A former Liberian defense minister accused of lying about his past has been arrested on immigration charges, but his Philadelphia lawyer said he never took part in the atrocities that ravaged his country.
Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, 68, has lived in the U.S. for about 40 years, while intermittently serving in the Liberian government under former President Charles Taylor. Taylor is now serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes.
Woewiyu is campaigning to return to his country's senate, and was returning from Liberia when he was arrested Monday at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey. He was charged with lying on his 2009 application for U.S. citizenship when he said he had never engaged in political persecution or tried to overthrow a sitting government.
He briefly appeared in federal court in Philadelphia on Tuesday, but his arraignment and detention hearing were postponed until Friday to give him time to meet with defense lawyers. He did not enter a plea to the charges, which include perjury and immigration fraud.
Woewiyu served under Taylor in the 1990s, and helped start the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which mounted a violent campaign to depose Taylor's predecessor, Samuel Doe, the indictment said. He has served at times as the party's defense minister, labor minister and president pro tempore of the senate, officials said.
“The NPFL, it's alleged at least, was involved in atrocities, and he was their defense minister,” U.S. Attorney Linwood C. Wright said Tuesday. “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia has alleged that he is a war criminal.”
In the U.S., Woewiyu has settled in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, and invested in real estate, according to his immigration lawyer, Raymond Basso. He has a son serving in the U.S. military, Basso said.
The indictment links Woewiyu to his party's campaign to execute political opponents, force girls into sex slavery and conscript boys to become child soldiers.
"Tom had nothing to do with any of that," said Basso, who said he and his client met with immigration officials as part of the application process in 2011. "Politically, it's not very popular to be tied to Charles Taylor."
The investigation is being conducted by several agencies, including homeland security investigators from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and an ICE center focused on human rights violators and war crimes. ICE says it's arrested more than 290 people for human rights violations since fiscal year 2004.
The agency pursues people who have sought shelter in the United States after taking part in genocide, torture, the use of child soldiers and other war crimes.