PHILADELPHIA — A Liberian man living outside Philadelphia is a war criminal who misled immigration officials on his U.S. citizenship application, prosecutors said Tuesday during opening statements in his immigration trial.
But a lawyer for Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu emphasized that he was charged with an immigration crime, not war crimes, and that jurors were not in a history class.
Philly.com reported that prosecutors intend to present witnesses to talk about Woewiyu's role in the conflict during the three-week trial including journalists who interviewed him, federal investigators who attempted to get him to buy surface to air missiles and villagers who were alleged victims and witnesses of some of the atrocities in the Liberian civil war.
Prosecutors and federal investigators have said Woewiyu was the public face and one-time defense minister of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia and they believe he lied when he said on immigration forms that he had never taken part in the overthrow of a government. The group, led by Charles Taylor, sparked a multifaction tribal conflict and civil war in the west African country.
"You can't commit human rights abuses in your own country and come here and expect to obtain citizenship," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Thayer in his own opening remarks to jurors.
The trial comes just months after another Liberian man, Mohammed Jabbateh, known as Jungle Jabbah, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for similar offenses. Woewiyu's attorneys say unlike Jabbateh, he was not involved directly with the ground war or the atrocities.
Villagers who testified against Jabbateh told stories of his cutting the baby out of a pregnant woman's stomach and ordering his soldiers to kill a town chief whose heart was then boiled and eaten. The Liberian civil war included a campaign by Taylor to execute political opponents, force girls into sex slavery and conscript boys to become child soldiers.
Prosecutors alleged that when Woewiyu applied for citizenship in 2006, he lied about his role in those civil war atrocities. He allegedly checked "no" when asked if he had any political affiliations or had ever joined in an attempted coup.
Woewiyu's attorneys painted a different picture of the 72-year-old grandfather who had lived in the Philadelphia suburbs for almost half a century and had become a trusted member of the local Liberian community.
"Perhaps they genuinely want to hold someone accountable for the trauma the Liberian citizens experienced in Africa three decades ago," Woewiyu's lawyer Catherine Henry said. "But the United States doesn't have the jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes that happened in Africa. There's nothing they can do in this courtroom to change that."