PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Liberian senate candidate accused of lying on U.S. immigration papers about his ties to an alleged rebel group will remain jailed in Pennsylvania to await trial.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu has lived in the U.S. since 1972, even while playing an active role in Liberia’s civil war in the 1980s, and later holding high-level positions in its government.
U.S. authorities in Philadelphia have charged him with lying on citizenship papers about his political ties to convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, the west African country’s former president. He allegedly checked “no” when asked if he had any political affiliations or had ever joined in an attempted coup.
A judge Friday denied him bail on fraud and perjury charges, deeming Woewiyu a flight risk. Prosecutors said he had flown to and from Liberia 38 times since 2002, sometimes staying for several months. Woewiyu also owns property there, including a rubber farm. Defense lawyer Benjamin Perez, though, questioned why he would flee when he hopes to become a U.S. citizen.
“This is not the sort of case that one would run from,” Perez argued.
The charges stem from a 2006 citizenship application, which Woewiyu later amended with a written supplement, Perez said. Woewiyu was arrested Monday as he returned from Liberia through Newark Liberty International Airport.
Perez said it would be “catastrophic” if the charges ultimately lead to his client’s deportation, because he has a wife and six children live in the U.S., including a son in the U.S. Navy. More than a dozen family members attended Friday’s detention hearing. They declined comment afterward.
Woewiyu and his wife are legal permanent residents. They live in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, where Woewiyu, also known as Thomas Smith, works in property investment.
He served under Taylor in the 1990s, and earlier helped start the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which mounted a violent campaign to depose Taylor’s predecessor, Samuel Doe, the indictment said. He served as the party’s defense minister, and later as Taylor’s labor minister and as president pro tempore of the senate.
“He is very, very much involved in public life in the country of Liberia,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright said in court, arguing that he could flee.
The indictment links Woewiyu to his party’s earlier campaign to execute political opponents, force girls into sex slavery and conscript boys to become child soldiers. However, his immigration lawyer, Raymond Basso, said this week that Woewiyu “had nothing to do with any of that.”
The investigation is being conducted by several federal agencies, including an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement unit that focuses on human rights violators and war criminals.
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