Accused Liberian’s trial in Philly highlights complicated U.S. legacy in war-torn African nation

By Jeremy Roebuck, Staff Writer @jeremyrroebuck | |

Camera icon DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Thomas Woewiyu outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia during a break Monday from his immigration fraud trial.

Nearly 30 years after a force of rebels seized much of Liberia, executed its president, and kicked off a devastating civil war, Herman J. Cohen’s first face-to-face meeting with the country’s most infamous warlord, Charles Taylor, remains cemented in his memory.

Cohen, then serving as an assistant U.S. secretary of state, had been dispatched in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush in hopes of securing assurances that American interests would be protected from the fighting that had already killed hundreds of civilians. But he quickly realized this was to be no ordinary meeting between diplomat and foreign leader.

“We were greeted by these teenagers, all of whom had very large automatic weapons. It was quite frightening,” Cohen recalled Wednesday in a federal courtroom in Philadelphia. Taylor, he said, sat at their center, lounging in fatigues under a thatched roof on what appeared to be a makeshift throne.

But it was the artwork hanging behind the West African strongman that caught Cohen’s eye. “There was a large portrait of the Kennedy family – John F. Kennedy and his wife,” Cohen said. “I got the feeling he was identifying with him.”

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