A federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that a former Liberian military commander, Moses W. Thomas, who oversaw the massacre of hundreds of innocent civilians at a church during the country’s civil war in 1990 can be held to account under U.S. law for the extrajudicial killings and torture.
The judge ruled in favor of four anonymous survivors of the military assault on Wednesday. The brutal war crime was enacted on citizens looking for safety at a Red Cross shelter at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church.
Religious institutions are normally safe havens for civilians caught in conflict and are supposed to be off limits to the violence committed outside their walls. The survivors detailed a harrowing attack in which they hid under dead bodies to survive, smeared blood on themselves to appear dead and hid in the pulpit, clinging to a Bible.
“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.
Tucker said the plaintiffs lost loved ones and suffered “serious, prolonged physical and mental harms as a result of the massacre.”
After the war, Thomas immigrated 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.
She also said Thomas’ 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 immigrated to the United States in 2000.
Thomas’ 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.