Liberia: Convicted Ulimo War Criminal Kunti Kamara’s Appeal Begins in Paris Court

Kunti Kamara and defense lawyers in Paris court. Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives.

PARIS, France – Kunti Kamara’s appeal of his November 2022 conviction for war crimes and crimes against humanity got underway at the Paris Court of Appeal on Tuesday. Kumara, a former rebel commander, was sentenced to life imprisonment by the lower court.

Kumara, 49, has admitted to being a commander with the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (Ulimo) rebel group in Foya, Lofa County in northern Liberia in 1993, but he denies he committed the 11 counts for which he was convicted including murdering a sick woman, torturing a schoolteacher and eating his heart, and the gang rape of a nine-year-old girl.

In his final statement to the jury in the earlier trial Kamara professed his innocence. “I am innocent today. I am innocent tomorrow,” he told the jury. “I am innocent the day after tomorrow. I was just a soldier. That’s all I have to say.”

On Tuesday, a jury of nine, their names drawn at random, took their seats along with five reserve jurors. The jury comprises four men and five women, all are white but one. Though Paris has a  large population of African descent no juror was of African descent.

In a peculiarity of the French legal system the jurors sit with the judges looking down at proceedings. They also have the right to ask questions of witnesses.

Judges and jury in Kamara’s 2022 trial. The appeal is taking place in the same location. Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

Throughout the lower court trial Kamara’s lawyers, led by Marilyn Secci, argued that Kamara’s right to a fair trial was undermined by the limited budget that they, his publicly funded lawyers, were given compared with the prosecution. They also questioned why the prosecution evidence was entirely made up of witness statements, often considered unreliable especially given the long time – 30 years – since the events took place, instead of physical evidence. They questioned why none of the graves of alleged murder victims were dug up to confirm the murder took place and the cause of death, for instance.

Secci has resumed her role as lead defense lawyer in the appeal. She expected to pursue a similar defense. Surprisingly, Alieu Kosiah, a Ulimo ally of Kamara, whose conviction for war crimes in Switzerland was upheld in an appeal in 2023, will testify for a full day next week, in Kamara’s trial. In an incendiary appearance in Kamara’s original trial, Kosiah appeared more intent on defending himself and, experts thought, caused more harm to Kamara’s case than good.

Alieu Kosiah was escorted from Switzerland to appear in Kamara’s 2022 trial. He will appear again at the appeal. Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives.

The civil parties – nine victims and justice advocates Civitas Maxima – are again represented by Sabrina Delattre. All nine Liberian victims will travel from Lofa over the next four weeks of the trial, to testify. Witnesses such as Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners Massa Washington and John Stewart will also appear to give context on the war and the devastation it inflicted on the country.

Today the court spent the day learning about the start of the war. Kamara explained how the war came to his village in Karnplay 1989 when, he said, Prince Johnson was recruiting members of the Mano and Gio tribes to fight on behalf of rebel leader Charles Taylor. He also explained how he escaped Guinea for the Netherlands in 2001 where he claimed asylum and was eventually given citizenship. The earlier trial heard that Kamara lost his job in the Netherlands when Dutch authorities learned of his association with the Kosiah who had been charged. Kamara then moved to France in an attempt to escape investigation. 

Kamara’s first trial was groundbreaking in several ways. He was just the second Liberian to be convicted for his or her role in any of the country’s civil wars. Kosiah was the first. Gibril Massaquoi, the Sierra Leonean ally of warlord turned President Charles Taylor, was acquitted by a Finnish court on war crimes charges brought against him in Finland for his role in Liberia’s civil war.

Kamara, Kosiah and Massaquoi were prosecuted under the legal principal of “universal jurisdiction”, which allows countries to prosecute individuals for war crimes or crimes against humanity, regardless of where they occurred. Use of the law is relatively new in Europe. In France, four Rwandans have previously been tried using the principle. Kamara was the first non-Rwandan to be tried that way. For this reason the trial was closely followed by newsmedia in France.

Two more Liberians – Mohammed Jabbateh of Ulimo and Tom Jucontee Woewiyu of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia – were found guilty of criminal immigration fraud for lying about their war crimes, by a US court in 2017 and 2018. Jabbateh is serving 30 years. Woewiyu died of Covid while awaiting sentencing. Chuckie Taylor is serving a 97-year sentence for torture committed in Liberia but the American born son of Charles Taylor was tried as a US citizen.  

The trial continues tomorrow.

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