Week in Review: Week 1
The first week of the trial of Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu ended on Thursday with emotional testimony from the government’s witnesses. Over the course of the week, the jury heard from numerous witnesses who were present in Liberia in the 1990s, and a narrative of the case began to emerge.
Ten witnesses for the prosecution have testified in the case so far, offering insight into life for ordinary civilians and high-level government officials during the war. The witnesses can be loosely grouped into the following categories:
- 2 testified as journalists who personally witnessed atrocities, and gave the jury a view of the broader context behind specific acts of violence;
- 2 testified as high-level Foreign Service Officers who, on behalf of the United States government, met with Woewiyu during the war, and described Woewiyu’s involvement in unsuccessful peace talks;
- 3 testified as victims of the NPFL’s use and forced recruitment of child soldiers;
- 3 testified as law enforcement personnel about investigations that involved Woewiyu, and authenticated for the jury recordings of statements Woewiyu made during the war, and later made about his conduct during the war.
A narrative is beginning to emerge from these witnesses’ testimony. The prosecution provided evidence of the following:
- Woewiyu was present in Liberia during the war while serving as the Minister of Defense of the NPFL, and he acted in that capacity internationally as well. He was recognized not only as a spokesperson for the NPFL, but also as a high-level official in Charles Taylor’s apparatus. He presented himself as a founding member of the NPFL and as the Minister of Defense empowered to act on its behalf in dealings with foreign governments, and interacted with the United States government in that role.
- One of the goals of the NPFL, specifically espoused and promoted by Woewiyu, was the overthrow of Samuel Doe’s government. Woewiyu advocated immediately replacing the Doe government with an interim government run by the NPFL. Although an eventual transition to a democratic system was nominally favored, there was not a clear plan for how that transition would take place.
- In his role as Minister of Defense, Woewiyu was obeyed by NPFL fighters who carried out his battle plans, and who visibly paid him respect. Woewiyu personally observed the use of child soldiers and gave orders for them to fight on the front lines; these orders were carried out. He participated in child soldiers’ forced recruitment by ordering the execution of any captive trainee who tried to escape. Woewiyu was generally known by civilian Liberians as a figure of authority and power within the NPFL.
- The NPFL as a force was characterized by the use of child soldiers, and by the use of checkpoints – sites of sudden and extreme violence – as a method to control and terrorize the Liberian population, which was internally displaced in large numbers. This violence could have an ethnic animus, and the NPFL had mechanisms to determine Liberians’ ethnicities.
- The NPFL espoused and orchestrated violence against ECOMOG forces, and also hunted for soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia when establishing control over a territory. Woewiyu personally espoused violence against ECOMOG, and indicated his displeasure with ECOMOG to the international press, as well as issuing specific orders to attack ECOMOG forces in Liberia.
- Woewiyu orchestrated an economic agreement whereby the Defense Ministry of the NPFL received 15% of the profits from the sale of any lumber from one of the largest lumber companies in Liberia. Previously, Woewiyu received a large sum of money from the owner of the lumber company; the money was intended for the purchase of arms for the NPFL.
- Samuel Doe’s government was recognized by the United States government, and the two carried out diplomatic exchanges in an ordinary fashion prior to the war, including when Doe met with President Ronald Reagan in Washington, D.C. While Doe was in power, the Liberian government provided organized services like education and healthcare.
The defense narrative has also begun to emerge. Although the defense counsel did not dispute the statements and orders given by Woewiyu, and did not cross-examine the witnesses who heard those orders about the witnesses’ recollection or credibility, counsel did develop the following points:
- Samuel Doe’s forces participated in ethnically-based killings of Gios and Manos both as a result of an earlier attempted coup, and as a result of the NPFL invasion of Liberia in 1989. Doe’s government was characterized by corruption, and Doe himself was regarded as ruthless by some U.S. officials. When the U.S. government received an initial statement of the NPFL’s objectives from Woewiyu, the objectives were seen as acceptable and even positive.
- Doe was killed not by the NPFL, but by Prince Johnson’s forces; at the time, the entirety of Monrovia lay between the NPFL and Johnson’s forces. Johnson’s faction was a rival to the NPFL, and had a loose territorial alliance with ECOMOG in Monrovia.
- The road from Monrovia was opened – with NPFL agreement and involvement – to allow the supporters of Doe, and those associated with him, to safely escape from violence. It was later blocked by Johnson’s forces, not by the NPFL.
- Charles Taylor was the head of the NPFL, not Woewiyu, and as its head Taylor could not always curtail the actions of his fighters.
- As a leader of the NPFL-CRC, Woewiyu fought against the NPFL.
- Even if witnesses had suffered violence in a region under NPFL control or while fighting for the NPFL, they might relocate to another area under NPFL control because it was considered safe.
- Woewiyu voluntarily gave interviews to law enforcement personnel about his dealings and economic agreements with the lumber company.
Trial continues next week, with a large number of Liberian and international witnesses expected to testify. As many as nine additional Liberian witnesses are expected to come to Philadelphia from Liberia to testify.