Liberians living in Pennsylvania are reacting to the news a countryman accused of war crimes has been arrested and faces a detention hearing Friday.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, 68, has been federally indicted on charges of lying on his application for U.S. citizenship in 2009.
Woewiyu was part of the administration of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence for crimes against humanity.
Woewiyu also served as defense minister for the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which authorities say was responsible for the rape, torture and murder of opponents, civilians and aid workers.
The indictment alleges that Woewiyu, who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years, did not include his role in the Liberian civil war on his citizenship application. That was the basis for his arrest Monday by Homeland Security agents at Newark Liberty International Airport.
Voffee Jabateh, the executive director of the African Cultural Alliance of North America, based in West Philadelphia, said the area’s small Liberian community knew Woewiyu was living in the Delaware County borough of Collingdale. But Jabateh said members of the close-knit Liberian community in the U.S. are reluctant to point fingers.
“Tom is my friend. I met him and he knows me very well. But that does not negate the fact that they are responsible for what got us in exile. Personally, I don’t hold him for doing anything personal to me, but for the destruction of the nation of Liberia, yes, he is one of the perpetrators — major perpetrators,” Jabateh said.
Woewiyu’s attorney, Raymond Basso, said his client is being unfairly targeted by the U.S. government.
“He’s absolutely denying that he had anything to do with war crimes whatsoever and he’s going to deny that he lied or made misrepresentations on his immigration application. He’s not a lawyer. He’s a layperson. He filled it out on his own,” Basso said. “If he made those omissions, it was a mistake.”
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Woewiyu could face a sentence of up to 110 years in prison for multiple counts of immigration fraud and perjury.
Jabateh said others who played a role in the violence in Liberia live freely in the United States.
“Many people who lost their families, who lost their loved ones, they are helpless … we would like to see these people brought to justice,” he said. “But we don’t have any means to do so as private citizens and individuals.”