Justice Sought for 1990 Liberian Massacre

Ted Goldberg | KQED

September 25, 2021


SF Human Rights Group pushes Liberia to prosecute former military commander for 1990 massacre.

Center for Justice and Accountability attorney Nushin Sarkarati with John T. Stewart, formerly of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (center), and the CJA's Hassan Bility, at the Lutheran Church Palava Hut in Monrovia, Liberia. (Courtesy of the Center for Justice and Accountability)


On the heels of what's being described as a historic legal decision, a San Francisco-based human rights organization is calling on the Liberian government to hold accountable a former military commander, who led one of the deadliest massacres in that country's first civil war.


Last week, the Center for Justice and Accountability, or CJA, won a federal lawsuit against Moses W. Thomas, who is believed to have led an attack on a church in Monrovia in July 1990, that killed approximately 600 unarmed adults and children.


Thomas, at the time, commanded a Liberian government military unit under then-President Samuel Doe.

More than three years after the center filed the suit on behalf of four survivors of the church massacre, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that Thomas is liable under U.S. law for participating in war crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings and torture.


Word of the verdict brought some relief to the four plaintiffs, according to one of their lawyers, Nushin Sarkarati, a senior staff attorney at the CJA. But, she said, they are not giving up their decades-long battle to get justice.


"The victims aren't forgetting," Sarkarati said. "They lost their mothers, their children, their loved ones. It's very important for them that these perpetrators are held accountable for what they did to Liberia."


The four plaintiffs, who live in Liberia, remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation.


The ruling has reverberated among some members of the Bay Area's small Liberian community.


"The decision to hold Moses Thomas liable for crimes against humanity restores our hopes that justice delayed is not denied," said Lovetta Tugbeh, director of the Pleasant Hill-based Coalition for Justice in Liberia. Some of the group's members are survivors of the church massacre, she added.


"We are calling upon the government of Liberia to muster the courage to ensure justice will be served for war crimes," Tugbeh said


The church massacre took place during Liberia's first civil war, a seven-year conflict that started in 1989 and is believed to have led to the deaths of some 200,000 people by the time the fighting ended in 1997. Just two years later, in 1999, the country erupted into a second civil war that lasted until 2003.


Some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Thomas say they witnessed their relatives killed during the church massacre and were forced to hide under dead bodies to survive. One was shot in the leg. Another was stabbed in the arm.


The case marks the first U.S. lawsuit aimed at holding a Liberian government forces commander responsible for serious violations of international law during the country's first civil war, according to the CJA.


When the lawsuit was originally filed in 2018, Thomas was living in suburban Philadelphia. A year later, he fled the U.S. and is believed to be back in Liberia.


Now that he's back home, some 30 years later, it's long past time for Liberia to bring justice to the survivors, Sarkarati said.


"They have a duty under international law to provide accountability," she said.


The CJA is pushing for Liberia to set up a special tribunal to adjudicate the church massacre incident and other civil war-era atrocities.


But the fact that Thomas returned home shows he believes he will be safe there, Sarkarati said.


Officials at the Liberian embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment about the judge's decision and whether the country planned to further investigate or prosecute the case.


A hearing will be held in the coming months to determine how much Thomas owes the survivors, with the possibility he could be ordered to pay them millions of dollars in compensatory and punitive damages.


"It is hard to put a number behind these types of atrocities," Sarkarati said. "The victims are not pursuing these cases for the award amount. It's really about the recognition of liability and identifying who's responsible for these harms."


Thomas has 30 days to appeal the ruling.


His lawyer, Nixon Teah Kannah, who is based in Philadelphia, did not respond to phone and email requests for comment. Kannah told The Associated Press that he and his client "accept the decision but we don't agree with it."


Thomas could not be reached for comment either, but in an interview with KQED in 2018, he said he "disputes the allegations 1,000 percent." He called the claims "nonsense" and said while he was in Liberia at the time of the massacre and was a member of the Liberian military, he was not at the church and knows no details about the attack.


His legal defense also argued that the suit was filed too long after the church assault.


The court disagreed. U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker sided with the CJA's argument that Thomas commanded the unit that slaughtered hundreds of innocent civilians at the church.


The attack took place during a rebellion led by Charles Taylor, who went on to become Liberia's president in 1997 and was later convicted of war crimes in neighboring Sierra Leone and sentenced to 50 years in prison.

As violence intensified during Liberia's first civil war, civilians flooded humanitarian aid centers. The Red Cross and a network of churches set up shelters in the country to house thousands of displaced people.


Many of them were members of the Mano and Gio Tribes, perceived to be loyal to Taylor and against President Doe, who was a member of the majority Krahn Tribe.


The judge agreed with the CJA's argument that Thomas knew the church was a shelter for civilians and told his soldiers to kill them.


The suit also alleges that some women were raped before they were murdered, and that soldiers first opened fire on the group before using machetes to attack many of those who were injured or hiding.


Correction: This story originally stated that the four plaintiffs live in the U.S. They live in Liberia.


© 2021 KQED Inc.

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