Liberia: Judge Weighs Defense Motion To Abandon Kamara War Crimes Appeal in France

Paris court where the judge is considering the motion to abandon the trial by Kunti Kamara’s defense team.

PARIS, France – Defense lawyers in the appeal of Kunti Kamara of his 2022 conviction for crimes against humanity, called for the trial to be abandoned on Wednesday. They entered a motion making a new claim that Kamara, a former Ulimo commander, was born four years later than previously claimed, meaning he would have been 15 at the time of the crimes during Liberia’s first civil war, and too young to be tried in France’s adult justice system.

Kamara originally told immigration authorities in the Netherlands, where he applied for asylum as a refugee in 2021, that he had been born in 1974, making him 19 years of age in 1993, when the crimes were committed in Lofa County.

Kamara now claims that he does not know when he was born because there was no hospital or birth certificate in the rural area of Karnplay where he was born. His older brother, who says he was born in 1958, told the court by videolink from Monrovia that Kamara was born in 1978.

The judge did not ask to hear arguments from the two sides today. It is expected that he will address the issue on Thursday.

Earlier in the day John Stewart, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner, explained the TRC process to the jury – three judges and nine civilian jurors – and the major findings and recommendations of the commission.

Stewart told the court that he had travelled to Lofa County with the United Nations Development Program in the aftermath of the war and observed extreme devastation. He said almost all the housing in Lofa was completely destroyed. He said most of the people fled to Guinea as refugees and they told him they had seen the fighters taking the people’s own belongings there to sell to back to them as refugees.

Stewart told the court that Monrovia had been devastated too. He said the city of 500,000 people was emptied to just 80,000 during the fighting in 1990. Bombs and bullets rained down on the city. His house was hit. He explained how his family and other citizens of Monrovia were forced to move constantly risking violence all the time.

“If a man left home they were not sure he would come back,” Stewart told the court. “If a woman left it was not sure she would come back without being violated.”

Chief judge Jean Marc Lavergne asked Stewart what the Liberian people thought about this trial in France, and the other trials of those accused of crimes in Liberia that had been held in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Finland and the United States. Stewart told the court that the trials were welcomed. He credit coverage of the trials by Liberian reporters with support for the war crimes court that led to the bill to establish a court passing the lower house in Liberia this week. Stewart made a special point of thanking the jury “for bringing justice to Liberian victims.”

The judge asked Stewart if he was afraid of the accused warlords. “I am afraid,” Stewart told the court. “Others have gone into hiding. I am 70 years old. I am not afraid for myself but I’m afraid for my children. But I will stay. I will fight for justice. I consider it an obligation and duty. You can only die once.”

On cross examination the defense sought to have Stewart support their case for the trial to be abandoned by having him lay out what the TRC recommended should happen to accused perpetrators who were under 16 at the end of the war. Stewart confirmed that the TRC had recommended amnesty for all fighters aged under 16. Later, outside the court he said there was a caveat for fighters charged with extreme crimes like those for which Kamara was convicted. He said they should be tried.

Luther J. Sumo, county attorney of Lofa, appeared by videolink from Monrovia to testify to the horrors he witnessed during the war and also his role in the investigation that led to the indictment of Kunti Kamara.

Sumo detailed looting, cannibalism, torture and rape. He went to great lengths to make sure the jury understood just how depraved he believes the rebels’ behavior was.

“Some would have sex with children in front of their parents,” Sumo said.  Many members of the jury winced and looked disturbed by the atrocities he described. In response to the judges questions Sumo confirmed that he saw these things with his own eyes. He conceded that he had left Lofa by 1993, when Ulimo was formed. He said the crimes he witnessed in Lofa were committed by troops under the command of then rebel commanders Charles Taylor and Prince Johnson.

Sumo explained the layered relationships between factions, tribes, religions and traditional societies. Judge Lavergne asked if the eating of hearts and body parts, described by witnesses and victims in the first trial, was part of a ritual or just barbarity.

Sumo reacted strongly. “It was very barbaric,” he said. “It was not part of the religion of any of these tribes. Those rebels came with their own ideas. Those rebels cutting human meat and carrying it in wheelbarrows was designed to terrorize the population.”

Kamara’s defense lawyers tried to undermine Sumo’s evidence that Kamara committed the crimes by questioning Sumo about other fighters who have been named by witnesses as “Fine Boy” and “Ugly Boy”. Sumo confirmed that he had not interacted with those men and could not confirm that they were not the same person.

At the end of another long day, approaching 7pm, the court heard from Patrick Massaly, a Liberian investigator, by videolink from Monrovia, to describe the investigation undertaken in Lofa County by French and Liberian investigators. The defense asked why some of the witnesses were not shown a panel of pictures including Kunti Kamara. Massaly told the court he believed all witnesses were shown a panel of pictures. He said some witnesses could not identify Kamara from the pictures because of the long passage – nearly 30 years – of time since they had last seen him.

The defense asked why investigators had no dug up the graves identified by witnesses. Massaly said he did not know. The defense is trying to raise a number of lines of doubt about the prosecution case in an effort to sew doubt in the minds of the jurors. A majority of the jury must find Kamara guilty by the legal burden “beyond a reasonable doubt” for his conviction to be upheld. The trial continues Friday.

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