By JEREMY ROEBUCK AND KELLY BRENNAN | Philly.com |
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The deal was negotiated over years in a seedy Miami warehouse, a historic Washington hotel, and even the passenger lounge at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City.
Up for sale were hundreds of military-grade automatic weapons, thousands of rounds of ammunition, and surface-to-air missiles — all purportedly stolen while en route to American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Kuwait.
The prospective buyer — Thomas Woewiyu, a top lieutenant to Liberian warlord Charles Taylor — was willing to pay top dollar for the firepower that would help his rebel army seize control of his West African nation’s government.
Little did he know U.S. authorities were recording him the whole time.
As federal prosecutors in Philadelphia wrapped up their case this week against Woewiyu — the Collingdale, Delaware County, man on trial for allegedly lying to U.S. immigration authorities about his role in Liberia’s first protracted and bloody civil war, in the 1990s — they shifted focus toward examining the part he played in arming Taylor’s forces throughout the conflict.
In 1993, Woewiyu, then serving as Taylor’s defense minister and chief spokesman, was caught up in an undercover sting operation conducted by U.S. customs officials hoping to snare a Florida arms smuggler. As the lead agent on that case, Gary Lang, described video footage recorded during that probe, he offered jurors something new to consider: images and audio of Woewiyu examining what he allegedly believed to be stolen military hardware and negotiating how he could sneak it out of the United States.
“Yeah, medical supplies. They are all over the place,” Woewiyu jokingly said during one recorded conversation played in court this week, a reference to his plan to smuggle the illicit firearms into Liberia by disguising them as humanitarian aid.
The $2.3 million deal was never consummated and Woewiyu was not charged, Lang said. But the images of the blithe commando, then 47, seen on the recordings portrayed Woewiyu in a far different light than how jurors have seen him in throughout much of the trial.
Although other government witnesses have described countless atrocities committed by Taylor’s fighting force, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) — including ethnically targeted killings, torture, and the conscription of child soldiers, Woewiyu, now 72, has reacted to much of it with an air of unconcerned aplomb.
Be suited and often chewing gum while seated next to his lawyers at the defense table, he rarely has sought to challenge the accounts of NPFL brutality described by the wartime victims testifying against him.
Instead, Woewiyu has focused on the core issue in his case — whether he lied about his association with Taylor when applying for U.S. citizenship starting in 2006.
He has maintained that he was always up front with American authorities about his role and that he was unaware of the NPFL’s worst excesses during a war that left more than 200,000 civilians dead between 1989 and 1997.
Source: Stars Stripes