Prosecution Alleges Gibril Massaquoi Directed Witnesses in War Crimes Trial

Gibril Massaquoi in opening day at the Pirkanmaa District Court in Tampere, Finland. Saila Huusko/New Narratives

TAMPERE, Finland – Prosecutors in the war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi alleged Friday that the defendant tried to influence witnesses in the case. State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen told presiding judge Juhani Paiho that a cleaner at the prison where Massaquoi was being held in pretrial detention found handwritten notes in the restroom of the family meeting area, following a meeting Massaquoi had with family on September 30th.

By Saila Huusko, with New Narratives

“It turned out that these notes were written by Massaquoi and contained detailed instructions for the witnesses on the case,” Laitinen said. The notes were submitted into evidence with the police pre-trial investigation materials which totalled 3800 pages.

Massaquoi’s lawyer Kaarle Gummerus dismissed the importance of these notes, arguing that his client had been in a state of panic at the time, and that the intention of the notes was to remind people of the events in the early 2000s, not to ask them to lie.

The final day of the first week of the trial in Pirkanmaa District Court in the Finnish city of Tampere was dominated by Massaquoi’s defense. Lead by lawyer Gummerus said the case relied heavily on written evidence – news articles, United Nations reports, the 2009 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia (TRC) Report, and other documents that Gummerus paint a picture of a man who had no reason – or time –  to be involved in atrocities in Liberia.

“We want to bring the entire context to for everyone to see, to show there are many moving parts,” Gummerus said.

Sierra Leonean Gibril Massaquoi, 51, is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and aggravated rape, allegedly committed during the second Liberian Civil War between 1999 and 2003. A former colonel and spokesman in the Sierra Leonian rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Massaquoi was an informant in the case brought against Liberia’s former president Charles Taylor at the Special Court for Sierra Leone which eventually convicted Taylor and several other top leaders. Massaquoi moved to Finland in 2008 after the Northern European country signed a law allowing the settlement of informants such as him.

Finnish State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen on February 3 at the Pirkanmaa District Court in Tampere, Finland. Saila Huusko/New Narratives

The prosecution against Massaquoi relies on testimonies gathered during the pre-trial investigation carried out by Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in between 2018 and 2020. The NBI was initially alerted of Massaquoi’s alleged past by Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima and its Liberia-based sister organization, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP).

On Thursday, Massaquoi’s defense lawyers argued that these organizations may have played a role in influencing witnesses’ narratives. “We ask the court to consider how the witnesses have become involved in the investigation,” the defense lawyers said. “It appears that the majority of them are either directly or indirectly involved with either Civitas Maxima or the GJRP.” 

On Friday, the prosecution rejected these claims, saying that witnesses were also found by NBI investigators. “There are 55 individuals who were found entirely independently of these organizations,” prosecutor Laitinen said. “We plan on hearing 20 of those witnesses in this trial.”

The narratives of Massaquoi’s alleged involvement in committing and overseeing atrocities are consistent, Laitinen said. “Regardless of what way the witnesses were found, the common factor is that their stories of Massaquoi’s guilt are very similar,” he said.

Defense lawyer Kaarle Gummerus on February 3 at the Pirkanmaa District Court in Tampere, Finland. Saila Huusko/New Narratives

Friday was the first day in the trial to feature direct questioning between prosecution and defense, with both interjecting to question the other’s evidence.

Defense lawyers argued that newspaper stories submitted into evidence show that Massaquoi was not in Liberia at the time of the alleged crimes. They also said the absence of Massaquoi’s name in the extensive testimonies that made up the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report showed that he could not have committed the crimes.

The prosecution challenged the trustworthiness of the media stories that the defense was relying on to establish that Massaquoi was not in Liberia when the alleged crimes took place. Prosecutor Laitinen repeatedly questioned the validity of the media reports, saying that a number of them could have involved journalists not seeing Massaquoi in person, meaning that he could have been anywhere when those interviews were done.

The trial will continue on Monday with the second part of the defense’s written evidence. Massaquoi will testify later in the week. After two weeks, the court will move to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear witnesses there.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project