowledge and ability;” it was with that understanding, she said, that he signed Form N-400.
Witness 1: William “Danny” Tinga
The prosecution’s first witness testified on Tuesday afternoon. William “Danny” Tinga told the court that he was not expected to be the first witness, but that a colleague’s injury occasioned the change in witness order. The witness described his career as a Dutch police investigator, and explained that through the range of cases he investigated, the common denominator was a complex international component.
Tinga was the coordinator and lead investigator in the Dutch police investigation of Gus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch national, for arms trafficking during the period of United Nations sanctions. Tinga described going to Liberia in 2004 with his fellow investigator Huig “Lewis” Bouter, and their interpreter Arien Zuijdwijk, to interview witnesses and build a case file on Kouwenhoven. The process they followed conformed to their typical procedure, which is based on the strictures necessary to admit police statements into Dutch courts. Interviews were conducted at the Mamba Point Hotel in Monrovia, with questions asked by the investigators in Dutch and translated into English by the sworn interpreter; English answers were then translated into Dutch and compiled into a Dutch statement which was read back to the witness in English. Any corrections would then be made. The witness identified a photo of the hotel room that was used as an office, and himself and his colleague Lewis in the photo.
Tinga testified that he did not remember conducting an interview with Woewiyu, although he did remember his name as an interviewee. Tinga told the court that if he signed anything showing he conducted such an interview, then he must have conducted it. When the prosecution showed Tinga a police report with his signature, describing an interview with Woewiyu, he said that because he signed it, he knows it must be an accurate and correct document of the interview, a word-for-word story of the witness. Tinga also identified a photograph of Kouwenhoven, the Dutch suspect, with Taylor.
On cross-examination, Tinga confirmed that Woewiyu’s interview was given voluntarily, as all such interviews were. He said that his own interview by United States prosecutors about Woewiyu took place in Amsterdam; on re-direct, he explained that it was more convenient for him to be interviewed in Amsterdam than the United States.
Witness 2: Arien Zuijdwijk
The prosecution’s second witness was Arien Zuijdwijk, the sworn interpreter and translator mentioned by the previous witness. She has worked with the Dutch National Police since 1985.
Zuijdwijk described the translation process always followed in police interviews, telling the court that the investigators’ questions were asked in Dutch, which she would translate into English for the witness, and then she would repeat the process in reverse. A witness’s Dutch answers were recorded in a written statement typed by one of the investigators; at the close of the interview, she would read it back to the witness in English, and any corrections would be made as necessary. All parties were then asked to sign the Dutch statement.
Zuijdwijk identified the official police report recounting the statement of Woewiyu, as she signed it at the time it was given as a true representation of his words; the report was then read aloud in English by the prosecution, while Zuijdwijk followed the Dutch version of the statement and noted any discrepancies. In the statement, Woewiyu called himself “the co-founder of the NPFL, together with Charles Taylor.” He described meeting Gus Kouwenhoven in Sierra Leone in June 1990 at a peace conference, at which Kouwenhoven asked if Woewiyu had received the $150,000 Kouwenhoven had sent him via Linco. In the statement, Woewiyu said he used part of that money to purchase arms, and described Kouwenhoven as a friend of Doe who also helped Doe’s enemies. He said that later, although the Labor Minister in the late 1990s, he still had a “fair amount of influence in military affairs,” including with the NPFL.
The statement described Woewiyu’s connections to Kouwenhoven in the late 1990s, explaining that Kouwenhoven set up a logging company called OTC, and that he brought in truck drivers and cleaners from outside of Liberia. Because this was illegal, Woewiyu had to make exceptions to the law. Although Kouwenhoven was unhappy, Charles Taylor told him to do what Woewiyu said. The statement also described Taylor giving large tracts of land to Kouwenhoven’s logging concerns, including land owned at the time by Woewiyu. The statement concludes with an assertion that Woewiyu did not want to sign it because it was in a language he did not understand, but that he would sign the English version.
Next, the prosecution showed Zuijdwijk a statement resulting from an interview done with Woewiyu by a Dutch investigative magistrate judge, and the English version of the statement attributed to Woewiyu was read aloud by the prosecution and checked by Zuijdwijk against the official Dutch record. In the interview, Woewiyu again described meeting Kouwenhoven in Sierra Leone, and said that Kouwenhoven sent the NPFL $150,000 because “he wanted to help” as he had business interests – wood-cutting and mining – in Nimba County “where the war was going on.” Half the money was taken, but half was used for arms. The interview also described an agreement between Woewiyu and Kouwenhoven that 15% of any logging profits were to go to the NPFL Ministry of Defense, and that Charles Taylor was aware of the agreement. According to the statement, Taylor gave over half the woodlands in Liberia to Kouwenhoven, including a piece of land owned by Woewiyu.
“How do I know this?” Woewiyu purportedly asked in the statement. “Because I was Minister of Labor at the time.” The statement went on to describe the same labor dispute as the 2004 statement made to Tinga, and adds that the laborers brought in from abroad and working in Bassa County were armed, carrying AK-47s. It called the OTC detail “actually a militia” that had “better arms than the army.” According to the statement, Woewiyu knew this “because I was the former Minister of Defense.” The statement continued, “Most of OTC’s employees were former fighters of mine.” OTC was called an extension of the fighting forces, who went to Buchanan or Grand Gedeh to fight. The statement asserted that Woewiyu never physically engaged in fighting, but issued orders given to fighters. It was affirmed and signed by Woewiyu.
On cross-examination, the witness read out an additional paragraph from the statement indicating Woewiyu said that the security personnel of his company in Buchanan were not armed.
Witness 3: James Fasuekoi
The third prosecution witness, the Liberian photojournalist James Fasuekoi, began his testimony toward the end of the day on Tuesday. He identified himself as a member of the Loma ethnic group, and described the geographic dispersal of some other groups in Liberia, including the predominance of Gio and Mano people over Mandingo people in Nimba County.
Fasuekoi was in Liberia when Samuel Doe came to power, and when the prosecution showed him a photo of Doe, Fasuekoi recognized it as one he himself had taken. He described Doe seizing power in 1980, assisted by 16 people from the army, and explained that Doe’s coup was in reaction to the brutal style by which Americo-Liberians had ruled Liberia for years, when the indigenous Liberians were marginalized.
Doe announced “that the time of the people had come;” President William Tolbert, who was Americo-Liberian, was assassinated. Fasuekoi testified that 13 of his cabinet government officials were arrested and taken to the beach in Monrovia and executed. Many citizens were in the area, and the witness himself went to the beach the same afternoon the executions happened. He recalled the executed were tied around their waists to electric polls, some with their heads opened because they were shot in the head.
Fasuekoi also recalled that when Samuel Doe first took over, many people jubilated and marched through the streets of Monrovia and paid homage to the new leaders; however, the jubilation did not last, because the new government had the same vices as the past government: corruption, abuses of power, and secret killings. The witness described the Doe government as “reborn” into the same abuses of power as before, including hurting perceived enemies. He explained that there was a general perception that Doe favored Krahns because Doe was a Krahn. He said that Mandingos also declared support for Doe when the war broke out, because he made a declaration that they were citizens.
Fasuekoi remembered the day in 1985 when General Quiwonkpa, who was Gio, led an attempted coup against Doe. The witness woke up to the radio playing the National Anthem, which could be either good or bad. The anthem was followed by a short speech saying Quiwonkpa had come to liberate the Liberian people from the hands of a tyrant. According to Fasuekoi, Quiwonkpa then moved his men around the city and seized members of Doe’s government, eventually taking to the barracks. The witness described Doe moving his “strong men” toward the barracks, taking control of the situation and arresting plotters in a house to house search. He recalled that Quiwonkpa was located in a makeshift building and killed after a brief firefight.
The witness told the court that Doe remained in power after the subsequent 1985 election, but that in his own view, the election was a fraud. As a journalist, Fasuekoi covered various events at which the international community was present with Doe; the diplomatic corps were always invited and were there. The United States had a strong presence, as did Great Britain and African countries; he thought Israel may also have had diplomats present.
Fasuekoi testified to the events of December 24, 1989, when the NPFL came across the Ivory Coast border and attacked the village of Buoto. He circled a village called Bluonto on a map for the court, and described how the war continued and spread over Nimba County and began to move toward Monrovia. He said that eventually he planned to escape the city, but by then the city was on fire.
The witness described rebels from the NPFL who came to his neighborhood. They wore tattered clothes, worn-out shoes, and were half-dressed in military uniforms. “Some wore wigs like ladies wear to beautify themselves, but dirty and ragged.” He recalled that they were “armed to the teeth,” carrying “all sorts of weapons,” and told the court that while he was not a military expert, the most popular weapons were a Berretta and an AK-47.
Fasuekoi testified about living near the National Oil Refinery, and encountering the NPFL in his own neighborhood. At that time, one of his neighbors, a friend, was a Krahn. Some Krahns were going to the barracks for uniforms and guns to protect themselves, but Fasuekoi never saw his friend with a gun. Rebels came to the neighborhood, and on hearing gunfire, everyone ran into their houses, and on coming out, Fasuekoi saw his Krahn neighbor dead. The NPFL had tied him “duck fa tabae,” elbow to elbow in the back, “and the NPFL told us at gunpoint to bury him.” The witness, when shown a photograph, said that it showed what he meant by “duck fa tabae.” The photograph was also shown to the jury, and the witness said that though it was never done to him, he has heard from others that it was very painful.
Fasuekoi testified that his friend had gunshot wounds all over his body, and the rebels were saying nasty things about his background, like calling him a “Krahn dog” when telling Fasuekoi and other neighbors to bury him. Fasuekoi explained to the court that “I was troubled with the condition his body was in, and asked if we could loosen his hands.” An NPFL rebel told him, “Next time, you go in the grave with him.” The witness and other neighbors had dug a hole by then; he remembered there were many ants, so they could not stay in place while digging, and had to brush their knees.
The witness came out of the witness box and demonstrated for the jury how his friend was tied, and lay on the courtroom floor to show how his friend was thrown in the grave, face-down. He said that told his fellow neighbors, “Let’s turn him around, face up,” because it is normal to have the dead facing towards the heavens. The NPFL rebel warned Fasuekoi again, and he did not say anything else until they pushed dirt over his friend. This happened in late July, toward August, of 1990.
At this time, the witness said, he was talking to the uncle he was living with about needing to move. He described his uncle procrastinating and saying that Taylor was already in the city so everything would be over in a matter of days.
Fasuekoi testified that around August 2 or 3, the NPFL set a siege around his neighborhood, because there were still some army men around the National Oil Refinery. He said that the army men told him and his neighbors to go in their houses, because they knew the NPFL was coming. The battle was very close to his house, and he could hear guns and grenades. He thought he would die. The witness hid under a bed with his foster-brother, and they fought over a Bible.
After an hour, when it was safe to come out, his uncle agreed that they needed to leave; there were 13-16 household family members to get out. They left and headed in the direction of the University of Liberia campus outside of Monrovia. Fasuekoi recalled that they left the family dog behind. There was not enough food to feed dogs, and dogs were already feeding on bloody human bodies in the streets.
The government’s third witness will continue testifying on Wednesday morning.