PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Liberian man who was accused of lying on his U.S. immigration forms about his ties to his country’s war criminals was convicted on Tuesday, a few months after another man was found guilty of similar offenses.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu was convicted after a three-week trial that included testimony from foreign reporters, intelligence officials and a former child soldier. He was convicted on perjury, immigration fraud and other charges stemming from answers he gave on a 2006 application for citizenship, saying he never took part in the overthrow of a government.
Immigration and human rights investigators said Woewiyu was part of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which sparked a multifaction tribal conflict and civil war. They said his role was as one-time defense minister, spokesman and face of Taylor’s regime.
Woewiyu’s attorneys said during the trial that the prosecutors had no jurisdiction to examine possible involvement in the west African nation’s civil wars or to make the trial about possible war crimes.
They said Woewiyu, who lived in Collingdale, just southwest of Philadelphia, had come to the U.S. to attend college in the 1970s and had spent the last 40 years travelling back and forth to Liberia, where he once served in the country’s Senate. They painted a picture of a trusted member of the community and grandfather.
The Liberian civil wars included a campaign by Taylor to execute political opponents, force girls into sex slavery and conscript boys to become child soldiers, prosecutors said.
“You can’t commit human rights abuses in your own country and come here and expect to obtain citizenship,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Thayer said in his opening remarks to jurors.
Sentencing in the case was set for October.
The trial came months after another Liberian man, Mohammed Jabbateh, known as Jungle Jabbah, was convicted of lying on his immigration paperwork about his role in the country’s civil wars and was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Woewiyu’s attorneys said that unlike Jabbateh he was not involved directly with the ground war or the atrocities.
Jabbateh, who lived in East Lansdowne, just west of Philadelphia, disclosed he was assigned to a security detail for a rebel leader but maintained he never committed the violent acts described in the indictment against him.
Jabbateh’s case represented one of a handful of legal efforts to track down people accused of committing atrocities during the civil wars, which began in 1989 and devastated Liberia through most of the 1990s and early 2000s.
In 2008, Taylor’s son was convicted in a federal court in Florida of torturing or ordering the torture of political opponents and was sentenced to 97 years in prison.
Taylor resigned as Liberia’s president in 2003 and is serving a 50-year prison sentence on a conviction he aided and abetted rebels who committed atrocities in neighboring Sierra Leone.
Taylor’s ex-wife has said the wars may have been a “necessary” chapter in Liberia’s history.
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