19 May 2014

Liberia: Woewiyu Pleads Not Guilty - Judge Denies Him Bail in Fraud Case

Photo: Front Page Africa
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu.

Philadelphia — U.S. lawyers successfully convinced a Federal judge Friday that Tom Woewiyu, accused of knowingly lying on U.S. immigration papers, did not deserve to leave Federal prison on Friday because he risks fleeing the U.S. if he were granted bail.

Woewiyu, a former Liberian official who served as Charles Taylor's defense Minister, pleaded not guilty to all 16 federal charges, including seven counts of perjury, four counts of fraudulently misrepresenting his past in his immigration applications.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright managed to tie Woewiyu's past activities in Liberia to former rebel leader Charles Taylor and his NPFL, asking Judge Faith Angell not to set bail for the defendant, saying: "Mr. Woewiyu is a flight risk, and he has no incentives to return to the States to face trial if he were to flee."

"He owns a rubber farm in Liberia, holds a position in President Sirleaf's government as a member on the Board of Directors for the forestry concession, and he's in a tough senate race, which he might win. We are therefore recommending the statutory maximum, your Honor.

The U.S. lead Attorney said Mr. Woewiyu knowingly and frequently failed to disclose his membership and role in the NPFL when he swore to the truthfulness of his immigration application. "He checked No to his involvement in the war, in which the NPFL committed atrocities, killed children, used children and raped women," said U.S. attorney Wright.

Authorities said Woewiyu told U.S. Marshalls during his arrest on Monday that he was visiting the States to attend a political event and would be returning to Liberia, where he's a favorite in a Senate race by the end of May.

The U.S. Attorney also alleged that the former NPFL spokesman and Defence Minister carries an honorary diplomatic passport from ECOWAS in addition to his Liberian passport, adding that Mr. Woewiyu had in the past made 38 back and forth trips outside the U.S. since 2002.

"Even if he wore ankle bracelets, it's still possible this man can run to any embassy and break it off his ankle," added U.S. Attorney Wright.

Woewiyu's defense lawyer Benjamin Perez tried to downplay charges that his client knowingly offered dishonest answers on his 2006 citizenship filings, saying "this is not the sort of case that one would run from." As if deportation of his client to Liberia would be far more acceptable than 110 years prescribed by the charges, Perez said: "it would be catastrophic if the charges ultimately lead to his deportation because he has a wife, six children, one of them is a lieutenant in the Navy, 18 grandchildren and he's tied to his community in Delaware County."

Woewiyu was escorted into the courtroom in green jumpsuits and handcuffs, seemingly relaxed, as he looked across the room packed with about a dozen family members, relatives and a few of his political reps. He did not utter a word, but his hands were let go from the cuffs during the plead hearing. He was led back to the jail by U.S. marshals after Judge Angell rejected his lawyer's case for bail.

"I have a very narrow focus on one thing, which is his flight risk. So for that I'm going to detain him in federal prison until his next trial date," said Judge Angell.

The charges stem from a 2006 citizenship application, which Woewiyu later amended with a written supplement, Perez said. Woewiyu was arrested Monday as he returned from Liberia at Newark's Liberty International Airport. He faces 110 years in prison and $4 million in fines if found guilty.

A U.S. citizenship application includes 53 Yes/No questions that let authorities know a bit or more about an applicant's past. Some of the questions have human rights and related implications. Here are some examples:

Have you ever advocated (either directly or indirectly) the overthrow of any government by force or violence? Yes/No. Were you ever involved in any way with any of the following: Genocide, Torture, Killing, or trying to kill, someone? Badly hurting, or trying to hurt, a person on purpose?

Were you ever a member of, or did you ever serve in, help, or otherwise participate in, any of the following groups? Military unit; Paramilitary unit; Police unit; Self-defense unit; Vigilante unit; Rebel group; Guerrilla group; Militia or Insurgent organization? To these questions, alleged U.S. authorities, Mr. Woewiyu asked "NO" to more, if not all.

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