MONROVIA – The man at the center of allegations of bribing and tampering with witnesses in the ongoing war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi, took the stand on Monday to refute the allegations.
Hassan Bility, Director of the Liberian NGO, Global Justice Research Project (GJRP), which together with its Swiss partner Civitas Maxima, documented Mr. Massaquoi’s alleged crimes during Liberia’s second civil war, said no of the claims by witnesses were true.
“Everything those witnesses said are all false and lies intended to mislead the public,” Mr. Bility told the four-judge panel. “I do not need to bribe witnesses, because there were over 250,000 people who died and they have many relatives willing to testify for free so why should GJRP bribe witnesses to testify? Furthermore, I do not have the power to grant asylum to anybody, neither does GJRP have that power, because asylums are usually granted by governments and not individuals. The US government, Europe and Scotland Yard, pay for flight tickets for witnesses, and not GJRP. Neither is there any organization in Ghana that grants asylum to anybody.”
Three defense witnesses have appeared before the Finnish Court alleging that Mr. Bility coached them to lie about Mr. Massaquoi and Agnes Taylor, who was charged and detained in the United Kingdom. They said Mr. Bility wanted them to testify that Mr. Massaquoi and Ms. Taylor committed human rights violations and promised to pay them US$15,000, to US$20,000 once they had testified. The first witness said Bility gave him US$200 and promised to advance him $4,000 and pay him $16,000 and secure him asylum in a European country. The witness claimed he refused to testify.
The second witness said Bility gave him US$20 and promised him $US15,000 and asylum to any European country of his choice. The third witness said Bility coached him to lie about seeing Ms. Taylor killing and opening people’s stomachs during the war. He said Bility promised him US$16,000 and asylum for him and his family.
Mr. Bility has testified in this trial and at the Special Court for Sierra Leone that Mr. Massaquoi tortured him.
The court has ordered journalists withheld witness’s identities to protect them from retaliation, but Mr. Bility asked that his name be made public. He took the stand and denied all allegations.
“When a witness is afraid to testify, we have a witness protection service to relocate the witness within Liberia and our officer is usually in communication with that witness. We tell witnesses if they are going to testify, they should not tell anybody. And if there is a witness living outside of Liberia and wants to testify, but there is a security risk, the witness makes a case to the government of that county regarding security risk,” Mr. Bility said.
When asked by the defense team during cross examination, if $15,000 to $20,000 was much money to run his organization, he replied: “that amount can run GJRP operations for two months when it comes to paying of staff, utility bills, gasoline and fuel for running vehicles and generator.”
Mr. Bility said his organization has a consent form given to witnesses and the form has nothing about giving benefits to witnesses. But he pointed out that there is a part on the form that mentioned lodging wage. And the lodging wage enables a witness traveling from out of town to receive money for transportation, feeding and lodging because many people do not work in Liberia and cannot afford to transport their own way to come and testify for GJRP.
When asked by the defense team, to differentiate between a falsehood and a lie, Mr. Bility answered confidently, saying a falsehood is said out of ignorance, but emphasized that ‘lie’ is an intent to deceive people.
Mr. Bility was asked about Alan White, the former chief investigator of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, to whom all three accusing defense witnesses admitted having spoken in the run up to the trial. Mr. White’s conduct in overseeing the Special Court investigation is under question in this trial because many of the crimes Mr. Massaquoi is charged with allegedly took place in Liberia while Mr. Massaquoi was in a safehouse in Sierra Leone under witness protection overseen by Mr. White. His communication with the witness may be seen as witness tampering.
“I do not know his role in this trial, but I saw Alan White at the Mamba Point Hotel when I left Boston in 2004 to do a TV documentary after the murder of an American citizen in the hotel that year,” Mr. Bility told the court. “I was a witness at the Special Court and I did speak with Mr. White via mobile many times but I have never discussed the Massaquoi case or any of our other cases with Mr. White.”
Defense lawyer Kaarle Gummerus asked Mr. Bility about his personal interactions with Mr. Massaquoi and a woman who allegedly tortured him on behalf of then-President Charles Taylor.
“There were two persons in the room during an instance of my torture – Massaquoi and a lady – but my entire torture was directed by Mr. Massaquoi,” Mr. Bility told the court. “He ordered the lady to take the wire from the wall and place it on my private parts and electrocute it. During the painful electrocution, it was Massaquoi standing and asking if I would admit to things I did not do. Mr. Massaquoi’s mission was to make me say something Taylor wanted me to say.”
Mr. Bility asked the court for time to address other accusations that have come up including that he was a member of the Ulimo rebel group. Mr. Bility said that he was a member of the Mandingo ethnic group and that his own people are attacking him because they do not want to be prosecuted. He said he believed they were putting the witnesses up to lie against him in court.
“My people have ganged up against me and are going through other people to attack my reputation,” said Mr. Bility. “They believe that since Charles Taylor’s rebels committed atrocities against the Mandingos, so it was their right to form a rebel group to fight back and defend themselves. Therefore, they should not be prosecuted for crimes they committed. Our office has received many threats and there is a security risk against me, but when you work for justice, you always stand alone.”
A second prosecution witness, whose identity was concealed, worked with GJRP but was later assigned to work with the Finnish police to recruit witnesses. He said he worked with the Finnish police to help find witnesses to testify in the ongoing Massaquoi trial.
“I usually sit at Atayee centers to listen to people,” he said of the meeting houses where Liberians gather. “And when I hear a person relay an interesting story relating to the war, I approach and ask them to meet with the Finnish police. Once the person agrees, I forward that them to the Finnish police. This was how I got most of the witnesses who testified.”
During cross examination by Mr. Gummerus about gathering names and telephone numbers as records for the Finnish police, the witness said he used the information sheet as toilet paper when he went in Lofa, because he was not to share information.
The trial continues Tuesday.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.