By Melissa Chea-Annan In Philadelphia, USA
The United States Federal Court in Philadelphia, on Friday denied Liberian former Labor Minister, Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu bail and has ordered him further detained as he awaits trial for lying on U.S. Citizenship applications, allegedly failing to disclose his affiliation with a violent political group linked to war crimes in Liberia in the early 1990s.
Earlier before his charges for immigration fraud were read to him, 68 year-old Woewiyu who was dressed in a dark green prisoner overhaul, with his hands cuffed, was escorted into the Court Room 5-A, by a US Marshall. He partially greeted his family members with his head before he was requested by the presiding magistrate judge to take the stand at 1:45 pm, USA time.
At the pre-trial hearings that were witnessed by his wife and some of his children, Mr. Woewiyu’s charges were later read to him and in a faint voice, he pleaded not guilty. Mr. Woewiyu was charged on several counts in violation of the US law and he is facing a potentially lengthy prison term in the United States for immigration fraud.
The Prosecution Lawyer, Linwood C. Wright recounted Mr. Woewiyu’s role in the Administration of former President Charles Taylor since 1992 and his active involvement in public life in Liberia. He explained that despite living for the last four decades as a legal permanent resident in Delaware County, USA, Mr. Woewiyu and his wife maintain extensive real estate holdings, including a rubber farm, in the West African nation.
Prosecutor Wright who also maintained that Mr. Woewiyu has a Diplomatic ECOWAS Passport said “He is very, very much involved in public life in Liberia, and he has an infrastructure there and on the continent of Africa that is more substantial than what he has here.” The Prosecutor however, called him a war criminal, thereby linking him to the worst atrocities of Taylor’s regime.
“Since 2002, he has traveled back and forth between here and Liberia at least 38 times. Some of those trips were taken with a diplomatic passport issued by the Economic Community of West African States,” Attorney Wright said. He added that recently, Woewiyu announced his intention to return to politics with the run for a Senate seat.
“When he was arrested Monday at Newark International, he was on his way to Iowa to rally support among the expats there. All that should give U.S. courts cause for concern, as he could head to any number of embassies, get on a plane, and be out of here at any time,” he told the judge,” the Prosecution Lawyer added.
He further argued that a 2011 feud with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf over their respective roles in the nation’s civil wars garnered extensive coverage in the African press, as did accusations Woewiyu lodged against Taylor, that the ex-president not only murdered Doe during the wars but also drank his blood.
But in arguing for his release, Woewiyu’s lawyer, Benjamin G. Perez, suggested that what government attorneys misunderstood was that having a life on both sides of the Atlantic is the norm for much of Southeastern Pennsylvania’s 15,000-member Liberian expatriate community.
Defendant’s Lawyer Perez pointed out that Mr. Woewiyu has over 10 children and several grandchildren who are legal residents of the USA and as such the Court should have him released on bail. He maintained that his client had no link with former President Taylor’s atrocities he committed in Liberia, nor any other violent group.
The Defendant’s Lawyer assured the presiding judge that he will prove beyond all reasonable doubts that Mr. Woewiyu is innocent and that all of the allegations leveled against his are false. “This is all political,” he said of Woewiyu’s arrest. “This all has to do with politics back at home.”
After listening to both sides, the U.S. magistrate judge ordered that Mr. Woewiyu, remain in detention without bond while he awaits trial on allegations he lied to immigration officers about his past with Taylor, a convicted war criminal who is presently serving a 50-year term in a British prison.
Mr. Woewiyu was arrested last Monday at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey by the Homeland Security upon his return from Liberia and 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.
For years, he has resided with his wife in a two-story home in Collingdale. They have enjoyed a prominent role in Delaware County’s immigrant community. Six of his grown children also live in the United States. One is a lieutenant in the Navy. He earned a bachelor’s degree in labor studies from Rutgers University in 1981. He is pursuing a master’s from Pennsylvania State University while earning a living through real estate development.