Federal judge in Philadelphia to consider evidence in massacre of over 600 civilians
In a court filing today, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, and Blank Rome LLP submitted close to two thousand pages of evidence seeking to prove that an elite unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) perpetrated one of the largest civilian massacres of Liberia’s First Civil War. The brief filed with the court alleges that on July 29, 1990, Moses Thomas, as commander of the AFL’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, directed his troops to attack St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, Liberia. At the time, the Church served as a Red Cross shelter, housing nearly 2,000 civilians seeking refuge from the growing violence in the country. Thomas and his troops stormed the Church, despite its protected status under international humanitarian law, shooting and hacking to death approximately 600 unarmed civilians.
Four survivors of the massacre—Jane W, John X, John Y, and John Z—sued Thomas in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Thomas had been living in the United States since 2000. The filing on Tuesday, March 16, 2021 brings them one step closer toward holding Thomas to account for atrocities committed over the course of the massacre.
In a sworn statement filed with the court, John X described the night of the massacre: “The soldiers opened fire on the crowd without saying anything. I dropped to the ground and covered myself with blood, so it looked like I had been shot. I hid among the bodies, pretending to be dead…I lay there as the AFL shot and killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children.” John Y, a child at the time, described hiding in the church’s pulpit with a little boy. He explained, “I whispered my little brother’s name at this boy, even though I knew that my little brother was in the school building with my mother. I just wanted to have my family alive with me, and the thought that my brother was next to me kept me believing that I could survive.”
The evidence presented Tuesday also includes detailed testimony from eyewitnesses, an expert report from the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Liberia, and declassified U.S. embassy and CIA cables. Says Elizabeth Nielsen, counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton, representing the plaintiffs: “We believe that today’s court filing presents conclusive evidence that Thomas was responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre and we are asking the court to hold Thomas liable for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”]
Plaintiffs filed this case in the United States because they have been unable to obtain accountability in Liberia. Jane W laments this failure of justice: “Everybody knows that the Lutheran Church Massacre happened, but there has been no accountability. The people responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre remain free.”
John Z explained why he is pursuing justice now: “It is very difficult for me to remember and speak about these events, because it makes me feel terrible. But I joined this case and am speaking out now because I know that what Moses Thomas did was wrong, and I want to bring him to justice. I want him to be held accountable for what he did to me and so many others at the Lutheran Church.”
“Liberia has yet to see meaningful accountability for the atrocities committed during its civil wars, despite demands from Liberian civil society and recommendations by the United Nations,” said Ela Matthews, attorney at CJA representing the plaintiffs. “The catalog of evidence filed today not only proves our clients’ claims against Thomas, but shows why Liberia must finally take action to end impunity.”
The plaintiffs and Liberia-based witnesses in this case remain anonymous out of a fear of retribution for their pursuit of justice.