19 May 2014

Liberia: Woewiyu Denied Bill

Photo: Front Page Africa
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu.

Thomas Woewiyu, former Minister of Defense of the defunct rebel faction, National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or NPFL, appeared before a three-federal judge panel with one judge leading the charge. Mr. Woewiyu was brought into the court while in the middle of another trial in an olive green jumpsuit.

Despite being restrained by handcuffs, Woewiyu made a grand entrance by bowing down to his family members and lawyer. His lawyer responded by waving back. Also in court watching the proceedings was Liberian journalist Ms. Massa Washington, former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, or TRC.

Ms Washington, a recipient of the US State Department Women of Courage Award, is now a leading advocate for the implementation of recommendations of the final TRC report. She deeply pleased to see one of the perpetrators of the Liberian crisis being booked.

Within few seconds of his entrance in the court, Woewiyu appeared deeply depressed; however, seeing his family members, few friends and lawyer, unleashed in him a spirit of upbeat, and smile as if to say he was telling them that within minutes they will all be together again

. The hearing lasted between 20 and 25 minutes before the lead judge announced her decision. However, it was not before the opening statements of prosecuting and defense attorneys and their rebuttal statements.

It all began when the judge asked Mr. Woewiyu to stand up as the clerk of the court read the list of charges leveled against him followed by the most familiar question always posed to any defendant: How do you plead? Woewiyu replied: "Not guilty."

The judge made it clear to the court what was to transpire. She said this was an arraignment and pre-trial hearing to determine bail for the accused.

She then requested a sidebar with both prosecuting and defense attorneys to resolve any outstanding issues, especially, to make sure that all were on the same page. After the sidebar, with all lawyers seated, the judge called on the prosecuting attorney to make his opening statement.

The prosecuting attorney began by re-enforcing the charges listed in the indictment, and then went on to give justifications why Mr. Woewiyu must be denied bail.

He listed several reasons among which were the facts that Woewiyu has lied many times. That Woewiyu has gone in and out of the United States about 38 times, from the year 2000-2014 and in addition crossed the US border into Canada and Mexico five times.

He also added the that, as early as his recent arrest, Woewiyu failed to mention the fact that he was running for the Liberian senate and currently owns property in Liberia.

The prosecutor then advised the court that Woewiyu was in possession of two passports, a Liberian passport and a passport issued by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, to which the US Department of Homeland Security has advised that it cannot monitor. The US government does not have such control.

According to the prosecutor, even if he were to turn in all of his passports, Woewiyu could easily obtain emergency travel documents from any of the 16-member states of ECOWAS, with embassy nears Washington, DC.

But the defense argued that Woewiyu had strong community ties in the US, including property in which his wife and family members live.

He said Woewiyu has a son who is in the US navy and that the senate race to which Woewiyu boasted that he was in the lead, is a part time position that will enable him to stay in the US during the time of his trial even if he wins.

In his rebuttal, the prosecutor unveiled an element that could be of concern to green cards holders and naturalized US citizens who seek elected offices in their country of origin.

He said it was inconsistent with the terms of a US permanent residency to seek elected position in another country as seeking an elected position in another country while a US permanent resident means you intend to be a permanent resident of that country.

And the fact that Woewiyu is a US permanent resident seeking a senate seat in Liberia means he intends to live in Liberia permanently, the prosecutor said provides no incentives for him to return to the US to attend a trial, especially, when the charges against him are time sensitive regarding statute of limitations.

The defense attempt to use "strong" community ties as reason to convince the judge was debunked by the prosecutor, who said, with a property in Liberia; his family in the US could easily join him.

The prosecutor also advised the court of Mr. Woewiyu's ties with the Liberian President as being very strong. President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf recently appointed Woewiyu to the Board of the Forestry Development Authority or FDA.

An agency that now regulates the Liberian timbers, a resource that was in the heart of the Liberian crisis. He also added that Woewiyu was linked to former Liberian President and convicted war crimes criminal Charles Taylor, who is languishing behind bars in Britain.

The prosecution then stressed, especially, that Woewiyu has lied many times; anything he said now for bail will also be lies.

Despite the fact that the prosecutor repeatedly linked the case to the Liberian crisis, telling the court of the horrors, including mass killings, raping and tortures, and BBC recordings of Tom Woewiyu in his capacity as NPFL spokesman and minister of defense, the defense only told the court that Liberia was a new nation that depends on the US for everything, implying that living conditions in Liberia were not right, as such, Woewiyu would rather stay in the US than in Liberia.

With his head resting in his left palm, Woewiyu seems to be following every word of his bail hearing. Following the rebuttals by prosecuting and defense attorneys, it was now the judge's turn to make her decision if Woewiyu was to be free until his trial or remain in federal custody until his trial.

With everyone fixated on the judge, she began by saying it was about primal facial evidence which was not available or presented during the hearing, but based on all that were said in court, she has narrowed her decision to flight risk, siding with the prosecuting attorney that Woewiyu, due to the many times going in and out of the US, 38 times, poses a flight risk.

With that she turned to Woewiyu, and told him his bail was being denied and that he would remain in federal custody throughout his trial. With that announcement from the judge, all Liberians, who were present in court, including Woewiyu's family members and friends, left the court room.

The scene outside the court room was very sad as family, some with tears in their eyes, began consoling one another as the realization begins to set in that they were going home without their love one, Mr. Woewiyu who could face jail time for the rest of his life at age 68.

As news of Woewiyu's arrest unfolded, many of his supporters earlier dismissed the gravity of the case to be only about falsifying documents and nothing else.

Assuming this was the case, under federal sentencing guidelines, Tom Woewiyu would have obtained bail if this was his first offense and the jail time of the charge was up to six months or less.

However, like the prosecutor repeatedly said, Woewiyu has falsified documents before, even up to the time of his recent arrest. In other words, this was not the first time he misrepresented the facts to federal authorities.

Chuckie Taylor, Charles Taylor's son, also an American citizen, was arrested few years ago at the Miami Airport for passport fraud. He was later convicted among other things for torture, rape, etc, in Liberia, and now serves a 90 years sentence in America.

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