In an undisclosed location, Liberia is hosting for the first time from Tuesday a trial on crimes committed during one of the civil wars that ravaged the country.
The Finnish court which judges Gibril Massaquoi, nicknamed the “Angel Gabriel”, has been traveling to Liberia for ten days to visit certain places of the alleged crimes. From this Tuesday, several weeks of witness hearings will take place in Monrovia rather than in Finland for practical reasons, in particular because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The questioning of witnesses was to begin in the morning, but was postponed to the afternoon for “technical” reasons, an official close to the procedure told AFP without further details.
It remains, however, a Finnish and not a Liberian trial. Successive Liberian governments, including that of current President George Weah, have so far refrained from responding to calls for a tribunal to be established for crimes committed during the civil wars of 1989-96 and 1999. -2003. These wars, among the most terrible that Africa has known, were marked by abuses of all kinds. They killed 250,000 people and left one of the poorest countries on the planet bloodless.
A few war crimes cases have been heard outside Liberia – in the United States or in Europe – but none in the country itself. Gibril Massaquoi, 51 years old and nicknamed at the time “Angel Gabriel”, is accused by the courts of Finland, where he has lived since 2008, of a long list of atrocities: murders, rapes, acts of torture characterizing “aggravated war crimes” and “aggravated crimes against humanity”, perpetrated by himself or his soldiers between 1999 and 2003.
He was then a senior official of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a Sierra Leonean armed group led by Corporal Foday Sankoh, close to the former Liberian warlord who became President Charles Taylor.
Murders, rapes, slavery
Mr. Massaquoi denied any involvement by the voice of his lawyers at the opening of his trial on February 3 in Tampere, in southern Finland. Arrested in March 2020 in Finland after the mobilization of NGOs, he faces life imprisonment.
Gibril Massaquoi must follow the hearings of witnesses from his prison in Tampere by internet. He can intervene directly or through his lawyers, one of whom will be at his side and the other in Monrovia, said the Finnish official close to the proceedings. He expects “trying” sessions.
A resident of Yandohun, a town on the borders of Liberia and Sierra Leone, where Gibril Massaquoi is accused of having cracked down and where the court visited last week, told AFP correspondents how his father had been killed before his eyes by armed men. The village chief recounted how his wife was raped in front of him.
In Kamatahun, a nearby locality, residents accused Gibril Massaquoi of having ordered civilians, including children, to be locked up in two buildings, before reducing them to ashes, according to the investigation file. At least seven women were raped and killed in Kamatahun and the corpses of residents were cut into pieces and served to eat in Gibril Massaquoi, the file says.
The case also includes charges of murder and mass rape in Lofa province (North) and in the capital, as well as slavery and the recruitment of child soldiers.
Finnish court, not international
This investigation file is only a “matrix for the court, therefore the witnesses will have to repeat in court what they lived”, told AFP Thomas Elfgren who played a driving role in the investigations.
The Court is expected to hear some fifty witnesses over six weeks, mainly victims, but also defense witnesses. Then she will travel to Sierra Leone to continue her work, before returning to Finland in about two months. The verdict is expected in September.
Gibril Massaquoi says he was elsewhere at the time and engaged in peace negotiations. Finnish law allows for the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad. Thomas Elfgren insists on the fact that “this is not an international tribunal on Liberian soil (…) Ultimately, it is a Finnish tribunal which will make a decision in Finland”.
He refuses to comment on the possibility that Liberia would find there any encouragement to establish its own tribunal. But he notes that these unprecedented hearings would not have been possible if the Liberian authorities had not approved them.
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