Week in Review: Week 3
The third week of the trial of Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu ended on Thursday when the defense rested its case. 12 witnesses testified this week: six for the prosecution, and six for the defense. The last witnesses of the week were the children of Woewiyu, who testified to his honesty and law-abiding nature.
Before the prosecution rested on Wednesday, its six witnesses developed a narrative of Woewiyu’s wrong-doing in the United States, speaking to his alleged arms trafficking as the NPFL’s Minister of Defense, and to the alleged perjury and false statements that are at the heart of this criminal immigration fraud case. The prosecution witnesses can be loosely grouped into the following categories:
- Three former U.S. Customs Service Special Agents testified to their involvement in an undercover sting operation in which Woewiyu attempted to illegally export stolen arms to Liberia;
- Two officials with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service testified to their roles in the denial of Woewiyu’s Application for Naturalization;
- One Federal Bureau of Investigation Special Agent testified to the geography of locations mentioned by Liberian witnesses.
The prosecution also read into the record a series of BBC broadcasts, as well as articles and other documents written during or about the First Liberian Civil War; Woewiyu was an interview subject of the broadcasts, and occasionally an author of the documents.
The prosecution’s narrative continued to take shape from its witnesses’ testimony and from the broadcasts and documents. The prosecution provided evidence of the following:
- In 1990, Woewiyu stated that ECOWAS was barring Charles Taylor from taking a position in the interim government, and portrayed ECOMOG generally as a violent and invasive force. He spoke of the NPFL as pursuing Doe, and resisting Doe’s escape to safety in exile; on later occasions, he both blamed ECOMOG for Doe’s death, and stated that Doe’s death was the NPFL’s “prime objective.” After Doe’s death, the NPFL continued to treat the Armed Forces of Liberia as an enemy force.
- As the NPFL approached Monrovia, it ordered civilians to leave the surrounds of the city and to enter “Taylorland.” The displaced people were interrogated and searched at a checkpoint as they entered NPFL territory. Civilians suspected of aiding ECOMOG and ULIMO were killed, and the NPFL condemned a whole neighborhood of Monrovia based on its suspected ECOMOG collaboration. Some inhabitants managed to escape by pretending they were from other parts of the city.
- The NPFL set up the National Reconstruction Assembly Government (“NPRAG”) in its territory, to act in the place of a traditional government. Ministers were appointed, including Woewiyu as the Minister of Defense, and presented themselves on the international stage as persons of authority. NPFL fighters considered NPRAG to be stable enough to support hospitals like those in government territory. At least one large multinational company, the Firestone Plantation Company, considered the NPFL stable enough and structured enough to negotiate with it for a resumption of the company’s business activities; on the agenda for a proposed meeting, sent to Charles Taylor via Woewiyu, was a “functional banking system.”
- Woewiyu became unwittingly involved in a federal undercover investigation into illegal arms trafficking in Miami, Florida in 1992-1993 when he attempted to buy arms for the NPFL. He identified himself as the Minister of Defense, saying he was close to Charles Taylor. Among the arms he attempted to buy were surface-to-air missiles, M-16s, and AK-47s. AK-47s were desirable because fighters on the ground were already using them, and the missiles were needed to bring down ECOMOG jets.
- Woewiyu personally negotiated a share in the sale of Liberia’s natural resources as payment for the trafficked arms, meeting with undercover agents on three separate occasions to finesse the deal. Woewiyu told an undercover agent posing as an arms trafficker that he personally observed Charles Taylor sign the promissory note indicating terms of payment for the deal. The arms were to be concealed as a shipment of medical supplies; Woewiyu personally negotiated the details of the concealment, and designated Sierra Leone as the country from which the arms would enter Liberia. Woewiyu was concerned with the weight of the weapons, and handled one of the guns himself to test its weight.
- Woewiyu’s January 2009 naturalization hearing was followed by a Request for Evidence as to his tax records and divorce proceedings. At this hearing, Woewiyu did not disclose his membership in the NPFL, or his activities during the First Liberian Civil War. When asked if he had ever persecuted someone and if he had ever advocated the overthrow of a government, he answered no to both questions; the Immigration Officer who conducted the hearing recalled him “chuckling” when asked if he had advocated the overthrow of a government. Those corrections he did make to his form, including his number of children and an early arrest, were made orally to the Immigration Officer, who marked them in red pen on his application.
- Woewiyu was later issued a second Request for Evidence, asking about his involvement with the NPFL. After he responded to that Request, his Application for Naturalization was denied based on his lack of a good moral character. The determination was based in large part on the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (“TRC”), which detailed crimes committed by the NPFL.
- Woewiyu consistently presented himself as a founding member of the NPFL, including to undercover federal agents and in a 2005 open letter to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in which he stated that he had met with Sirleaf and Charles Taylor in Paris to plan how to launch rebels into Liberia. In that letter, he wrote that he travelled to Burkina Faso to ascertain Burkinabé monetary and training support for the nascent NPFL.
- Woewiyu presented himself as divorced from Charles Taylor’s policies, although he was the Minister of Labor in the Taylor government formed after the 1997 elections. Woewiyu presented himself in this way in articles purportedly written by him, including one in which he apologized to Krahns and Mandingos harmed by his earlier statements. Woewiyu wrote that the infamous “the only good Krahn man is the dead Krahn man” mantra was originally said by Charles Taylor, and that Woewiyu only repeated it as a quotation, not as a policy endorsement.
- In 1969, Woewiyu entered the United States on a student visa. He described his visa process to an undercover federal agent in 1993, saying he obtained his 1969 visa to attend flight school without intending to become a pilot.
- One of Woewiyu’s sons serves in the U.S. Navy. The prosecution asked a brief series of questions on cross-examination, elucidating that he joined at the age of 24 after graduating from college and making a “reasoned” decision to serve. The questions were presumably meant to contrast his life with those of the former child soldiers who testified in prior weeks to their forced recruitment.
The defense continued to develop its narrative through its cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses. It also presented six of its own witnesses, who developed the defense narrative of a fundamentally honest man who attempted to correctly present relevant information on his Application for Naturalization:
- Two testified to the circumstances surrounding the denial of Woewiyu’s Application for Naturalization, one as an expert witness to the process and one – Woewiyu’s immigration lawyer – as a direct witness;
- Four of Woewiyu’s children testified as character witnesses to his honesty and law-abidingness, and told the jury how his honest nature positively impacted their lives.
The defense narrative contrasted with the prosecution narrative in two major ways: as to the process of Woewiyu’s naturalization hearing in January 2009, and as to his personal character. The defense elicited evidence of the following:
- Woewiyu’s January 2009 naturalization hearing was “rushed,” and he and his immigration lawyer were told that the hearing could not exceed 15 minutes. When Woewiyu attempted to reach into his briefcase for a list of affiliations and group memberships that he had prepared, the Immigration Officer told him it could be provided in a follow-up submission. When asked about his associations, he therefore only gave the Officer the name of an umbrella organization for other Liberian groups, rather than taking the time to list for her all of his group memberships. Woewiyu did tell the Officer orally that he was a member of the Liberian Senate, but this was not written down by the Officer as additional information on his Application for Naturalization.
- The Immigration Officer who conducted Woewiyu’s hearing did not take notes or record the interview, although she could have. Her memorandum about the hearing was written a few days afterward. It would be unusual to ask an applicant to sign an Application for Naturalization on which not all of the applicant’s oral changes had been recorded by the Officer.
- An Application for Naturalization is not “fully processed” until all follow-up Requests for Evidence have been responded to, and the government subsequently denies or grants citizenship to an applicant.
- The Immigration Officer who ultimately denied Woewiyu’s Application for Naturalization relied “solely” on the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for evidence of Woewiyu’s involvement with the activities of the NPFL, which she used to determine his lack of a good moral character. There are ten footnoted citations to the Final Report in her seven-page denial letter. The TRC did not mention Woewiyu in the body of its Final Report more than three times, and attributed the murder of six Senegalese ECOMOG peacekeepers – specifically mentioned in the Officer’s denial letter – to Charles Taylor as well as to Woewiyu.
- The TRC did not ultimately recommend Woewiyu for prosecution. It recommended him for sanctions barring immediate service in the Liberian government; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was also recommended for those sanctions, and went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize and to serve two terms as the elected President of Liberia.
- After Woewiyu applied for citizenship, the Application for Naturalization was changed twice, in order to make the process clearer and to better elucidate information helpful to Immigration Officers. The form is now twice as long as it was in 2006 when Woewiyu initially filled it out, and contains specific questions as to the commission of genocide and human rights abuses, and the recruitment of child soldiers.
- Woewiyu was interviewed by three federal agents at the Customs House in Philadelphia in 2010, in a conversation centering on Liberian history, including the events leading up to and during the First Liberian Civil War.
- Woewiyu’s children all testified to his honesty. They described how he instilled the values of honesty and law-abidingness in them, and explained that the knowledge of his previous convictions – discussed earlier in Court – did not change their opinions.
Trial resumes on Monday, July 2, when the parties will present their closing arguments. The jury will then begin its deliberations; a verdict is expected later in the week.