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U.S. charges ex-Liberian defense minister with lying in citizenship bid

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - A former Liberian defense minister, said by the United States to be a war criminal, has been arrested in New Jersey and charged with lying on his application to become a U.S. citizen about his past role in seeking control of the West African country.

Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu, 68, who had been an associate of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, was charged in an indictment unsealed on Monday with 16 criminal counts, including perjury and fraudulently trying to obtain citizenship.

Woewiyu, who lives in Collingdale, Pennsylvania, was arrested on Monday at Newark Liberty International Airport, an FBI spokeswoman said. Woewiyu faces up to 110 years in prison and a $4 million fine if convicted.

A lawyer in Philadelphia who represents Woewiyu did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

According to the indictment, Woewiyu had founded the National Patriotic Front of Liberia with Taylor and others with a goal of violently overthrowing the Liberian government led by Samuel Doe, who was eventually executed by a splinter group.

Woewiyu served in the early 1990s under Taylor, whose own government conducted a "particularly heinous and brutal military campaign" that included civilian executions, the torture of opponents, the conscription of boys to become child soldiers, and forcing girls into prostitution, the indictment said.

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger in Philadelphia, who announced the indictment, said Woewiyu responded in his U.S. citizenship application that he had neither advocated the overthrow of any government by force or violence, nor persecuted anyone on the basis of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

Woewiyu applied for U.S. citizenship in January 2006, 34 years after obtaining legal permanent resident status, the indictment said. The defendant is also known as Jucontee Thomas Smith, and was described as a war criminal in the press statement announcing his indictment.

Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence in a British prison for having encouraged rebels in Sierra Leone to mutilate, rape and murder victims in Sierra Leone's civil war during the 1990s.

He lost his appeal in September at the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague.

The case is U.S. v. Woewiyu, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. 14-cr-00050.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)

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