Survivors' case against commander accused of Liberian war crimes can proceed

By Charmaine Little | Jan 3, 2019

PHILADELPHIA - The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania made it clear a family impacted by the mass killings in the first Liberian civil war properly stated a claim in their lawsuit against one of the armed forces commanders in denying his motion to dismiss the case against him on Dec. 14.

The plaintiffs are families and survivors of those killed during an attack in the first civil war in Liberia back in 1990. They accused the defendant, Moses W. Thomas, who at the time was a commander of the Armed Forces of Liberia, of ordering his soldiers to kill roughly 600 unarmed civilians in St. Peter’s Lutheran Church, located in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia

They sued for damages under the Torture Victim Protection Act and the Alien Tort Statute.

While Thomas raised three arguments as to why the lawsuit needs to be dismissed -- his legal team claimed the TVPA and ATS claims were beyond of the allotted 10-year statute of limitation -- and that they failed to use their local Liberian remedies before raising the issue in the U.S., the court rejected each challenge and denied Thomas’ motion to dismiss. 

Philadelphia federal court  

U.S. District Judge Petrese Tucker ruled on the case.

The court ruled the plaintiffs raised enough evidence that the statute of limitation shouldn't block their lawsuit because the extreme circumstances of the incident warrant equitable tolling.

“Equitable tolling is justified given the perpetual violence and instability that racked Liberia from approximately 1989 through late 2005,” the court determined. 

It pointed out the first civil war in Liberia ran from 1989 through 1997, followed by two years of violence, and the second civil war which started in 1999 until 2003, with even more violence after. Secondly, the court added the plaintiffs had a reasonable concern for fear and violence as a result of their lawsuit because many witnesses who spoke out received threats. 

Thomas wasn’t in the U.S. from 1990 to 2000, so there was no way he could have been called to trial in a U.S. court. Thomas also hid his identity and his alleged involvement in the massacre. The court made it clear each of these factors support equitable tolling for the TVPA claims.

As for the ATS, the court pointed out that even though it doesn’t have a specific statute of limitations, courts have previously decided that the TVPA’s 10-year limit should also align with the ATS. Considering the claims were protected under equitable tolling for the TVPA, the court determined the same was valid for the ATS.

When it came to Thomas’ argument that the plaintiffs didn’t do all they could in Liberia before suing in the U.S., the court also disagreed. The plaintiffs presented several issues such as Liberia failing to prosecute any war crime from the civil wars, and that the plaintiffs lived in constant fear of retaliation if they were to sue in Liberia.

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