-In Lutheran church massacre
A federal judge in a U.S. court in Philadelphia is considering evidence in the infamous massacre of over 600 civilians at the Lutheran Church during the brutal civil war here in July of 1990.
In a case brought before the court by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) on behalf of survivors, the victims have accused forces loyal to slain President Samuel Doe as being responsible for the massacre.
On Tuesday, March 16, 2021, CJA, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, and Blank Rome LLP submitted close to two thousand pages of evidence seeking to prove that the former elite unit of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) perpetrated the massacres at the Lutheran church.
The brief filed with the court alleges that on July 29, 1990, Moses Thomas, as commander of the AFL’s Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, directed his troops to attack the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, which has been recorded as one of the largest massacres.
At the time, the Church served as a shelter, housing nearly 2,000 civilians seeking refuge from the growing violence in the country. Thomas and his troops, according to the court document stormed the Church, despite its protected status under international humanitarian law, shooting and hacking to death approximately 600 unarmed civilians.
Four survivors of the massacre, names withheld for fear of retribution reportedly sued Thomas in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Thomas had been living in the United States since 2000. Today’s filing brings them one step closer toward holding Thomas to account for atrocities committed over the course of the massacre.
In a sworn statement filed with the court, one survivor described the night of the massacre: “The soldiers opened fire on the crowd without saying anything. I dropped to the ground and covered myself with blood, so it looked like I had been shot. I hid among the bodies, pretending to be dead…I lay there as the AFL shot and killed hundreds of unarmed men, women, and children.” The survivor who was a child at the time,
described hiding in the church’s pulpit with a little boy. He explained, “I whispered my little brother’s name at this boy, even though I knew that my little brother was in the school building with my mother. I just wanted to have my family alive with me, and the thought that my brother was next to me kept me believing that I could survive.”
The evidence presented on Tuesday also includes detailed testimony from eyewitnesses, an expert report from the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy here and declassified U.S. embassy and CIA cables.
Elizabeth Nielsen, counsel at Debevoise& Plimpton, representing the plaintiffs noted: “We believe that today’s court filing presents conclusive evidence that Thomas was responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre and we are asking the court to hold Thomas liable for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”
Another survivor, name withheld, narrated that they filed this case in the United States because they have been unable to obtain accountability in Liberia.
“Everybody knows that the Lutheran Church Massacre happened, but there has been no accountability. The people responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre remain free.” The survivor explained.
The survivor further explained why he is pursuing justice now: “It is very difficult for me to remember and speak about these events, because it makes me feel terrible. But I joined this case and am speaking out now because I know that what Moses Thomas did was wrong, and I want to bring him to justice. I want him to be held accountable for what he did to me and so many others at the Lutheran Church.”
“Liberia has yet to see meaningful accountability for the atrocities committed during its civil wars, despite demands from Liberian civil society and recommendations by the United Nations,” said Ela Matthews, attorney at CJA representing the plaintiffs. “The catalog of evidence filed today not only proves our clients’ claims against Thomas, but shows why Liberia must finally take action to end impunity.”
The background courtesy CJA
The Lutheran Church Massacre
As the war between the government’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and Charles Taylor’s rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) escalated in the spring and summer of 1990, Liberian civilians flooded into humanitarian aid centers and churches throughout the capital city in search of sanctuary from the growing violence. The Red Cross and the Liberian Council of Churches set up shelters, including St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, to house nearly 9,000 internally displaced people.
As rebel forces gained strength, the Armed Forces of Liberia grew more brazen and increasingly attacked civilians, specifically targeting members of the Mano and Gio tribes, who were perceived as loyal to Charles Taylor’s rebel movement. By late July, as many as 2,000 civilians—mostly from the Mano and Gio tribes—were sheltering in the Lutheran Church compound, sleeping in the church, its courtyard, and a school building in the compound. On the night of July 29, 1990, as NPFL forces closed in on Monrovia, AFL soldiers stormed the crowded St. Peter’s Lutheran Church compound and attacked the approximately two thousand civilians taking shelter inside.
Men, women, and children were gunned down as they attempted to flee. Many who survived the initial rounds of shooting were hacked to death with machetes as soldiers spread out over the compound, ensuring the slaughter was complete. Some people, including our clients, survived by hiding under piles of dead bodies until the soldiers left. Most sources estimate that over 600 civilians died over the course of that night.
In 2009, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the Lutheran Church Massacre as one of the key atrocities of the Liberian civil wars. Despite widespread condemnation of the attack, little has been done by the Liberian government to further investigate or prosecute individual perpetrators.
Nonetheless, survivors continue to demand justice. That is where CJA and the Monrovia-based Global Justice Research Project (GJRP) stepped in. Together, we investigated this historic atrocity and built a case against those responsible for the attack.
On February 12, 2018, CJA and pro bono co-counsel Debevoise& Plimpton, LLP filed a civil suit in a Philadelphia court on behalf of four survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre and their families against Moses Thomas for his alleged role in the Lutheran Church massacre.
The suit alleges that Thomas, a former Colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia, led AFL forces in its attack on St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on the night of July 29, 1990. Thomas moved to the United States during Liberia’s Second Civil War. Around 2000, he settled in the Philadelphia area. As a longtime U.S. resident, he is subject to the laws and jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. We allege that Thomas is liable for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
On April 26, 2018, Thomas filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the statute of limitations on Plaintiffs’ claims had run out, and that Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust domestic remedies in Liberia. CJA defeated the motion, arguing that the situation in Liberia was so unstable that survivors could not seek justice in the immediate aftermath of the Massacre.
In denying the motion to dismiss, the Court also allowed Plaintiffs’ claims under the Alien Tort Statute to proceed, after finding that their allegations sufficiently touch and concern the United States, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.
On March 16, 2021, CJA and Debevoise& Plimpton filed a motion for summary judgment, supported by evidence developed over a seven-year investigation. The motion argues that the record developed in this case makes clear Moses Thomas’ responsibility for the massacre, and requests that the court find Thomas liable for torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
This lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia responsible for abuses committed during the civil wars and the first to confront a high-ranking commander for perpetrating one of the largest civilian massacres in Liberia’s history.