PHILADELPHIA — Jury selection began Monday in the federal trial of a Liberian man accused of lying on his U.S. citizenship application about his ties to convicted war criminals, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor, just months after another man from the west African country was sentenced to decades in prison in a similar case.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, also known as Thomas Smith, is facing multiple charges related to immigration fraud, perjury and false statements about naturalization. In April, Mohammed Jabbateh, known as Jungle Jabbah, was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison for similar offenses.
Woewiyu's attorneys filed motions Sunday saying they want to ask jurors if they have any knowledge of African history or a background in international humanitarian causes that would prevent them from being impartial if they saw photos of the alleged atrocities from the Liberian civil wars.
His attorneys previously said that, unlike Jabbateh, he did not take part in the atrocities related to Taylor's rush to overthrow the previous government, but prosecutors are expected to fly in villagers, journalists and others to testify about those atrocities as they did in Jabbateh's trial.
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 served under Taylor in the 1990s, and earlier helped start the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which mounted a violent campaign to depose Taylor's predecessor, Samuel Doe, the indictment said. He served as the party's defense minister, and later as Taylor's labor minister and as president pro tempore of the senate.
Woewiyu has lived in the Philadelphia area since the 1970s, when he attended college in the U.S. Authorities said he spent the last four decades commuting back and forth to Liberia and at times even serving in the country's senate.
Alain Werner, director of Geneva-based Civitas Maxima, which provides independent legal representation to victims of war crimes, said the trial is significant in the U.S. and Liberia and is a step toward "global justice."
"This case demonstrates that justice movements will find access to legal avenues in creative ways and that perpetrators will be held accountable," he said.
Jabbateh's case represented one of a handful of legal efforts to track down people accused of committing atrocities during the civil wars that began in 1989 and devastated Liberia through most of the 1990s and early 2000s, experts said.
In 2008, Taylor's son was convicted in a federal court in Florida of torturing or ordering the torture of dozens of his father's political opponents. Charles McArthur Emmanuel, who is better known as Chuckie Taylor, was sentenced to 97 years in prison.
Charles Taylor resigned as Liberia's president in 2003 and is serving a 50-year prison sentence for aiding and abetting rebels who committed atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone.