Former Child Soldier Again Upends Kosiah War Crimes Court; Asks UN to Hear Asylum Claim

Alieu Kosiah has repeatedly denied all his charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Credit: Leslie Lumeh of New Narratives

By Antoine Harari with New Narratives

BELLINZONA, Switzerland — In a dramatic replay of his controversial appearance in convicted Liberian war criminal Alieu Kosiah’s 2021 trial, a former child soldier has upturned court proceedings, claiming he is in danger if he returns to Liberia.

The former child soldier was brought from Liberia to testify for Kosiah during his war crimes trial, baffling observers because his very presence confirmed that Kosiah had used child soldiers – one of the charges of which Kosiah, the former commander of the Ulimo rebel group, was accused. Kosiah and his defense lawyer appeared willing to bet that the witness’s testimony about Kosiah’s good treatment of him would outweigh the evidence of the crime in the minds the judges. It apparently failed. The judges sentenced Kosiah to the maximum allowable sentence under Swiss law of 20 years.

In his 2021 appearance the witness had caused an uproar yelling out that he was in danger if he returned to Liberia and demanding asylum and witness protection. Both requests were eventually refused by Swiss authorities but he has been in jail in Switzerland since the trial as the requests were processed. In what could be seen as a controversial move the Swiss judges decided to hear him this time.

Today’s appearance, in Kosiah’s appeal of that conviction, began dramatically with Kosiah nodding to a military salute from his former soldier and earning a rebuke from the judges. Even before he began testifying, the former child soldier asked to be freed from Swiss custody and to speak with a United Nations human rights body saying he had been unjustly detained by Switzerland. Through tears, he refused to testify and was removed from the court. Following the uproar, the court adjourned for fifteen minutes. (The court has asked media to conceal the names of witnesses for their security.)

When court resumed one of the plaintiffs in the case took the stand. The “plaintiffs” are the victims bringing the case against Kosiah. Bald, wearing a plaid shirt, the man, now in his 50s, said he was a promising student at the time of the war. He testified about the fate of David Ndeminim, a former schoolmate, who he claimed was declared a traitor by Ulimo’s soldiers after he told a humanitarian mission that Ulimo had looted a mission. (This murder of David Ndeminim was a central charge in the recent trial of former Kosiah ally, Kunti Kamara, in Paris in which Kamara was convicted.) The witness said Ndeminim was taken to the police station in Foya. There, the soldiers started debating what should be done to him.

“Alieu Kosiah said that he should be taken to ‘Ugly Boy,’”said the plaintiff who was overcome with emotion. “Everytime I think about this moment, it comes back to my memory. It’s playing on me. We heard David Ndeminim being beaten up.” 

The plaintiff testified that Ndeminim was held for some time before being dragged to the fighter called Ugly Boy in a “Tabe” position – a torture position where the victim’s elbows are tied behind their back.

There, he said, Ugly Boy took out an ax. “It was the first time in my life that I saw someone cut the heart of a person and drop it on a large plate.” Most of the Ulimo soldiers ate from the heart, he said. “Kosiah ate a piece of his heart. And he did nothing to stop Ugly Boy.”

When asked why Kosiah has testified that he didn’t know the plaintiff, he was unsurprised. “Of course he didn’t recognize me. I was like a slave for him. Why would he remember me?” 

Earlier in the day another plaintiff, in his forties and also from Lofa, took the stand. Dressed in dark trousers and a blue jumper, he replied quietly to the judge’s questions. The man testified how he had heard the story of a local girl who had been raped. He told the court what he remembered of the invasion by Ulimo troops that he said were led by Kosiah.

“When they arrived we all went into hiding under our beds inside our houses,” the witness told the court. “They started gathering everyone to the petrol station which was the only place large enough to hold everybody from the village.”

Asked by the judge about the commanders that were present on site, he replied: “When you’re being asked to come you don’t focus on the military grades of the soldier, you’re too busy to survive. But I remember that soldiers were following orders from Chief Kosiah.”

This was when, the man claimed, his brother was handpicked by Kosiah to be killed. “He randomly chose seven people and said they were rebels and belonged to NPFL (the National Patriotic Front of Liberia).” The seven men, including the plaintiff’s brother, were badly beaten, he said. The judge asked if the individuals tried to deny the fact that they were rebels.

“All of them cried that they were not, but there is nothing you can do,” the man said. “The suppression. With all their hatred, the beating would be so fierce. They were almost dead already. It’s beyond imagination the way these guys were executed.”

The trial continues on Friday.

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