Survivors of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre–one of the bloodiest in Liberia’s history, have sued the Liberian Government to the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice in Abuja, Nigeria for failing to investigate and prosecute alleged perpetrators of the carnage.
An estimated 600 people, including men, women and children were hacked to death in the church in July 1990. The Special Anti-Terrorist Unit loyal to then President, Samuel Doe was blamed for the killings, allegedly targeted at mainly members of the Gio and Mano ethnic groups for their alleged support to now detained former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, whose National Patriotic Front of Liberia forces were fighting the Liberian army to overthrow Doe.
US holding them to account
Col. Moses Thomas, the SATU commander on the night of the killings, is the only one who has been civilly sued and found liable for them(killings). In August, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ordered Thomas, 68, to pay $ US 84 million. “Stupidity! Quote me any way you want to. Let to go to hell and kiss my a… !”, Thomas angrily reacted to the ruling in a phone call. The Weah administration may seem reluctant to ensure the enforcement of the judgment, but survivors of the massacre are relentless in pursuing justice for their families and loved ones, and believe the ECOWAS Court is the best legal forum to do so and to bring pressure to bear on an administration that’s not given a definitive position on calls to prosecute war-time atrocities.
Dereliction of duty
In a 49-count application for the enforcement of fundamental human rights before the court, the survivors prayed for “full reparation for Liberia’s failure to effectively investigate and prosecute the Lutheran Church Massacre”. The plaintiffs, including three of the survivors (names withheld for fear of reprisals) and the Liberian human rights organization, the Global Justice, and Research Project asked the court order Liberia to “immediately commence an independent and effective investigation of the massacre, including prosecuting those responsible, acknowledge its violations, as well as memorialize and apologize to the victims and their families and provide appropriate compensation, including material and moral damages”.
They accused the previous governments and the Weah administration of failing to fully implement recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which primarily called for the setting up of a special tribunal to prosecute those accused of bearing the greatest responsibility for the wars, including Thomas named on a list of “Most Notorious Perpetrators”. They also alleged that past governments and the current administration have neglected their responsibility to uphold the various human rights protocols which Liberia acceded to, including the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. “Liberia’s abject failure to investigate, arrest, or prosecute any of the perpetrators of the Lutheran Church Massacre is a dereliction of its duty under international human rights and humanitarian law to conduct an effective investigation into the violations that occurred there”, they alleged in their complaint.
In a sworn declaration, one of the plaintiffs, (who we are calling Kollie Caine for this report) says he still goes through the trauma of the killings. Now 48, Caine says he was a teenager during the killings, but recalls he hid himself under a desk in the classroom in the schoolhouse adjoining the Church, as his mother gave the AFL soldiers $US 500 to leave them alone. But they took the money and killed her (his mother) and some relatives, seeking shelter in the building, according to him.
“My mother was in her mid to late 40s when she was killed, and my brother was 9 or 10. Approximately 14 other relatives from my extended family were also killed during
the Lutheran Church Massacre, including my cousin who was 15 years old, and another, who was around 18 years old”. The plaintiff says although he’s fulfilled his promise to his mother of graduating from college and is now married, he has yet to recover from the massacre. He says he still feels “that a dog on the street of Monrovia had greater value than my mother and the other victims of the Lutheran Church Massacre”–what he describes
as a “constant pain.”
Seeking monetary compensation
The massacre survivors want the court to give them US$1,500,000 (one million five-hundred thousand US dollars) for the loss of approximately 16 family members.
Justice Minister, Musa Dean acknowledges the lawsuit against the government, telling New Narratives/FrontPage Africa in a WhatsApp message “An application from the ECOWAS Community Court was received this afternoon. We shall respond to the application in due time”.
This is the first time that Liberia has been sued at the ECOWAS Court for failing to prosecute alleged perpetrators of the civil wars. And the plaintiffs are optimistic the regional court will rule for them–reminding the court of a previous ruling on the moral responsibility of member states to uphold and protect basic human rights “This Court has held that a Member State’s failure to “investigate and prosecute allegations of unlawful killings or to provide redress to victims . . . amount[s] to a violation” of the right to life” they argued. They mentioned how the court stressed that the “importance of punishment of perpetrators cannot be overemphasized both in the protection and the prevention of the violation of such rights. States are expected to bring to book perpetrators in accordance with . . . the criminal law of that particular state” the Lutheran church survivors continued in their complaint. Top Liberian human rights advocate, Hassan Bility, whose organization, GJRP is the other plaintiff in the case says it’s time to end the culture of impunity for past crimes in Liberia. “We hope that this case will amplify the voices of victims who are shouting for the justice they deserve.” “This culture of impunity cannot continue” Bility insisted in a joint statement on the suit by GJRP and other rights organizations. Bility then expressed disappointment that alleged perpetrators of human rights violations in Liberia are not prosecuted for their alleged actions/roles during the wars “For decades, victims of the Liberian civil wars have tirelessly advocated for criminal accountability for civil war era atrocity crimes. Still, today, known and alleged warlords live freely and among the people they terrorized”.
The victims and GJRP are represented in the case by the US based Center for Justice and
Accountability (CJA), the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa (IHRDA), and
Debevoise & Plimpton LLP.
“With alleged perpetrators on its soil, Liberia has an obligation under international law to investigate their alleged civil wars era crimes and bring them to justice” said Ela Matthews, senior staff attorney at CJA in the joint statement on the suit. Matthews is unhappy that Thomas and others are yet to face justice “Despite the U.S. court’s findings, Moses Thomas lives freely in Liberia because the government has taken no steps to ensure justice for him or many other known and alleged perpetrators of civil wars era atrocities, and none of the victims have received a cent of reparations,” she noted.
“Twelve years ago, the TRC directed Liberia to establish an extraordinary criminal tribunal to investigate and prosecute these violations, but Liberia has taken no action to bring perpetrators to account or project justice for survivors and victims, said Oludayo Fabemi, Senior Legal Officer at IHDRA. Fabemi believes the time is ripe for the survivors and victims to get justice. “It’s high time that Liberia finally conduct effective investigations and prosecute civil wars era human rights violations and atrocities”.
Lawsuit coincides with visit of US Amb. on war crimes
The filing of the lawsuit coincides with the visit of Beth Van Schaack, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice to Liberia, beginning today, Thursday. Ambassador Schaack is expected to meet US embassy officials and Liberia’s leading justice activists during her visit, which activists remain optimistic will reenergize their campaign for a war crimes court and pressure the Weah administration to establish it. Just before Ambassador Schaack could jet in, eight leading Liberian and international human rights organizations around the world, including Human Rights Watch, Civitas Maxima, Global Justice and Research Advocates for Human Rights (Bility’s organization), Center for Justice and Accountability, the Secretariat for the Establishment of a War Crimes Court in Liberia and the Transitional Justice Working Group in Liberia issued a joint statement, calling on the US to end impunity for past crimes in Liberia.
“The United States government should stand with victims of civil wars-era crimes in Liberia by signaling its support for a war crimes court to deliver justice and to foster durable peace and stability in the country”, the statement by the organizations read.
Efforts to set up war crimes court, suffer setbacks
Liberia has yet to set up a war crimes court to prosecute alleged war criminals, despite efforts by rights advocates to have set up the court, including a June 2021 petition of the Legislature by a group of hum rights advocates led by the Liberian National Bar Association, campaigns the plaintiffs highlighted in their complaint.
In August 2021, the House of Representatives overturned a 2019 resolution by more than two thirds of its membership in support of the court. That 2019 resolution came a year after the US House of Representatives also adopted a resolution for the court for Liberia, as well as the full implementation of the TRC report. In June 2021, the Senate controversially asked President Weah to set up a transitional justice commission to review recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission–a decision justice activists dismissed as another way to delay their push for accountability for war-time atrocities.
But Caine warns there can be no genuine peace and reconciliation in Liberia without punishing alleged perpetrators for their actions during the wars.
“Without justice, people are unable to heal, which may create a real likelihood that they will take up arms and conflict will resurge. I want to see justice so that Liberians can grieve together as one country, rather than living in a country where warlords dictate the future” he said in his sworn statement.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.