Liberia: US No Longer ‘Safe Haven’ for War Criminals, What Does it Mean?

A view of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2020. © 2020 Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA via AP Images

... Implications for Liberia as Congress strengthens federal law to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes regardless of citizenship or where those crimes occurred.

When the US government prosecuted Mohammed Jabbateh, a former Liberian warlord, his charges were not about war crimes as many of his victims expected.

Jabbateh, a former battalion commander of the erstwhile notorious rebel group,   the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) and later ULIMO-K,   was prosecuted and found guilty of immigration fraud and perjury and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

However, many victims of Liberia's 14- years of civil war were left unhappy, accusing the US of being seen as a potential haven for war criminals. The accusations were based on the fact that Jabbateh, after serving his 30-year jail sentence, would qualify for deportation to Liberia. 

But with the enactment of the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act, any Liberians caught in the US with links to the country’s civil war would face prosecution, with immigration fraud no longer being the pretext under which the US gets at alleged warlords.

Experts say the legislation brings the US legal code in line with international law and prevents the United States from being seen as a potential haven for war criminals. It would improve upon the 1996 war crimes legislation so that those implicated in war crimes committed abroad who are found in the U.S. can be brought to justice even if they or their victims are not US citizens or members of the US armed forces, which the 1996 law requires.

Moses Slanger Wright, 69,  is one of those Liberians whose indictment now faces possible amendment to include the issue of a war crime.  

Wright, a former General​ in the Armed Forces of Liberia during the Presidency of Samuel Doe, was arrested this year and charged with fraudulently attempting to obtain citizenship, fraud in immigration documents, false statements concerning naturalization, and perjury in connection with his fraudulent attempt to obtain US citizenship — but not war crimes. 

During Liberia’s First Civil War, the Armed Forces of Liberia was locked in a brutal campaign for control of the country with various rebel groups, most notably Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia. The AFL under slain President Samuel Kanyon Doe committed its share of atrocities in the months leading up to and during the civil war, including beheadings and mass killings such as the Lutheran Church Massacre.  

The Indictment alleges that while Wright was applying for US citizenship, he was not truthful about his activities during Liberia’s First Civil War. His arrest then brings to mind several Philadelphia-area Liberian immigrants to face federal charges in recent years. US authorities have sought to bring Liberian war criminals to justice — especially in Philadelphia, where thousands of refugees fleeing the conflict were relocated in the 1990s and 2000s. 

However, all of the charges are related to immigration fraud and not war crimes and, in most cases, the accused were deported.

One famous case is that of  George Boley, who remains one of Liberia's most notorious warlords. Boley’s rebel group, the Liberia Peace Council (LPC), was named by the then Truth and Reconciliation Commission as one of the warlords who committed severe human rights violations.

However, after Boley's arrest in the US, he was only tried for immigration fraud and not war crimes.

Boley caught the attention of authorities when he applied for Medicaid benefits in Monroe County, where he had a job in a local school district. A Department of Social Services investigator identified Boley after conducting an Internet search and shared the information with Homeland Security investigators in Buffalo. This was in 2006

He was deported in 2012 and, in 2017, elected to the House of Representatives for Grand Gedeh County.

Alexander Mentol Zinnah, 58,  also a member of the Liberian National Police and served as a commander in Grand Gedeh County, Liberia, during the time of Taylor, was deported in 2020 on immigration fraud charges.

The investigation revealed that Zinnah was a member of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a rebel group led by Taylor that engaged in a wide range of human rights abuses including massacres, torture, and kidnapping.

Boley, Zinnah, and other Liberian war criminals who escaped to the US for sanctuary for war crimes right after the country’s war have been deported to Liberia on immigration fraud charges.  Except for Taylor's son "Chucky" (Charles McArthur Taylor), none  have been charged with war crimes even though they lived and worked in the US for several years legally. 

Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, a past spokesperson for Taylor, was also found guilty of lying to US immigration authorities about his complicity in war crimes committed by Taylor’s regime. He died in 2020 before he could be sentenced.

Before the passage of the Act, federal law allowed prosecutions for war crimes only if the offense was committed in the United States, or if the victim or perpetrator is a US national or service member. Hence the prosecution and conviction of Chucky Taylor, who is a US Citizen by birth, for war crimes and crimes against humanity that he committed in Liberia. 

Non-Americans who commit war crimes against other non-Americans overseas but then enter the United States have generally been outside the law’s reach. 

Creating jurisdiction in the US for war crimes committed abroad regardless of the alleged perpetrator’s or victim’s nationality is a long time coming. The expanded conflict in Ukraine may be the catalyst, but the abuses seen there aren’t new or unique. Grave international crimes—in places such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Palestine, South Sudan, and Syria—continue to be committed with impunity.

Meanwhile, the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act comes after the US received a barrage of criticisms for harboring war criminals. The Act updates the current US war crimes statute to enable the prosecution of war criminals under the jurisdiction of the United States Courts regardless of the location or targets of their alleged atrocities.

While the Act was provoked by alleged war crimes in Ukraine earlier this year, it is a blessing in disguise for victims of the Liberian wars and advocates who want closure to this distasteful episode of Liberian history.

The Act also comes after two months since US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Beth Van Schaack, visited Liberia. Her visit came amid renewed calls from justice activists for the Weah administration to establish a war crimes court.

The head of the Global Justice and Research Project, Hassan Bility, described that visit as a testament to the fact that Liberia is reneging on its international treaty obligations.

President George Weah has backpedaled over his open support for the establishment of a war and economy crimes court in Liberia. He and his CDC made loud calls for the court before coming to power, but have shown little or no support since taking the helm of the country in 2018.

“In the United States of America, there must be no hiding place for war criminals and no haven for those who commit such atrocities. This bill will help the Justice Department fulfill that important mandate,” a Justice Department release quotes US Attorney General, Merrick B. Garland, as saying hours after the passage of the bill by the senate.

“The Justice Department and our partners will pursue every avenue of accountability to bring to justice those responsible, wherever they are located. The Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act will strengthen those efforts by enabling the Department to prosecute alleged war criminals who are found in the United States.”