War Crimes Trial Coming to Liberian Soil

MONROVIA – Liberia is set to host the first war crimes trial connected to the country’s civil war in February.

The Pirkanmaa District Court in Finland announced Thursday that it will begin the trial of Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean, for war crimes allegedly committed in Liberia in his role as a commander of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) between 2001 and 2002 next week. Later in February the court will move to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear from “several dozen witnesses named in the case” in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea and visits to the scenes of the alleged crimes, the court said in a press release.

Massaquoi, 50, faces charges of murder, aggravated rape, aggravated war crimes and an aggravated criminal case of human rights violations in exceptional circumstances. The trial will return to Finland in May and the case is scheduled for judgement in the Finnish fall.

Massaquoi was arrested in March last year and remanded by Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Tampere in southern Finland, where he lived. The Finns had been investigating Massaquoi since 2018.

Civitas Maxima, a Swiss-based victims group and its Liberian-based counterpart, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), had first documented Massaquoi’s alleged crimes and presented them to Finnish authorities. Evidence that he was a resident of the northern European country emerged on the internet in 2010, when his name appeared on an article about peace and democracy in a post-conflict setting.

Holding a war crimes trial on Liberian soil is a major development in the campaign for the establishment of a war crimes court for Liberia. Despite the 2009 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Liberia’s Legislature is yet to pass a law to approve a war crimes court for Liberia.

The head of Civitas Maxima, Alain Werner, celebrated the support given to the Finnish investigators by the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

“This case so far has been an example of great cooperation between national states, and we applaud the governments of Sierra Leone and Liberia for their collaboration during the investigation phase of this case. We also applaud the Finnish authorities as the investigation was a model of efficiency – with many witnesses, including defence witnesses, being interviewed in a very timely manner, and in extremely adverse circumstances with the global pandemic, since the arrest of Gibril Massaquoi.” 

While Liberian authorities have dragged their feet on war time justice, Civitas and GJRP have spearheaded an effort by European and American law enforcement to prosecute accused war criminals hiding in exile. This is the fourth such case to go ahead. Mohammed Jabbateh and Thomas Woewiyu were convicted of immigration fraud in relation to their roles in the war in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The trial of Alieu Kosiah, of ULIMO, will continue in Switzerland on February 15.

Formed in 1991, the RUF began collaborating with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which was founded two years earlier. Together, the two groups destabilized the Mano River basin, killing an estimated 250,000 in Liberia, 50,000 in Sierra Leone and 1,000 in Guinea. Millions of people were displaced in the region.  

It is unclear where exactly in Liberia Massaquoi allegedly committed the crimes. However, a 2000 United Nations Panel of Experts report found Massaquoi was in Monrovia. RUF fighters frequented villages along the Liberia-Sierra Leone border. 

Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recorded 86 human rights violations it said were committed by the RUF in the country. That is more than the crimes the commission recorded committed by groups such as the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit (SATU), the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Special Security Services (SSS).

Who is Massquoi?

Massaquoi was one of the high-ranking officers of the RUF. He joined the group at the age of 21 in 1991 after it raided his village of Pujehun in southern Sierra Leone. The former schoolteacher rose through the ranks of the RUF to became a colonel and then its spokesman. He first led the Alligator Forces of 100 men and later a battalion of 400 rebels. He even accompanied the group’s founder Foday Sankoh to the a peace talks in Cote d’Ivoire in 1996. The 2000 UN Panel of Experts report cited him as the fourth man in command of the faction. In May 2000 he played a part in taking 500 UN peacekeepers hostage. He later became an informant for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Massaquoi is the third non-Liberian to be prosecuted in connection to the civil war. The first two persons are Chuckie Taylor—the American son of former President Charles Taylor—who is serving a 97-year sentence in the United States for torture in Liberia, and Dutchman Guus Kowenhoven, who was found guilty by a Dutch court in 2017 for adding and abetting crimes committed by the NPFL. 

New Narratives journalists will continue coverage of the trials of Massaquoi and Alieu Kosiah in Finland, Switzerland, Liberia and Sierra Leone in collaboration with our local Liberian media partners.

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