Towards A New Crescendo:

U.S. District Court Grants Summary Judgment for Survivors of the Lutheran Church Massacre

600 unarmed civilians who sought sanctuary in a church in Monrovia – slaughtered – one of the worst atrocities in Liberia’s First Civil War. The First Civil War left 200,000 civilians dead, led 750,000 to flee, and internally displaced 1.2 million.

The plaintiffs were four survivors of the ruthless mass killing at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on 29 July 1990. The church, adorned with Red Cross and UN flags, served as a shelter while it continued its religious services before it became the site of an inhumane massacre.

The plaintiffs filed a complaint against Moses W. Thomas, a colonel in the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and commander of the elite Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SATU) at the time. The lawsuit was filed in Philadelphia, where Thomas was living after immigrating to the United States in 2000 and failing to disclose his role in the massacre.

Thomas filed a motion to dismiss, which the court denied. The defendant eventually stopped participating altogether and fled to Liberia, where he allegedly used contacts to intimidate the plaintiffs and witnesses. His influence remains strong, as many who were under his command have since been promoted within Liberia’s security forces. 

The Center for Justice and Accountability, an international human rights organization, and pro-bono counsel of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP and Blank Rome LLP represented the survivors, standing by them during challenging times of COVID-19. With the conviction that those injured should not have to wait until judicial systems to function effectively, CJA pursues extraterritorial litigation strategies. Through their excellent work, CJA filed the motion for summary judgment based on evidence gathered over a seven-year period. The Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) played an essential role in the development of evidence. The evidence recounted the time before the Massacre, the horrific night itself, and its aftermath. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania took into consideration the testimonies of survivors, journalists, eyewitnesses, military insiders, and experts.

The court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, deferring a determination of damages. Summary judgement can be granted when “there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”[1]

The passing of over thirty years since the Massacre was of no consequence. Equitable tolling enabled the statute of limitations to stop running. Equitable tolling is available under exceptional circumstances if the plaintiff has “been prevented from asserting his rights.”[2] The court previously held that “an ongoing civil war” could be grounds for equitable tolling,[3] as can “fear of violent reprisal by a potential defendant or their allies,”[4] his absence from the United States,[5] and concealing of his identity.[6] All were the case here.

Direct and Command Responsibility of Thomas under both the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute

The federal judge found Thomas liable for extrajudicial killings and attempted extrajudicial killings under the Torture Victim Protection Act (TVPA). Extrajudicial killing is “deliberated killing not authorized by a previous judgment.”[7] For the court, “summary executions” and “a course of indiscriminate brutality, known to result in deaths” can be considered extrajudicial killings.[8]

The court further found the plaintiffs had demonstrated Thomas was liable for torture under the TVPA. The church was surrounded by SATU soldiers who mercilessly fired at all those seeking sanctuary. The plaintiffs, among the others, were “deliberately targeted,” because they “were predominantly of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups” and survived only because they hid under dead bodies until the following morning.[9]

Moreover, the plaintiffs suffered “prolonged physical and mental harms.”[10] For instance, John Y has a bullet wound and “continues to replay images of the atrocities and the carnage in his mind.”[11] John X continues to live with the “emptiness” and Jane W with “unimaginable” pain and when thinking of loved ones lost and the lives they could have lived.[12] John Z has difficulty going through the day whenever reminded of the Massacre.[13] 

The court also found that the plaintiffs demonstrated the liability of Thomas for cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, war crimes, crimes against humanity under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS). It was the first time a court found that the Lutheran Church Massacre was a crime against humanity and a war crime.

The plaintiffs established the liability of Thomas for the war crimes of “(1) intentionally directing attacks against civilians, and (2) intentionally attacking a building dedicated to religion or a charitable purpose.”[14]

The plaintiffs also established liability for persecution and extermination. For the court, the massacre “was the crescendo to a series of killings that included attacks on the UNDP compound and the JFK Hospital” and “part of an overall policy or a consistent pattern of inhumanity.”[15]

Persecution requires “denial of fundamental rights,” and here, the massacre denied the plaintiffs the enjoyment of their “right to life, right to be free from torture, and right to be free from cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”[16] In addition, the court emphasized that “the presence of a senior officer at the site of an ethnically motivated mass killing has provided ample basis for the crime of persecution in the context of other internal conflicts.”[17]

This decision was the first time a member of the government armed forces was found responsible for atrocities committed during Liberia’s First Civil War. The plaintiffs established that Thomas was “primarily liable for directing or ordering the Massacre.”[18]According to the court, SATU was “indisputably” under the command of Thomas, which “only President Doe himself” could “supersede.”[19] His order could be inferred from the fact that the “soldiers arrived as a group and began the attack only after they received the signal of a pistol being shot in the air, and continued until Defendant specifically stated ‘everyone is dead.’”[20]

In establishing liability under the theory of command responsibility, the plaintiffs also demonstrated that Thomas “knew, or should have known, in light of the circumstances at the time, that subordinates had committed, were committing, or were about to commit human rights abuses” while he also failed to “to take all necessary and reasonable measures to prevent rights abuses and punish human rights abusers.”[21]

Absence of Accountability for Over Thirty years

Justice was long-awaited – over thirty years. Each potential path of accountability faced a challenge, “from the military to civilian justice systems and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.”[22] Not only has there been a complete lack of accountability for human rights abuses committed in the civil wars, until now, the utmost level of impunity has prevailed, with perpetrators holding senior political offices in Liberia.

A Meaningful Decision for Survivors

This decision was significant, in that it established a historical record of the events through the eyes of survivors, as well as identification of an individual responsible. The decision offered the chance for the survivors to be heard and to tell their story in a court of law for the first time. The survivors demonstrated extraordinary resilience and courage coming forward with their recollections of the events. To re-live the tragic event, to communicate their traumas, to live in fear of reprisal, requires immense strength.

Jane W has difficulty sleeping when thinking of her husband and children who were killed.[23] For her, “everybody knows that the Lutheran Church Massacre happened, but there has been no accountability. The people responsible for the Lutheran Church Massacre remain free.”[24] John X continues to feel the impact of the loss of his wife, daughter and brothers.[25] John Z lives “with the pain of having witnessed and survived the Lutheran church massacre.”[26]

Future of Accountability for Victims & Survivors

John Y shared his story during the proceedings “because there is hope for justice”. Indeed, the decision has the potential to inspire a sense of justice for victims and survivors and healing in the society in Liberia. It is part of a bigger whole in the search for accountability for victims of the atrocities committed during the bloody civil wars.

Judicial responses to wartime atrocities have been underway abroad from a series of immigration-related perjury charges concerning the lack of disclosure of involvement in such atrocities in the United States (Mohammed Jabbateh, aka Jungle Jabbah, and Thomas Woewiyu) to the first time a Liberian (Alieu Kosiah) was convicted for war crimes committed in the First Civil War in Switzerland.

These decisions have created a fertile environment to advance a vision for justice in Liberia, which can culminate in a new crescendo – a hybrid war crimes tribunal and eventual domestic accountability sought after by the people of Liberia themselves.For Hassan Bility, Director of the GJRP, “Until there is domestic accountability in Liberia, survivors and victims cannot live in peace.”

The collaborative and synergistic efforts of justice and accountability for Liberia thus far and to come can serve as a model for all victims of inhumane atrocities around the world, for the healing and progress of societies towards peace.

[1] Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); Liberty Mut. Ins. Co. v. Sweeney, 689 F.3d 288, 292 (3d Cir. 2012).

[2] United States v. Midgley, 142 F.3d 174, 179 (3d Cir. 1998).

[3] Jane W. v. Thomas, 354 F. Supp. 3d 630, 635 (E.D. Pa. 2018) (citing Arce v. Garcia, 434 F.3d 1254, 1261 (11th Cir. 2006); Chavez v. Carranza, 407 F. Supp. 2d 925, 928 (W.D. Tenn. 2004)).

[4] See, e.g., Hilao v. Est. of Marcos, 103 F.3d 767, 773 (9th Cir. 1996) (ruling substantiated fear of “intimidation and reprisals” can toll the TVPA period.

[5] Jean v. Dorelien, 431 F.3d 776, 780 (11th Cir. 2005) (citing S. Rep. No. 102-249, at 11 (1991)).

[6] Jane W., 354 F. Supp. 3d at 635 (citing Cabello v. Fernandez-Larios, 402 F.3d 1148, 1155-56 (11th Cir. 2005)).

[7] 28 U.S.C.§ 1350 note § 3(a).

[8] Flatow v. Islamic Republic of Iran, 999 F. Supp. 1, 17 (D.D.C. 1998), abrogated on other grounds as recognized in Christie v. Islamic Republic of Iran, No. CV 19-1289 (BAH), 2020 WL 3606273, at *21 (D.D.C. July 2, 2020) (emphasis added).

[9] P. 34

[10] P. 33

[11] P. 33-34

[12] P. 34

[13] P. 34

[14] P. 37

[15] P. 42 (emphasis added).

[16] P. 43

[17] P. 44

[18] P. 45

[19] P. 47

[20] P. 47

[21] P. 48

[22] P. 13

[23] P. 13




Picture credit: St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Monrovia, Liberia, the site of a massacre of more than 600 people during the first Civil War. © blk24ga, CC by 3.0

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