Photos courtsey of Tim Hetherington Trust
The massacre at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church is one of the most horrific attacks on civilians in Liberia’s history. On July 29, 1990, soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia murdered approximately 600 unarmed men, women, and children that had sought refuge at the designated Red Cross shelter. CJA represents four survivors and their families in their effort to seek justice against one of the alleged commanders of the attack. Read the complaint here.
In the midst of Liberia’s first civil war, as Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia sought to unseat then-President Samuel Doe, Liberians began flooding into humanitarian aid centers and churches throughout the capital city in search of safety from the growing violence.
The Red Cross and the Liberian Council of Churches set up shelters, including St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, to house nearly 9,000 internally displaced people. Many of the displaced were seeking safety from government forces loyal to President Doe and his majority Krahn tribe, who were committing retaliatory attacks against Manos and Gios, two ethnolinguistic groups perceived as loyal to Charles Taylor’s rebel movement.
On the night of July 29, 1990, as NPFL forces came within five miles of Monrovia, a group of government soldiers belonging to the elite Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SATU) surrounded the crowded St. Peter’s Lutheran Church compound and attacked the approximately two thousand civilians taking shelter inside.
Men, women, and children were gunned down as they attempted to flee to safety, and many who survived the initial rounds of shooting were hacked to death with machetes as soldiers passed through the church and an adjacent school building, ensuring the slaughter was complete. Some people, including our clients, survived by hiding under piles of dead bodies until the soldiers left. Most reliable sources estimate that over 600 civilians, mostly Manos and Gios, died over the course of the attack.
Liberia’s armed conflict continued off and on for nearly fourteen years and resulted in the death of over 200,000 civilians, and the displacement of over half the population. In 2003, a comprehensive peace agreement officially ended the civil war and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate human rights abuses and recommend prosecutions. The TRC’s final report in 2009 identified the Lutheran Church Massacre as one of the key atrocities of that armed conflict.
Despite widespread condemnation for the attack, little has been done by the Liberian government to further investigate or prosecute individual perpetrators. Nonetheless, survivors continue to demand justice. That is where CJA stepped in.
On behalf of four survivors and their families, CJA filed a civil suit in a Philadelphia court for claims of torture, extrajudicial killing, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, against Moses Thomas who is believed to have led the attack.
According to evidence obtained by CJA, a death squad and the elite Special Anti-Terrorist Unit are believed to have perpetrated the attack under the direction and command of a high-ranking Lieutenant Colonel who had since fled to the U.S. As a longtime U.S. resident, the perpetrator is subject to the laws and jurisdiction of U.S. courts.
CJA’s lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold a commander of Samuel Doe’s government forces responsible for serious violations of international law and the first to confront a high ranking commander for the perpetration of Liberia’s most historic attack.