U.S. Court Finds Former Liberian Military Commander Liable for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

Colonel Moses Thomas held responsible for the 1990 massacre of 600 civilians sheltering in a church

Media Contact:
Lisa Cohen
(310) 395-2544 / lisa@lisacohen.org

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 16, 2021

In a historic decision released today, a Pennsylvania court found Col. Moses Thomas liable for the massacre of 600 civilians at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, Liberia in July 1990. The court found that Thomas, as commander of the Armed Forces of Liberia’s elite Special Anti-Terrorist Unit, ordered and directed one of the deadliest civilian massacres in Liberia’s First Civil War, and is liable for war crimes, crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, and torture.

Four survivors of the massacre – Jane W, John X, John Y, and John Z – sued Thomas in 2018 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where he had been living since 2000. In March 2021, Plaintiffs filed nearly 2,000 pages of evidence with the court, arguing that Thomas commanded AFL soldiers who carried out the Lutheran Church Massacre. Today, the court found Thomas liable. The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, and Blank Rome LLP represent the survivors. All four plaintiffs remain anonymous, as they fear retaliation and persecution for their efforts to pursue justice.

“This judgment is a key step towards achieving justice not only for our clients, but also for other survivors and victims of Liberia’s civil wars,” said Nushin Sarkarati, senior staff attorney at CJA. “The court’s decision establishes the historical record for the Lutheran Church Massacre, recognizes the attack was a war crime and a crime against humanity, and is the first to hold a member of the government’s armed forces responsible for war-time atrocities.”

“As the court recognized,” Elizabeth Nielsen, counsel at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, said “the survivors have been forced to file their suit in the United States because the Liberian government has taken no action to see meaningful accountability for civil-war era violations. The government has not established a specialized war crimes court to prosecute those responsible for war-time violations, despite a recommendation from the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations, as well as significant support from Liberian civil society and lawmakers.” Liberia also has not held any trials for atrocities committed during its fourteen years of civil war. In 2019, Thomas left the United States and returned to Liberia, where he has not been subject to investigation or arrest.

“For more than two decades, Liberians have known that their government perpetrated the Lutheran Church Massacre,” said Hassan Bility of Monrovia’s Global Justice Research Project. “The decision finds conclusive evidence of government responsibility for the massacre, as well as Thomas’ individual role in it. Now that Thomas is back in Liberia, the Liberian government must investigate and prosecute him for this crime, and any others. Until there is domestic accountability in Liberia, survivors and victims cannot live in peace.”

For more on this case, visit: https://cja.org/what-we-do/litigation/jane-v-thomas/

About the Center for Justice and Accountability

The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) is a San Francisco-based human rights legal organization dedicated to deterring torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious human rights abuses around the world through innovative litigation and transitional justice strategies. CJA partners with impacted communities seeking truth, justice, and redress, and has successfully brought cases against defendants such as the Minister of Defense of Somalia’s Siad Barre regime, the military officer responsible for the assassination of Chilean activist and singer Victor Jara, and Syria’s Assad regime for its targeted killing of war correspondent Marie Colvin.

About the Global Justice and Research Project

Established in 2012, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) is a Liberia-based non-profit, non-governmental organization that documents war related crimes in Liberia and, where possible, seeks justice for victims of said crimes, with the full consent of the victims. The GJRP works in partnership with Civitas Maxima, a Geneva-based non-profit, non-governmental organization, which ensures the coordination of a network of international lawyers and investigators who work for the interests of those who have been victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

About Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

Debevoise & Plimpton LLP is a premier law firm with market-leading practices, a global perspective and strong New York roots. Debevoise delivers effective solutions to its clients’ most important legal challenges, applying clear commercial judgment and a distinctively collaborative approach. Debevoise’s globally recognized team of International Dispute Resolution lawyers has extensive experience advising and litigating in relation to all aspects of public international law.

About Blank Rome LLP

Blank Rome LLP is an Am Law 100 firm with 13 offices and more than 600 attorneys and principals who provide comprehensive legal and advocacy services to clients operating in the United States and around the world. Blank Rome’s professionals have built a reputation for their leading knowledge and experience across a spectrum of industries, and are recognized for their commitment to pro bono work in their communities. For more information, please visit blankrome.com.