HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A former Liberian military commander who supervised the slaughter of hundreds of unarmed civilians at a church during that country’s civil war in 1990 is liable under U.S. law for participating in extrajudicial killings and torture, a federal judge in Philadelphia has ruled.
The decision was issued Wednesday against Moses W. Thomas and in favor of four anonymous plaintiffs who lived through the military assault on people seeking safety at a Red Cross shelter on the grounds of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. They recounted hiding under dead bodies to survive, smearing blood on themselves to fake death and hiding in the pulpit, clinging to a Bible.
After the war, Thomas emigrated to the United States, worked at a restaurant, and lived in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, a Philadelphia suburb. He went back to Liberia two years ago. His lawyer said Friday he now lives in the capital of Monrovia.
“He oversaw the events and only declared an end to the shooting when he understood the occupants of the church to have been all killed,” wrote U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker. She said the plaintiffs lost close relatives and suffered “serious, prolonged physical and mental harms as a result of the massacre.”
She also said Thomas’s actions as an Armed Forces of Liberia colonel in July 1990 make him liable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The lawsuit said Thomas was in command as soldiers fired into the packed church from the front door and through windows, targeting those trying to escape. Thomas was later promoted to head the country’s defense intelligence service and emigrated to the United States in 2000.
Thomas’s lawyer, Nixon Teah Kannah, said they “accept the decision but we don’t agree with it.”
“I’m disappointed with the results,” Kannah said. “I’m going to reach out to him to see how he wants to handle it, if he wants to appeal or let it be.”
Nushin Sarkarati, a lawyer for the four plaintiffs, called it the first time a court has held a member of the Liberian military responsible for wartime atrocities.
“There’s going to be a damages hearing, which will be important to identify the harm of the victims and the egregiousness of the abuse,” she said. “But whether or not our clients will be able to recover, I can’t anticipate right now.”
Judge Tucker said that in Liberia, Thomas has “leveraged his contacts in the country’s security forces” to harass people suspected of being associated with the U.S. federal lawsuit against him. The four plaintiffs all live in Liberia. Damages in the case will be determined later by a different federal judge.
Thomas had unsuccessfully argued too much time had elapsed to file the lawsuit under the 1992 federal Torture Victim Prevention Act and claimed he had never been to the church. Kannah said Friday that Thomas maintains he is innocent of the allegations.