Jane W et al. V. Thomas (Lutheran Church Massacre)

Jane W et al. v. Thomas (Lutheran Church Massacre)

Jane W et al. V. Thomas
(Lutheran Church Massacre)

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Photos courtsey of Tim Hetherington  Trust

CASE STATUS

Open

HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUES

COUNTRY

The massacre at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church is one of the single deadliest attacks against civilians in Liberia’s history. On July 29, 1990, soldiers from the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) murdered approximately 600 unarmed men, women, and children who 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, our motion for summary judgment, evidence, and the U.S. Court decision holding the AFL responsible for the attack.

 

The Lutheran Church Massacre

As the war between the government’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and Charles Taylor’s rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) escalated in the spring and summer of 1990, Liberian civilians flooded into humanitarian aid centers and churches throughout the capital city in search of sanctuary from the growing violence. The Red Cross and the Liberian Council of Churches set up shelters, including St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, to house nearly 9,000 internally displaced people.

As rebel forces gained strength, the Armed Forces of Liberia grew more brazen and increasingly attacked civilians, specifically targeting members of the Mano and Gio tribes, who were perceived as loyal to Charles Taylor’s rebel movement. By late July, as many as 2,000 civilians—mostly from the Mano and Gio tribes—were sheltering in the Lutheran Church compound, sleeping in the church, its courtyard, and a school building in the compound. On the night of July 29, 1990, as NPFL forces closed in on Monrovia, AFL soldiers stormed 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. Many who survived the initial rounds of shooting were hacked to death with machetes as soldiers spread out over the compound, ensuring the slaughter was complete. Some people, including our clients, survived by hiding under piles of dead bodies until the soldiers left. Most sources estimate that over 600 civilians died over the course of that night.

In 2009, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission identified the Lutheran Church Massacre as one of the key atrocities of the Liberian civil wars. Despite widespread condemnation of 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 and the Monrovia-based Global Justice Research Project (GJRP) stepped in. Together, we investigated this historic atrocity and built a case against those responsible for the attack.

U.S. Litigation

On February 12, 2018, CJA and pro bono co-counsel Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP filed a civil suit in a Philadelphia court on behalf of four survivors of the Lutheran Church

Massacre and their families against Moses Thomas for his alleged role in the Lutheran Church massacre.

The suit alleges that Thomas, a former colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia, led AFL forces in its attack on St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on the night of July 29, 1990.  Thomas moved to the United States during Liberia’s Second Civil War. Around 2000, he settled in the Philadelphia area. As a longtime U.S. resident, he is subject to the laws and jurisdiction of U.S. courts.

The case was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. We allege that Thomas is liable for extrajudicial killing, torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

On April 26, 2018, Thomas filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that the statute of limitations on Plaintiffs’ claims had run out, and that Plaintiffs had failed to exhaust domestic remedies in Liberia. CJA defeated the motion, arguing that the situation in Liberia was so unstable that survivors could not seek justice in the immediate aftermath of the Massacre. In denying the motion to dismiss, the Court also allowed Plaintiffs’ claims under the Alien Tort Statute to proceed, after finding that their allegations sufficiently touch and concern the United States, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

On March 16, 2021, CJA along with pro bono co-counsel Debevoise & Plimpton and Blank Rome LLP filed a motion for summary judgment, supported by evidence developed over a seven-year investigation. The motion argued that the record developed in this case makes clear Moses Thomas’ responsibility for the massacre, and requested that the court find Thomas liable for torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

On September 15, 2021, Judge Tucker of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted the motion for summary judgment finding Moses Thomas liable for torture, extrajudicial killing, and attempted extrajudicial killing under the Torture Victim Protection Act, as well as for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under the Alien Tort Statute. In reaching this decision, the Court emphasized the obstacles faced by the Plaintiffs and other survivors of the massacre in their efforts to seek justice in Liberia, and the lack of domestic criminal or civil accountability for civil war atrocity crimes to date. This decision is the first to bring to account a high-ranking commander for one of the largest civilian massacres in Liberia’s history, to recognize the Lutheran Church Massacre as a war crime and crime against humanity, and to hold a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia responsible for abuses committed during the civil wars. A hearing on damages will be scheduled at a later date.

Read the court’s full decision.