In 1990, soldiers loyal to then-Liberian President Samuel Doe slaughtered more than 600 civilians seeking sanctuary in a Monrovian church in what became one of the single worst atrocities in a bloody civil war that would see dozens more before its end.
Mothers saw their children shot down among the pews. Men watched in horror as their brothers were hacked to death by machete-wielding soldiers. Bodies filled the nave, left to rot in the aftermath until volunteers eventually buried the corpses two months later.
And like many of the other war crimes committed during the conflict that ravaged the West African nation for more than 14 years, no one was held accountable.
But in an unusual ruling this week, a federal court in Philadelphia found a Delaware County man — who once served as a commander in the Liberian military and Doe’s personal guard — civilly liable for leading the attack.
Ruling in a case brought by four Liberian survivors of what has since become known as the St. Peter Lutheran Church Massacre, U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker concluded that the plaintiffs should be allowed to collect damages from Moses Thomas, 67, who had been living in Sharon Hill since fleeing Liberia in 2000.
“He is directly liable for the wrongful acts during the massacre,” she wrote. “He intentionally directed an attack on a building dedicated to religion, personally directed an attack on civilians and committed the crime against humanity of persecution.”
The court has not yet determined how much it will order Thomas to pay. And it remains unclear whether, even once that is settled, the plaintiffs will be able to collect any damages from him.
(A year after the suit was filed, Thomas, who has denied any involvement in the massacre, closed the West African restaurant he helped run in Philadelphia’s Elmwood section, Klade’s, and returned to his home country.)
Still, survivors of the attack and their advocates hailed the ruling as a victory.
“The decision finds conclusive evidence of government responsibility for the massacre, as well as Thomas’ individual role in it,” said Hassan Bility, director of the Monrovia-based nonprofit Global Justice Research Project. “Now that Thomas is back in Liberia, the Liberian government must investigate and prosecute him for this crime, and any others.”
Prospects for that outcome, however, remain dim. To date, the Liberian government has yet to hold anyone responsible for the dozens of documented atrocities committed on all sides of the nation’s first civil war — a multifaction ethnic conflict that left hundreds of thousands of civilians dead and a generation of survivors clamoring for justice.
In that absence, U.S. authorities have led the charge in recent years to bring Liberian war criminals to justice — particularly in Philadelphia, where thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict were relocated in the ’90s and 2000s.
In 2018, a federal judge sentenced Mohammed Jabateh, 54, of Lansdowne, to 30 years in prison for hiding his past as a brutal warlord who engaged in acts of murder, sexual violence, and cannibalism under the nom de guerre “Jungle Jabbah.”
That same year, a jury convicted Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu — the former spokesperson for Doe’s successor in the presidency, Charles Taylor — for lying to U.S. immigration authorities about his complicity in war crimes committed by Taylor’s regime. He died last year before he could be sentenced.
Unlike in those cases, Thomas has not been criminally charged in the U.S. Instead, the lawsuit decided Thursday sought to extract damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act, a 1992 statute that allows foreigners to pursue civil claims in U.S. courts for war crimes carried out by people who are now living in the country.
Nushin Sarkarati, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Center for Justice & Accountability and a member of the teams of lawyers representing the Liberian plaintiffs in the case, said she sees the efforts of federal prosecutors, international investigators, and organizations like hers as of a piece.
“For our clients, this has never been about the money,” she said. “For them it was really important that there be a historical record for this abuse and that the perpetrators be identified formally and be recognized by the court.”
The plaintiffs filed their case under pseudonyms for fear of retaliation in Liberia, where ethnic resentments that fueled the wars still run deep and continue to drive politics.
In declarations submitted to the court, they described in harrowing detail how they survived the massacre by hiding under bodies as soldiers fired their weapons indiscriminately and stabbed at corpses with machetes and bayonets to ensure everyone inside the church was dead.
“It was mayhem,” said one, who survived the slaughter by hiding in the church’s pulpit clutching a Bible to his chest. “People started running around chaotically. … They shot everyone trying to escape.”
Another plaintiff described waiting until hours after the soldiers had left before she dared try to climb out from under the crush of corpses that had buried her.
“I waited on the floor, under the fallen bodies and soaked in others’ blood,” she said. “There were so many bodies, I could not see the floor. I did not see any other survivors.”
Their suit did not directly accuse Thomas of killing anyone, but one of the plaintiffs and two former members of the Armed Forces of Liberia who served as witnesses in the case said they saw him standing outside the gates to the church leading the soldiers who opened fire.
He ended the assault after an hour, they said, with a single command: “Everyone is dead. All soldiers out.”
In a 2018 interview with The Inquirer, before he’d returned to Liberia to avoid the lawsuit, Thomas insisted that the plaintiffs had the wrong man and swore he’d never been anywhere near the church on the night of the massacre. Instead, he maintained, he’d been stationed at the presidential palace.
“It’s all lies,” he said. “The stuff they’re talking about is nonsense. You can call anyone in the Republic of Liberia and give them my name, and they will tell you this is nonsense.”
Since his return to that country, reports have emerged alleging he has sought to identify and intimidate potential witnesses against him.
“[He] continues to wield a relatively high influence in Liberia, because many former … soldiers [under his command] hold fairly high positions in Liberia’s security forces and some of these individuals carry arms,” said Alain Werner, a Geneva-based lawyer who has worked with Liberian war crime victims to bring perpetrators to justice.
But even amid their fears of reprisals, Thomas’ victims said the U.S. court’s decision this week made their efforts worth it.
“I joined this case and am speaking out now because I know what Moses Thomas did was wrong,” said one. “I want to bring him to justice. I want him to be held accountable for what he did to me and so many others at the Lutheran Church.”
(c) 2021 The Philadelphia Inquirer
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