Liberia: Witnesses Fear Testifying Before War Crimes Court without Security

SINJE, Capemount County Alhaji Tucker was only 10 when the civil war started in Liberia, but he remembers clearly the day rebels fighting with ULIMO K brutally slaughtered his little brother and other family members here. Tucker has vowed to testify against the attackers known as “Senegalese” and “Bility” before a war crimes court but only if he is granted security to protect his life.

This story first appeared on FrontPageAfricaOnline as part of a collaboration for the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

“If my security is guaranteed that I am not hunted and killed by warlords, I can testify as a witness, when a war crimes court or a special court is established in Liberia,” says Tucker now 38, and running a youth intellectual forum in his native county.

Tucker is one of thousands of witnesses, who may be called upon to testify before a court if it is established. Many here in Sinje say they are so frustrated by the impunity enjoyed by their killers; they are unafraid of testifying, even if no security is provided.

But others, like Tucker, say security is essential if they are to risk the wrath of the perpetrators who he says he saw rape women, murder and try to recruit him and his childhood friends as fighters.

“If the law can permit me to kill those warlords, I will gladly put them on line and kill them the same way they killed people,” says Tucker. “But the only thing I want the international community to do for me is to provide me security; because those warlords have followers, who could harm me at any time. So without security, I won’t testify because those guys have wealth and can use cash to kill me at any time.”

Witnesses have good reason to be afraid. Some witnesses, testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008, were threatened. Several of the commissioners were harassed and forced into exile. More recently, witnesses, who testified against George Boley in his deportation case in the U.S.A. in 2012, were also threatened.

“Yes, there are a lot of threats against the TRC commissioners and witnesses. I myself nearly became a victim,” says Cllr. Pearl Browne Bull, one of the TRC Commissioners. “One night when I was asleep in Brewerville, I saw a bright light from a taxi, and when I looked outside, I saw a man pointing at my house and telling another man beside him, it was where I lived.”

“So I did not sleep home the following night and when I returned the next morning, they had removed my window and entered my house. They scattered all my things in search of the TRC documents of witness’s testimonies.”

Bull said they even went to her Randall Street property and broke in and took away her laptop, thinking the documents were on it, but she had kept all her documents on a backup file in the US.

Cllr. Bull said many of the witnesses faced threats.

“Roland Duo sent people after the little boy who saw him murder a lady, and we had to put him under a tight security protection. Another man who survived the massacre on the Maher Bridge was also targeted by Benjamin Yeatan, but we had a tight security that prevented them harming the witnesses,” says Cllr. Bull.

For people in Sinje, the threats could be greater. The ULIMO fighters here were mainly from the Mandingo tribe and Muslims like the people here. Mandingoes have been particularly threatening anyone who testifies against a member of their tribe, special anger has been aimed at those who testified against someone from their own tribe or faith. While much of the fighting in the early parts of the war was one tribe against another, people here were shocked when ULIMO, made up of Mandingoes of the Muslim faith, attacked Vai members of the same faith.

For this reason, people here are also willing to testify against the perpetrators regardless of their tribe.

According to Aaron Weah, now of Search for Common Ground and one of the drafters of the original TRC Act in 2005, the first TRC Act provided protection and safe homes for witnesses.

“There was protection for witnesses who testified during the time of public hearings and statements taking in 2006 to 2008. Those witnesses’ names are still being withheld for the next 20 years, as a way of protecting their identities so they’re not harmed in the future,” says Weah.

He says the TRC Act was a quick fix established just for a three-year period to protect witness who had volunteered to testify, and after that it was no longer binding by law. The revised TRC documentation was turned over to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights for implementation. When this reporter reached James Torh, INCHR Head Commissioner, he said he was on his way to the airport and could not speak to the question out of his head.

However, according to the general TRC recommendations specifically recommended that within the first five years that is from July 1, 2009 to July 30, 2014 all direct victim support program must be implemented including memorials, victim support and the process of prosecution.

Witness protection will very likely be part of any war crimes court according to Adama Dempster, of the Civil Society Platform and one of the local players in the establishment of a war crimes court. A demand for security for witnesses was included in the UN Human Rights Council report on Liberian justice issued in July and, Adama said, the government would be obliged to provide such protection.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone provided a case study. “What I witnessed in Sierra Leone, was immediately after the government agreed for a war crimes court, international security under the United Nations spotlight, were deployed in Sierra Leone to provide security for victims and witnesses,” said Dempster. “What is very good about Liberia is that the witnesses and victims are eager to testify but until we can have an approval from the government for a war crimes court to be established they will not get that chance.”

Dempster said he is already sensing a growing fear among potential witnesses who are starting to speak out. People do not trust the government he said but they will have no choice but to hold on until security measures are put in place.

Peterson Sonyah, founder of the Liberia Massacre Survivor Association of Liberia (LMSAL) and a survivor of the St. Peter’s Lutheran Massacre, said witnesses will need security if they are going to testify in court.

“We will not relent until we see this court established in Liberia. Victims will be provided security for witnesses to speak.” He concluded that if Liberia can have a good justice system like Sierra Leone and Rwanda to establish a special court, people put in state power will face justice.

As Tucker is eager to attest to crimes committed against his people, while the question of witness protection remains uncertain, if there will be a world crimes court or a special court established in Liberia.