Liberia: French Court Of Appeal Throws Out Rebel Commander Claim he was Underage When Crimes Took Place

French Court of Appeal in Paris hearing Kunti Kamara war crimes appeal

PARIS, France – The judge in former Liberian warlord, Kunti Kamara’s appeal of his 2022 conviction for war crimes, dealt a blow to Kamara’s case on Monday by striking out his two challenges to the charges. The former commander with the Ulimo rebel group had introduced two new arguments in this appeal claiming that he was 15 at the time the crimes took place and therefore was too young for the case to be heard in an adult court. He also claimed that the crimes took place before France’s 10-year statute of limitation and so the charges against him came too late.

In a packed courtroom, presiding judge Jean-Marc Lavergne told the court neither claim was valid. On the second challenge Lavergne ruled that the 10 year limit was not relevant in the case of the Liberian civil war because it would not have been possible for the victims to bring charges during the conflict or at any time since because of the chaos of Liberia’s judicial system during the war and the refusal of post war presidents to try those accused of wartime atrocities.

“Bringing perpetrators to justice in Liberia was slow and has become almost impossible,” the president said. “Even with the lower chamber and upper chamber of  legislature considering establishing a war crimes court in 2024, it is also not even clear how soon this would be, because of the geopolitical factors, as we heard from John Stewart and Massa Washington, the two commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).”

Sabrina Delattre, the civil parties’ lawyer, presents final pleading in the French Court of Appeal

Judge Lavergne summed up by saying that Liberia was challenged with one of the worst humanitarian situations in the world during and after the war. He said prosecution of people responsible for serious crimes, including high-ranking actors of the wars, had not happened and some, serving in government, are yet to pay for their roles.

The judge also found Kamara’s argument that he was 15 when the crimes were committed in 1993, and not 19, as he has claimed for more than 20 years since he sought asylum in the Netherlands, was not credible. Kamara’s brother had testified that his brother was born in 1978, making him 15 when Ulimo faction controlled Lofa County in 1993. No birth certificate or medical records were available but the judge found it improbable that Kamara would have just had this revelation about his age so late in the judicial process.

And it was unlikely that a 15-year-old would have had the leadership responsibilities that were clearly bestowed upon him within Ulimo at the time.

With the defeat of the defense motions the court moved to final pleadings. Sabrina Delattre, the lawyer representing the nine victims and Civitas Maxima, the justice activists who brought evidence of Kamara’s crimes to French investigators, told the court that their role was to bring justice to Kamara’s victims. She said there was still a culture of impunity in Liberia, and if it is left with the system there, Liberian war victims will not get justice anytime soon.

“Prince Johnson and many others are still in the legislature, Liberian victims are in quest for justice,” Delattre said referring to the former leader with the NPFL and a breakaway faction the INPFL who tops the TRC’s list of “most notorious perpetrators” from the war. “That’s why the role of the victims is very important in this case and having them to come back here in France to testify is not because they want materials things or asylum, but because they want justice.”

Delattre told the court that the inconsistencies in the witness’s testimonies only showed that they had not been coached. It showed that they were traumatized people trying to remember the most horrible events in their lives 30 years later. But in all testimonies, she claimed, the actions of Kamara were consistent. He had not been only a frontline commander as he had claimed but had terrorized the civilians of Foya town with murders, cannibalism, rape of children, torture and forced labor.

“About four to five witnesses said Kunti had a house in Foya. Almost all the witnesses said he had men under his control, but Kunti constantly did not pretend that he was a simple soldier,” she said.

She reminded the jurors that it was based on the witnesses’ testimonies, that Kamara was convicted in 2022 and sentenced to the maximum French sentence of 30 years in prison. And it was also because of these victims’ testimonies, that Alieu Kosiah, another Ulimo commander, was convicted for war crimes in Switzerland 2021.

“At the end of this hearing, whatever your decision would be, it is good that the victims are being heard,” she said.

A Liberian victim testifies before the three judges and nine jurors in Kamara’s appeal case.

Monday’s hearing also saw Myriam Fillaud, the state prosecutor, tell the court that the sentence that the court should pronounce must address the seriousness of the crimes committed. She asked that the sentence of life of imprisonment, handed down by the first jury, be upheld. 

“These crimes touched women, these crimes touched corpses, the unborn children in the womb, and this decision that you the judges, and jurors will take here will deter torturers around the world who move from one country to the other after committing heinous war crimes,” Fillaud said.  

The appeal hearing continues Tuesday, with Kamara’s defense lawyer Marilyn Secci presenting the defense case.

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