By Mae Azango, New Narratives Justice Correspondent
MONROVIA, Liberia – A former soldier of the Armed Forces of Liberia has told the Finnish court hearing the ongoing war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi in Monrovia that the ex-Sierra Leonean rebel commander killed nearly an entire town in Lofa County.
“Angel Gabriel killed the town chief and his family along with half of the town including men, women, children and the elderly, because he told them not to leave the town,” he told the court of the incident he said that took place in Kamatahun in the Kalahun District in the early 2000s. “[Massaquoi] cut off their throats with a knife.”
The ex-soldier also accused Massaquoi of butchering civilians he accused of looting in Monrovia, removing their hearts and intestines. The government forces, then headed by Charles Taylor, was fighting rebels of Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) at the time. Fighters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone—the group Massaquoi fought for—had begun collaborating with Taylor when he headed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the early 1990s.
“Angel Gabriel opened fire on the people because he said the people were looting,” he said about the Waterside incident, which has previous witnessed have spoken of. “I saw over 15 bodies of civilians who came to look for food, because whenever they caught them in any store, they killed them.”
The ex-soldier told Finnish judges hearing Massaquoi’s case he and other soldiers wanted to kill Massaquoi after the but another soldier, “General Sweet Candy,” stopped them. He alleged Massaquoi later killed a pro-government militiaman who confronted him over the killings.
His testimony lasted for over three hours before he was cross-examined by the Massaquoi’s defense team.
Massaquoi lawyer Kaarle Gummerus dug out inconsistencies in the witness’ testimony and pretrial statement. He had told the Finnish police he first met Massaquoi in 2003 but on Friday he said 2001. Gummerus repeatedly pressed the witness on that inconsistency but the he said he could not remember as it has been nearly 20 years since it happened.
Massaquoi, who watched the proceedings from Finland, assisted his lawyers draw the questions.
The witnesses, known to the court as “Soldier 17” expressed fear for his safety and was assured he would be safe.
Massaquoi’s trial is being held in the District Court of Tampere in Finland where he was relocated in exchange for his testimony against Charles Taylor and others in the war crimes prosecutions there. The hearings here being held in a secret location in Monrovia to allow the court to hear directly from more than 80 Liberian witnesses. The court has ordered journalists to conceal the witness’ identities for fear of intimidation or retribution.
The second and third witnesses also told the court Massaquoi killed civilians.
The second witness known to the court as “Soldier 50” told judges Massaquoi burnt villagers alive in Kamatahun. The victims were men and boys accused of being LURD rebels, according to the former soldier.
“Even though I was a soldier, I was not happy when the people were killed because they were my people from the same county,” he said. “So when I returned, and saw the fire burring, I felt bad.”
Gummerus also picked inconsistencies in the second witness’ testimony during cross-examination. “Soldier 50” had told Finnish police during pretrial he was on the scene when the alleged killing took place but in court he said he was not present.
The third witness known as “Soldier 37” accused Massaquoi of ordering the killing of townspeople in Kamatahun he accused on being LURD informants.
“I was not on the spot, when Angel Gabriel gave the order to arrest and kill the people, but when I heard the noise and arrived on the scene, I learned that Angel Gabriel ordered the killing of the people,” the third witness said. “Some people were burned, women were raped and killed. He said Benjamin Yeatan, who was the head of the Special Security Service (now Executive Protection Service) wanted to kill Massaquoi but changed his mind.
Massaquoi, 51, is on trial for war crimes allegedly committed in Liberia between 2001 and 2003. His charges, which he denies, include war crimes and crimes against humanity between. He is accused of committing and commanding the murder and rape of civilians. The charges also include several allegations of cannibalism. He faces a lifetime sentence, which is 15 years under Finnish law.
So far, there have been 48 witnesses who have testified and three more will testify next week. Thereafter, the court will move to Sierra Leone on April 28.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project