US court gives all-clear for war crimes trial of Liberian suspect

Photo: Gregory Stemn

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled Friday, December 14 that extrajudicial killing, torture, crimes against humanity and war crimes claims can proceed against Philadelphia resident Moses Thomas, a former Colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).

The ruling is based on two U.S. statutes: the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA) and the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) with law firms Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and Blank Rome LLP serving as co-counsel, with assistance from the Global Justice and Research Project in Liberia.

Moses Thomas is suspected of instigating the infamous 1990 Lutheran Church Massacre, widely considered one of the most violent events in Liberia’s 14 years of armed conflict. Thomas sought to dismiss the case, arguing that the claims brought against him were barred by a ten-year statute of limitations.

Friday’s decision paved the way for the Plaintiffs, survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre, to pursue all of their claims against Thomas. In doing so, the court recognized that until 2011, there had been hope that justice would come in Liberia following Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended criminal accountability through the establishment of an Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia.

Hope for justice in Liberia was stymied when the Liberian Supreme Court in 2011 determined that the TRC recommendations were non-binding. Plaintiffs in this case turned to American courts for justice.

Importantly, the Court also recognized that continued impunity for war crimes in Liberia, and the fact that several alleged perpetrators of wartime human rights abuses continue to hold senior positions in government, meant that victims and witnesses seeking to identify and hold accountable perpetrators of human rights abuses in Liberia faced real risk of violent retaliation.

In another win for the Plaintiffs, the Court found that claims involving war crimes and crimes against humanity under the ATS may also proceed.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum, federal courts must determine whether ATS claims involving extraterritorial conduct sufficiently “touch and concern” the U.S. for jurisdiction to be warranted.

Although the facts surrounding the Lutheran Church Massacre occurred entirely within Liberia, the Court held that the Defendant’s residence in the U.S., his alleged fraudulent participation in a U.S. immigration program designed to benefit victims of human rights abuses, and the attacks on U.S. agencies over the course of the Lutheran Church Massacre sufficiently ground the case in the U.S.

Since the case was initially filed on February 12, 2018, the movement for a war crimes court in Liberia has grown rapidly to include a coalition of close to 80 international and regional NGOs urging President George Weah to take action.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has also called on Liberia to prosecute perpetrators of civil war atrocities. On November 9, 2018, human rights groups, the Liberian Government, the UN, and diplomatic missions met for the first time in nearly ten years to discuss the continued need for accountability for wartime atrocities in Liberia.

The conference was followed by a peaceful march of several thousand Liberians in the streets of Monrovia demanding justice for human rights abuses committed during the civil wars.

“Our goal is to see justice and accountability for our clients and for all of the victims and survivors of the Liberian civil wars,” said CJA Senior Staff Attorney Nushin Sarkarati. “That the trial of Moses Thomas will move forward in Philadelphia is an important step. We hope this case can also help pave the way for prosecutions in Liberia.”

Hassan Bility, director of the Monrovia-based Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) added, “Fifteen years have passed since the fighting ended yet victims continue to live side by side with perpetrators responsible for the rape or death of loved ones. This situation cannot continue as is. Trust in government and real democracy can only be built on the backbone of justice. It is time for all war crimes perpetrators, regardless of what tribes they belong to or what their status is today, to face their past in a court of law. President Weah must act to establish that court of law here in Liberia.”