In New Line of Defense, Lawyers Tell French Court Convicted Ulimo War Criminal Was Too Young to be Held Responsible for Crimes.

Photography of the civil war by French photographer Patrick Robert featured in day two of the trial

PARIS, France – On day two of Kunti Kamara’s appeal against his 2022 conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity, Kamara’s lawyers introduced a new line of defense that could upturn proceedings against the former United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (Ulimo) commander.

The defense is now claiming that Kamara, who listed his birth date as 1974 when he registered for asylum in the Netherlands in 2001, was actually born in 1978.

If that were true he would have been 15 when the crimes for which he was convicted, took place in Lofa in 1993. In France accused perpetrators must be tried in a juvenile court if they were under 18 when the crimes were committed. The French prosecution and the first trial against Kamara were based on the belief that he was 19 when the crimes were committed.

Kunti’s older brother Esah Kouyateh traveled from Karnplay to appear by videolink from the French embassy in Monrovia. He told the court, with great certainty, that Kamara had been born in 1978.

“I remember. I was not a child,” Kouyateh told the court. Kouyateh said he was born in 1958, making him 20 years of age when he claims Kamara was born, old enough, he claimed, to remember the birth of a baby brother.

Kunti Kamara photo from Facebook.

The court president or chief judge, Jean Marc Lavergne, pressed Kamara on why he had given Dutch authorities his birth date as December 1974. Kamara insisted he did not know when he had been born because he was born in a village in Karnplay with no hospital and no way to register his birth. He had arrived in the Netherlands seeking asylum, like so many fleeing the wars in the region, and had no documents. He was required to give authorities some answer and Kamara told the court he chose December 1974 without giving it any thought.

The defense now has the option to file for the case to be moved to the Supreme Court for adjudication on the issue. If it is found that Kamara was under 18 at the time of his crimes, the case would be sent to a court that deals with juveniles – people who were children when they committed their crimes.

The late introduction of this question of Kamara’s age – during the appeal of his conviction – has undermined the strength of this argument according to legal observers. But should the judge rule that his age is a reasonable question it could upturn the case against Kamara and bring an end to these proceedings for now.

With the question of Kamara’s age hanging over the proceedings the French court pressed ahead with the trial. It has gone to great lengths to help the French jury understand the context of the war. Day two was devoted to exploring the history of Liberia, the settlement by free Black Americans, the poor treatment of Indigenous Liberians and the failures of settlers in making a more equal society. Witnesses also detailed the horrors of the war and the Truth and Reconciliation process after the fighting ended.

The court watched “The Curse of the Congos”, a documentary by a French videographer that showed the history through settlement, the coup detat by Samuel Doe, the invasion by Charles Taylor and the country’s descent into war. It explored in detail the destruction of the war, particularly on a generation of children who fought, missed school and “learned nothing but the gun.” The videotaped torture of Samuel Doe by rebel leader Prince Johns featured in the film The court aims to have the jury try their best to understand the conflict with a Liberia 1993 lens rather than their experience as French people in 2024.

Photography by Patrick Robert highlighted the absurdity of fighters carrying toys while committing brutal atrocities.

Earlier in the day Patrick Robert, a French photojournalist who covered the civil war extensively, testified to the court to give background and context to the 1989 – 1994 conflict during the time that Kamara’s crimes took place.

As he did in his testimony in the first trial, Robert captivated the jury– three judges and nine jurors with no prior knowledge of Liberia’s conflict – with his descriptions and photography. Everyone in the court, from jurors to security staff, watched closely as he described the grave atrocities he witnessed including the skeleton of a rape victim – obvious because clothes were ripped from the corpse – a head, separated from its body, sitting on a road; the use of young children as soldiers, and the increasing depravity of the fighters.

Photographer Patrick Robert talks with New Narratives outside the 2022 trial of Kunti Kamara

Another photograph showed fighters engaged in a “ritual practice” of removing the heart from a dead victim. Judge Lavergne made a point of understanding that the removal of organs was not simply for the horror value but it had roots in traditional beliefs that eating the organs of an enemy would allow the eater to consume the victim’s strength.

Robert explained how at check points, people would be murdered for random reasons – signs on their feet that they may have worn shoes was seen as a sign that they were a fighter hiding among civilians. Robert told the court the goal of these atrocities was to inspire terror in fighters and civilians.

He said fighters wearing dresses or fighting naked gave the conflict a sense of the “bizarre” that made the extreme violence even more incomprehensible. He explained that many of the atrocities were committed simply to survive as the country became increasingly dysfunctional and people were starving. “You did not starve if you had a Kalashnikov,” Robert told the court.

Robert talked about his own challenges covering the conflict. Sometimes fighters would beg him to photograph them committing atrocities. He said he carried immense guilt as a result of being forced to witness atrocities and being powerless to stop them.

Former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner John Stewart traveled to the Paris court from Monrovia to explain the TRC process and its outcomes. Stewart, 70, detailed the findings of the TRC and told the court that there had been no justice for the mass atrocities documented by the Commission despite the TRC’s recommendation that scores of perpetrators be prosecuted in a war and economic crimes court. As a result the country continues to be plagued by impunity. He pointed to the continued presence of Prince Johnson, whose torture of President Samuel Doe in 1990 was shown by video earlier in the day, in the Liberian senate.

This story was a collaboration with FrontPage Africa as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.