A War Crimes Trial Finally Comes to Liberia. Will it be the last?

Finally this month a trial over war crimes will start on Liberian soil. It’s been 18 years since the end of the Liberian civil war and nine years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended the country hold a war crimes court to bring those accused of directing the atrocities that left 250,000 dead to justice.

The court will be conducted under the jurisdiction of Finland not Liberia. And the defendant Gibril Massaquoi, 51, is Sierra Leonean. But none of that matters to justice campaigners like Massa Washington. For her this trial’s real significance will be in showing Liberians a trial can happen.

“For a long time proponents against the call for a war crimes court have propagated the misinformation that such a process for Liberia is impossible, citing threat to the security of the country, lack of capacity, logistics and finances,” says Mr Washington. “They also argue that it is counterproductive to maintaining the “peace”.

The trial of Mr Massaquoi provides hope to victims and their families that it is possible after all to get justice at home. It is a litmus test for what is possible. These are exciting times for Liberians and the global human rights community.”

Washington is not bothered that Massaquoi is not Liberian. As a former commander of the Revolutionary United Front which operated with funding and direction of former National Patriotic Front for Liberia leader and President Charles Taylor she says Mr Massaquoi is, “as close as you can get to a member of the NPFL prosecuted in Liberia.”

Mr Massaquoi’s journey to this momentous trial began when he was a Lieutenant-Colonel of the RUF and an assistant to the rebel group’s founder, Foday Sankoh, during the Sierra Leonean Civil War. In 2005, Mr Massaquoi was granted immunity in return for his testimony in open session before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He was instrumental in the convictions of several rebel leaders including Charles Taylor.

Finland granted Mr Massaquoi residency for his role in the Sierra Leone Special Court. But when Civitas Maxima, of Switzerland and Liberia-based Global Justice Research Project presented Finnish investigators with evidence of Mr Massaquoi’s war crimes in Liberia, they arrested him in March 2020 for his role in that war.

Mr Massaquoi’s trial began on February 1 in the city of Tampere, where he had been living. Rather than transport more than 50 witnesses set to testify to Finland in the midst of a pandemic, the Finnish court decided it would go to the witnesses. The trial is expected to run for six weeks in Liberia and then move to Sierra Leone before returning to Finland in May.

The decision of the Liberian government to allow the trial to operate here has surprised many observers. As president, George Weah of Liberia has dismissed the court. But the Liberian government has allowed several foreign teams to investigate war crimes in Liberia over the last few years. And President George Weah has not discouraged a push in the legislature to secure support for a bill establishing a war crimes court.

Mr Weah is also facing international pressure. The United Nations Human Rights Council had given Liberia until July 2020 to implement war time justice or face possible international sanctions. The deadline was delayed by the pandemic.

“Why did Liberian authorities allow this Mr Masssaquoi trial to happen?” asks Aaron Weah, a former researcher with the TRC. “It’s safe to think that Mr Weah is re-evaluating his position on the court. It’s also possible that Weah could make accountability for war crimes his legacy projects before he eventually leaves office.”

Aaron Weah sees the Massaquoi trial as a clear sign to all parties that a court can happen in Liberia.

“The trial will demonstrate that a new partnership between governments, civil society and justice actors is possible. It will also reinforce pioneering bi-partisan efforts at the Legislature. Overall, the prospect of justice for wartime atrocities is more likely in the next few years than it was a few years ago when it was a distant reality.”

The biggest concern about holding a court in Liberia has always been security. Will defendants of the NPFL seek to interfere in the court by threatening witnesses, lawyers or court officials? Will the trial fuel tensions that still exist between rival factions?

Adama K. Dempster, a leading war crimes court campaigner, worries that perpetrators could disrupt this court in order to undermine popular support for a Liberian war crimes court.

“We need to consider the safety of these victims because other perpetrators in Liberia who are accused of war crimes, could want to undermine such a process, because if it is successful, it could give way for a bigger war crimes court that will prosecute them,” says Dempster.

Mr Dempster is urging authorities to engage in a massive awareness campaign to educate Liberians about the trial and its operations in order to counter misinformation. And while there is still much that is not known about how the trial will be conducted, one aspect concerns Dempster. Massaquoi may not be in the court.

“Having a trial in Liberia without perpetrator Massaquoi on ground is a strange pattern introduced, unlike the domestic trials, where the accused person is seated right in court during the trial. It is the traditional way in Liberia, for the perpetrator to face his victims and see the lever of suffering he reduced them to, so that it will subdue him.”ADVERTISEMENT

Aaron Weah is less concerned about security threats. He points to studies that showed that the lack of justice was one of the biggest threats to Liberia’s peace and stability.

“Reprisal action by ex-combatants against victims and justice activists was never part of the threat levels,” Weah says in an email from the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland where he is a PhD candidate. “However, it’s very possible that these threat levels were non-existent because efforts at war crimes and domestic accountability appeared far-fetched or were never tested in Liberia.”

But Mr Weah does see the trial potentially having far-reaching implications.

“Now that the trial of war criminal is about to be tested on Liberian soil, the following implications are critical: 1) Liberia has served as a safe haven for war criminals. This trial is going to challenge that notion; 2) actors of the Liberian civil war networked across the sub region, including Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. This trial could re-energize this network and it could potentially serve as an intelligence gathering resource for ex-militia across the borders; 3) any potential disruption in the trial could result from this network of ex-combatants across the borders who may have mutual interests in ensuring the failure of the trial.”

There are concerns that former allies of Charles Taylor might try to exact revenge on Massaquoi for his role in Taylor’s conviction. Agnes Taylor, Charles’s ex-wife, recently returned to Liberia after narrowly escaping her own trial for for torture and conspiracy to torture when a UK court dismissed the case against her in 2019 on a technicality after she had been imprisoned for two and a half years. Taylor has said she would like to enter politics in Liberia. Weah warns that any perpetrator who tried to disrupt the trial would need to be very careful to cover their tracks.

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In Lofa County where Mr Massaquoi is alleged to have committed most of his crimes between 1999 and 2003 news of the trial is being celebrated according to Davatus James of the Civil Society Human Rights Advocacy Platform in Lofa County.

“My people in Lofa will feel good and happy that justice is finally served,” he says adding his hope that this trial will boost the chances of a war crimes court. “We hope that it will create a blue print so that Liberia can implement the TRC recommendations, because if we have a country that still have warlords occupying key positions in government, there will be no development coming to Liberia.

A survey of people in the streets of Monrovia suggested that Gibril Massaquoi and the upcoming trial are not well known yet. But when they were told of the trial there was widspready support.

“If Massaquoi will be tried here relatives of victims he killed and raped will have their day in court,” says Morris Kollie, a student of the University of Liberia echoing the view of many Monrovians interviewed by FrontPage Africa. “They will see that justice is finally taking place in their lifetime, but the Finland people should make sure security measure are put in place to protect the victims who are direct witness for the trial, because we cannot depend on government security in Liberia. I say this because President Weah does not want to support the establishment of a war crimes court, so why do you think his security would want to protect the witnesses of war crimes? They could be afraid of being fired by the very government for doing such work.”

Mr Massaquoi’s trial continues in Finland this week and will move to Liberia next Monday. New Narratives reporters will cover every moment of the trial with our partners.

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