Victims wait for ruling in lawsuit over Liberian massacre

A federal judge in Philadelphia will decide if there’s enough evidence to rule in favor of survivors of a 1990 massacre during Liberia’s civil wars or whether a trial should take place.

A filing this week by four people who lived through a military assault on people sheltering in a Lutheran church in the capital of Monrovia in which about 600 people were killed argues that there’s enough evidence to decide the case.

The lawsuit states that members of the Armed Forces of Liberia shot and hacked to death unarmed civilians at a Red Cross shelter on the grounds of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, and seeks damages from the alleged military commander at the scene, Moses W. Thomas.

Thomas had lived in the Philadelphia area after the war, working in a restaurant, but is now believed to be in Liberia, said Nushin Sarkarati with the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

The four survivors suing Thomas, listed by pseudonyms in court papers, say they survived by pretending to be dead amid and underneath others’ bodies, smearing blood on themselves to fake death and hiding in the pulpit, clinging to a Bible.

The plaintiffs say Thomas, 67, was a colonel leading an anti-terrorist unit that day, but in a January 2019 filing, he denied heading up a “specialized group of the government’s armed forces” at the scene of the massacre.

Thomas has also argued that too much time had elapsed to file the lawsuit under the 1992 federal Torture Victim Prevention Act. Thomas has said he had never been to the church and argued that any injuries the plaintiffs suffered were from people that he did not control.

“Mr. Thomas has always disputed the allegations,” his lawyer, Nixon Teah Kannah said in an email on Thursday. “We filed an answer to the complaint denying that Mr. Thomas was involved and or responsible in any way for what occurred at the Lutheran Church.”

In the court filing Tuesday, the survivors asked U.S. District Judge Petrese B. Tucker to rule for them, arguing their evidence Plaintiffs’ evidence showed Thomas “was responsible for the massacre and is liable for extrajudicial killings, attempted extrajudicial killings, torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”

They are seeking damages, but do not believe he has significant assets, Sarkarati said.

They allege Thomas was in command as soldiers fired into the packed church from the front door and through windows, targeting those trying to escape.

One of the plaintiffs, called Jane W. in court documents, is also suing on behalf of her husband and two young daughters, who were all killed that day. Jane W. survived by hiding under corpses.

“As she lay still, facing down, she felt the bodies of those who had been shot fall on top of her, their blood pooling around her,” the plaintiffs’ motion said. “When dawn broke and she finally crawled out from under the pile, she could barely see the floor amidst the dead bodies.”

Thomas, the plaintiffs say, announced a ceasefire after about an hour and ordered the soldiers to depart.

“After soldiers began leaving, he walked to the front of the church once more and said, ‘Everyone is dead. All soldiers out,’” the plaintiffs allege. Volunteers who were able to enter the church a couple months later buried about 400 people in mass graves on the property.

Thomas was later promoted to head the country’s defense intelligence service before emigrating to the United States in 2000. He lived in Sharon Hill, Pennsylvania, until at least 2019, the plaintiffs said.

If Tucker rules against the victims’ motion for summary judgment, trial is tentatively scheduled for July.

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