Jane W et al. V. Thomas
(Lutheran Church Massacre)
Photos courtsey of Tim Hetherington Trust
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 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, and evidence.
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.
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 and Debevoise & Plimpton filed a motion for summary judgment, supported by evidence developed over a seven-year investigation. The motion argues that the record developed in this case makes clear Moses Thomas’ responsibility for the massacre, and requests that the court find Thomas liable for torture, extrajudicial killings, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
This lawsuit is the first case seeking to hold a member of the Armed Forces of Liberia responsible for abuses committed during the civil wars and the first to confront a high-ranking commander for perpetrating one of the largest civilian massacres in Liberia’s history.