Mae Azango Senior Justice correspondent with New Narratives
MONROVIA, Liberia – The trial of Gibril Massaquoi has continued to focus on the central explosive question of whether the defendant escaped UN witness protection in Freetown in June-August 2003 to commit war crimes in neighboring Liberia. Massaquoi was under witness protection for his role informing on ex-combatants in Sierra Leone’s civil war for the post-war justice tribunals held in the country including the Special Court for Sierra Leone which convicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes.
Massaquoi’s lawyers have argued that he could not have violated or abused the freedom given him by the court because he was busy helping the court with information that led to Taylor’s conviction and sentencing.
The first witness, now 37-year-old, was a Sierra Leonean former combatant codenamed “Y1” to protect him from retaliation. He insisted Massaquoi was in Liberia in the northern county of Lofa which was a crossing point between Sierra Leone and Liberia. He said Massaquoi was also in Waterside market area in the final battle of the Liberian civil war as the forces of LURD closed in on Monrovia which was under the control of President Taylor’s forces.
“Massaquoi was fighting along with us during 2003 in Waterside but at times he used to disappear and return after some time. I did not know where he went but he was here in 2003,” Y1 said.
The witness claimed that he was born, schooled in Sierra Leone and was recruited as a child to fight by Massaquoi. But he said he was assigned to serve one of Massaquoi’s bodyguards only identified as “’Superman”’.
Y1 told the Finnish four-judge panel that that Massaquoi complained about Superman to Benjamin Yeaten, one of President Taylor’s top commanders, saying Superman had stolen one of Massaquoi’s diamonds. Y1 said Massaquoi then killed Superman.
“I know Massaquoi killed Superman, because I was behind him when he was killed in Lofa and I saw it. It was because of diamond business, Massaquoi used Benjamin Yeaten to kill him because he was high in authority, so he [Massaquoi] became my commander after that,” Y1 said.
The portion of his testimony about Massaquoi’s presence in Liberia in 2003 was corroborated by the two other witnesses who testified to the four-judge panel on Friday.
The Finnish court is in Liberia for the second set of hearings. The court, from the Tampere district in Finland where Massaquoi and his family were living under an immunity agreement with the Special Court for Sierra Leone in return for his testimony, is trying Massaquoi for war crimes committed in Liberia’s civil war in support of then-President Charles Taylor. The court held hearings in Liberia and Sierra Leone in March and April but has returned to examine key questions in the case. The hearings are being conducted at a secret location in Monrovia.
The second prosecution witness, now 42 and codenamed “Y5” said he fought for a group of Taylor’s forces called “Jungle Fire” and that he fought alongside Massaquoi in June to August 2003.
Y5 said Massaquoi once told him, that he did not want to take part in Liberia’s civil war but if he had not, he was going to be killed, so he had no choice.
Y5 said that one day Yeaten instructed Massaquoi to kill civilians who were looting stores at Waterside market, a major commercial hub in Monrovia.
“One time we heard noise coming from a store and we went and told Massaquoi that we wanted to only go and scare civilians away as we always did,” Y5 told the court. “But to my utmost surprise, he opened fire and killed everybody when we arrived on the scene. All this happened during World War One, Two and Three in 2003,” the witness said referring to the locally known names for the attacks by rebels with the LURD militia on Taylor’s forces in that period.
The third witness, aged 44 and codenamed “Y4”, said he was not military personnel during the war, but a builder. The witness said he was recruited by his late father to construct Taylor’s Artthington home and the military barracks for the widely feared Anti-Terrorists Unit.
Y4 also said they constructed the house of Yeaten’s mother, but he became indebted and so decided to follow the soldiers to the frontline at Waterside and West Point, where he carried ammunition for the soldiers.
“The soldiers would always bring the pickup and force us inside, whether you are soldier or not and we will carry their ammunition bags for them,” he said.
On cross examination, the witness maintained that he did see Massaqoui in Liberia in the period June to August, 2003. According to him, Massaquoi was regularly with Yeaten from whom he allegedly took orders.
The trial resumes next Monday in Monrovia.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.