Week in Review: Week 2
The second week of the trial of Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu ended on Thursday with the presentation of dramatic evidence by the prosecution. The last witness of the week testified to Woewiyu personally ordering the killing of a young man suspected of being a spy, and her testimony was followed by the playing of numerous BBC broadcasts in which Woewiyu himself spoke to the goals and practices of the NPFL.
20 witnesses for the prosecution testified this week, developing the prosecution’s narrative about the NPFL’s control over much of Liberia and the NPFL’s policies of violence against its perceived enemies, and about Woewiyu’s position of power within the structure of the NPFL. The witnesses can be loosely grouped into the following categories:
- Seven testified to the NPFL’s policy of ethnic persecution, with three having survived ethnically-motivated acts of violence by the NPFL, two witnessing such ethnic violence but escaping it by lying about their ethnicity, and two not themselves endangered but testifying as to Woewiyu and the NPFL’s ethnic policies;
- Two testified as witnesses to Woewiyu’s presence while violence was carried out by the NPFL against suspected spies, with one having witnessed Woewiyu personally ordering the execution of suspects;
- Five testified to the forced recruitment of child soldiers, including three men who were forcibly recruited as children, a sister whose brothers were taken from her, and an expert witness on the psychology of children who become soldiers;
- Four testified as journalists whose travels in Liberia were facilitated by the NPFL and whose observance of the broader war contextualized the issuing of orders on the ground, with three of them having personally observed Woewiyu acting for the NPFL on the public stage;
- Two testified as high-level Foreign Service Officers to the interaction of the United States government with the NPFL during the war.
The prosecution also played for the jury a series of 21 BBC broadcasts recorded between 1990-1994, mostly from the Focus on Africa and Network Africa programs. All of them contained interviews with a man identified within the broadcasts as “Defense Spokesman” or “Defense Minister” Thomas Woewiyu.
The prosecution’s narrative continued to take shape from the witnesses’ testimony and from the BBC broadcasts. The prosecution provided evidence of the following:
- When Samuel Doe offered to resign in a year’s time, the NPFL rejected the offer and, through Woewiyu, warned Doe to leave the country but refused to facilitate his escape. The NPFL, according to Woewiyu, was prepared in June 1990 to proceed with its own “plan of action,” regardless of offers made at peace talks.
- The NPFL did not lay down its arms after the death of Samuel Doe; in fact, fighting intensified. The fighting continued despite numerous peace conferences, and the NPFL on occasion did not attend scheduled talks and left others while they were ongoing. Woewiyu was often the head of the NPFL delegation sent to peace conferences, including those where the NPFL walked out of ongoing talks.
- Woewiyu was present at NPFL headquarters in Gbarnga in 1991 and 1992, speaking to the BBC from the rebel headquarters while characterizing ECOMOG as biased and violent. Throughout the First Liberian Civil War, Woewiyu described ECOMOG as committing human rights violations and offenses against Liberia’s sovereignty. Woewiyu specifically invoked the countries of origin of the peacekeeping troops as a mark of their untrustworthiness, and singled out Guinean troops as suspicious because of Guinea’s Mandingo population. In general, the Armed Forces of Liberia and ECOMOG were characterized to NPFL child soldiers as “the enemy.”
- Woewiyu was present twice when accused spies were condemned. Once, he issued the execution order himself by saying, “Take them away. I don’t want to see them.” Once, he was in command and stood by silently while a subordinate cut off suspected spies’ ears and ordered the suspects to be taken away. If an NPFL soldier, whether a guard at a checkpoint or Woewiyu himself, said “Take them away,” the person was not seen again. “I do not want to see them” was understood as an execution order.
- The NPFL’s policy of ethnic persecution was systematic and widespread, and reached from the highest echelons of NPFL power down to individual guards at checkpoints. Woewiyu announced on the BBC that “the only good Krahn man is the dead Krahn man,” and checkpoint guards would attempt to find Krahns and other disfavored groups among travelers. Suspected Krahns or other disfavored groups were summarily executed, and anyone trying to aid a suspected person was deemed suspicious themselves, and was thus likely to be killed as well.
- Checkpoints were sites of easy and immediate violence, and over the course of the war, the NPFL checkpoints shifted from searching for Krahns and Mandingos to searching for ECOMOG soldiers or collaborators from other warring factions. Checkpoints involved other forms of atrocities than killings alone, including forced labor to dispose of corpses. Checkpoints were often manned by drugged child soldiers.
- NPFL violence extended past checkpoints to the homes of those they had heard were suspected of being part of a disfavored group, in order to kill them. Among such violence was a massacre in Bakiedou village, where over 100 people were murdered because they were Mandingo. The community knew about the imminent attack before it occurred, and it was expected that the arrival of the NPFL would herald attacks on Mandingos.
- The NPFL had a high level of control on the ground in Liberia, and journalists hoping to cover stories outside of Monrovia worked with the NPFL to secure safe passage. In many instances, journalists’ trips were facilitated directly by the NPFL, and journalists were escorted in NPFL vehicles through the numerous and dangerous checkpoints to ensure the journalists’ safety.
- Woewiyu was generally known by fighters and civilians as a “Chief,” a “big man,” and a “boss man,” to whom beleaguered families should go to beg for the return of their conscripted or imprisoned sons. When faced with pleas by the families of NPFL captives, he was unmoved.
- Woewiyu directed battle plans of forces on the ground, including forces primarily made up of child soldiers. He personally oversaw the issuing of arms to child soldiers. The NPFL maintained training camps in a number of locations for child soldiers and other “recruits,” with systematized training in field-stripping weapons, evasive maneuvers, etc. Child soldiers were desirable because they were malleable and fearless fighters who would follow authority figures.
- The United States government dealt directly with Woewiyu as a mouthpiece for and participant in NPFL policy. In the opinion of the United States government, the NPFL had a clear structure of command, and its leadership was in control of subordinate fighters. The NPFL had procedures that were strictly followed, including checkpoint protocols carried out by child soldiers at NPFL headquarters.
- Operation Octopus, carried out in October 1992, was especially brutal, and served as a microcosm of the other atrocities committed by the NPFL, including the use of child soldiers and the attacking of civilian targets rather than military ones.
The defense did not cross-examine many of the prosecution’s witnesses this week, and declined to cross-examine the witness who testified that Woewiyu himself ordered her brother executed on suspicion of being a spy. However, the defense narrative was developed through other witnesses:
- Some civilians co-existed peacefully with NPFL soldiers. Not all young men were conscripted, and not all child soldiers carried guns.
- The NPFL’s practices at the beginning of the war were perceived as less bloody and more targeted than those enacted later; there was a greater degree of control at that time, and the NPFL’s goals were considered acceptable to the United States.
- Woewiyu had conversations with ECOMOG personnel, away from Monrovia, that were not aggressive in tone.
- The Armed Forces of Liberia were also violent, killing one man at a checkpoint and detaining suspected rebels overnight at another checkpoint.
- Prior to Operation Octopus, there was a period of relative calm in Liberia, characterized by skirmishes but not by all-out war.
- Except for one Foreign Service Officer, the prosecution’s witnesses did not involve themselves with Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission either in Liberia or in the United States. They were unaware that Woewiyu was not recommended for prosecution by the Commission.
Trial continues on Monday, June 25, with United States immigration officers and Federal Bureau of Investigation agents expected to testify. The prosecution is expected to rest its case within a few days, and the defense will then begin the presentation of its case.