GENEVA (Reuters)—The trial of a former Liberian commander accused of rape, pillage, assassinations, and an act of cannibalism opens in Switzerland this week.
The trial of Alieu Kosiah, who denies the charges, is one of just a handful of cases brought before international courts in relation to the West African country’s 1989-2003 conflict, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people, often at the hands of child soldiers.
He is accused of war crimes listed as “recruitment and use of a child soldier, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (directly or by order), desecration of a corpse and rape”.
It is Switzerland’s first war crimes trial to be heard outside a military court.
“This is historic for Switzerland and Liberia,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer at Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima which filed the complaint on behalf of victims.
The NGO was researching war crimes with a Liberian partner when they discovered a rebel commander was living near Lake Geneva. Kosiah was arrested in 2014 and Switzerland filed an indictment against him in 2019.
The case involves dozens of witnesses, thousands of pages of testimony and has been complicated, according to the Swiss Attorney general’s office, by a lack of official Liberian cooperation. The trial is set to open on Thursday at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona.
Kosiah, 45, says he wants to clear his name. Some of the charges are attributed to troops under his command.
“According to Mr. Alieu Kosiah, one of the big problems with this case is he had not yet arrived in Lofa (county) at the time of the crimes he supposedly committed there,” his lawyer Dimitri Gianoli told Reuters.
“What counts for (him) is to be able to officially re-establish his honour by making himself heard openly and clearly,” he said. “(He) has always been very clear on his whereabouts in Liberia and the court filings include testimonies collected in Switzerland that confirm it.”
Unlike neighbour Sierra Leone which had its own civil war in the 1990s, Liberian perpetrators have never faced prosecution at home despite a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a war crimes court.
Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor was sentenced in 2012 for war crimes in Sierra Leone, but was never convicted for Liberian acts.
Others arrested in Europe have yet to appear in court.
Former warlords retain positions of power in Liberia and witnesses have been reluctant to come forward amid threats.
“This trial gives hope to victims, to the survivors, and gives voice to the dead,” said Hassan Bility who collected evidence for the case and was himself tortured in the conflict.
Human Rights Watch’s Elise Keppler said she hoped the trial would serve as a “wake-up call” for Liberia.
The court will hear Kosiah next week.
Liberian plaintiffs cannot attend due to COVID restrictions and will instead testify in 2021. Kosiah faces a maximum possible sentence of 20 years.
HELSINKI (AP) — A trial has started in Finland for a Sierra Leone man charged with committing serious war crimes, including several murders, and crimes against humanity during Liberia’s bloody second civil war from 1999 through 2003.
Gibril Massaquoi, who has been living in Finland for more than 10 years, is alleged by Finnish prosecutors to have held a leading position in the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel army in Sierra Leone that was involved in the Liberian civil war in West Africa.
The mask-wearing Massaquoi, known to have used the alias “Angel Gabriel,” was present at the Pirkanmaa District Court in the southern Finnish city of Tampere where the main handling of the case started Wednesday. Finnish media reported the 51-year-old defendant didn’t say anything at the court.
Prosecutors are seeking a life sentence — which is usually around 14 years in Finland — for Massaquoi, who has denied all charges. Those charges include his alleged direct or indirect participation in rapes, murders, cannibalism and using child soldiers during the conflict in Liberia.
Massaquoi was arrested in March last year by Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation in Tampere, a main industrial and university city, where according to Finnish media reports he held a job and had a family with children.
Massaquoi is allegedly the first non-Liberian to be held accountable in connection with Liberia’s brutal first and second civil wars, which are estimated to have killed at least 500,000 people. He ended up in Finland under a witness relocation scheme.
Later this month, the Finnish court, in a rare move, will temporarily relocate to Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone to hear testimony from dozens of witnesses on the alleged atrocities carried out by Massaquoi himself or by others on his orders.
A verdict in the case is expected next fall.
PROSECUTING WAR CRIMINALS UNDER UNIVERSAL JURISDICTION
Both Switzerland and Finland are State parties to the International Criminal Court Rome Statute. 123 countries are States Parties to the Rome Statute. 33 are African States, 19 are Asia-Pacific States, 18 are from Eastern Europe, 28 are from Latin American and Caribbean States, and 25 are from Western European and other States.
In the preamble of the Rome State, it states “that the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished and that their effective prosecution must be ensured by taking measures at the national level and by enhancing international cooperation.” This provision is called complementarity jurisdiction, where the State parties are obligated to first use their institutions and courts to prosecute war crimes instead of the International Criminal Court.
If the alleged war criminal is not a citizen of a State party and that the war crime occurred outside of its territory, the State party can exercise universal jurisdiction to prosecute. All of the State parties to the Rome Statute have the ability to exercise universal jurisdiction, which Switzerland and Finland are doing.
This is significant regarding the war crimes that have been and are currently be committed in the Hawaiian Islands that the Royal Commission of Inquiry is investigating. If Hawai‘i’s alleged war criminals find themselves, whether as a resident or in transit, in the territory of one of the 123 countries who are State parties to the Rome Statute, they may find themselves in a similar situation as Kosiah in Switzerland or Massaquoi in Findland.