28 years later Liberians still seeking justice

Published 3rd August 2018

Sunday 29 July 2018 marked the 28th anniversary of the St Peters Lutheran Church Massacre where 600 women, men and children died, in Monrovia, Liberia in 1990. Despite new leadership in Liberia, domestic justice for this Massacre, and other heinous crimes committed during the civil wars remains elusive.

The First Liberian Civil War, which started in December 1989 is the backdrop against which this Massacre took place. Then President Samuel Doe’s grip on power was in jeopardy as rebel forces loyal to Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson sought to relieve him of his duties. Taylor led the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPF) a group which included Johnson in the beginning until he decided to lead his own faction, the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPF). In an attempt to consolidate power Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia, Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SATU) became notorious for its indiscriminate use of violence particularly against tribes or groups they suspected of supporting the rebel movement.

By June 1990 roughly 2000 Monrovian residents fleeing war had taken refuge in the St Peters Lutheran Church which was a designated Red Cross humanitarian aid shelter. Roughly 45 SATU soldiers, led by its commander Moses. W. Thomas entered the Church and started shooting indiscriminately. They then proceeded to hack many any survivors they found to death with their machetes. According to an eye witness, the shooting continued for nearly 2 hours and the hacking and use of machetes for another 3 hours. Survivors of the Massacre shared blood curdling accounts of how the soldiers mercilessly killed until Thomas ordered his men to stop.

The First Civil War lasted for 7 years. An estimated 250,000 people were killed with 750,000 fleeing the country and an additional 1.2 million people were internally displaced. In July 1997 the election Charles Taylor as president signalled the official end of the war but the Second Liberian Civil War was not far behind as unrest continued to bubble under the surface. War broke out again two years later in 1999 and lasted until 2003.

In 2005 the transitional government enacted a law for the established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission mandated to investigate human rights violations perpetrated from 1979 to 2003. The TRC was mandated to make recommendations for a variety of issues including investigations, prosecutions, and reparations for victims.

The TRC issued its final report and recommendations on July 1, 2009 to then President Johnson Sirleaf. Among other recommendations, the TRC recommended the creation of an Extraordinary Chamber within the Courts of Liberia to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the St Peters Massacre. To this day domestic accountability remains non-existent and no Extraordinary Chambers have been created. Not a single person has been held to account before a Liberian court.

Many Liberians hoped that justice would be done during Johnson Sirleaf’s tenure and now under recently elected President George Weah, the pressure for accountability continues to grow. In July this year, 76 Liberian, African and international non-governmental organisations championed the cause and called for the Liberian government to pursue domestic accountability and over 4,000 Liberians signed a petition presented to the Liberian Congress calling for justice.

International accountability efforts have been more robust including a civil suit filed in February this year against Thomas in the US which is where he currently resides after moving there in 2000. Ironically, Thomas entered the US under the banner of an immigration programme designed to assist victims of war crimes. Thomas is being sued by 4 survivors of the Church Massacre who survived only because they hid under dead bodies during the attack. They are seeking compensatory damages after losing family members and suffering grave trauma. Although Doe met a nasty end as he was tortured and decapitated by Prince Johnson’s forces, many others implicated in egregious crimes are alive and well thriving with impunity.

Other Liberia related cases in the US include the 2008 conviction of Charles Taylor’s son, Chuckie Taylor, for torture committed in Liberia. In relation to failure to disclose their involvement in grave human rights violations, former rebel commander Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabbateh was convicted for immigration fraud in 2017, as was former NPFL Minister of Defense, Tom Woewiyu in 2018.

In Belgium, former NPFL Commander Martina Johnson has been charged with crimes against humanity committed in Liberia. Alieu Kosiah from the United Liberation Movement (ULIMO) has also been charged by Swiss authorities with crimes against humanity and torture committed in Liberia and Agnes Reeves Taylor, Charles Taylor’s ex-wife has been charged with torture in UK.

Until the crimes of the past are adequately addressed Liberians will continue to be burdened by their past. True reconciliation and justice is essential for nation building. As the calls for justice ring loud and clear, perhaps Weah’s government will take heed.

** This article was published in the Star Newspaper on 2 August 2018

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