MONROVIA – On the final day of hearings in this second visit to Liberia by the Finnish court trying former rebel leader Gibril Massaquoi for war crimes, the head judge in the trial has weighed in on the push for a war crimes court for Liberia.
Presiding Judge Juhani Paiho, who has led the four-judge panel hearing the case since February, said Liberia needs to deal with the past that has been buried for as long as 30 years. Finnish prosecutors chose to charge Mr. Massaquoi, a former commander with Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front accused of committing war crimes in Liberia, and living in Finland, rather than send him to Liberia. Liberian administrations had made it clear that they would not try any accused perpetrators from Liberia’s civil wars. Finnish prosecutors decided they could not allow an accused war criminal to continue to live in their midst without holding him to account.
“I would say it will be better that Liberia should deal with her war crimes cases like this and set up a war crimes court if possible,” said Judge Paiho. “In order to go forward, you need to deal with your past. This is the only way to go forward. I have realized you [Liberians] have put down everything that has happened 20 or 30 years ago. You haven’t dealt with that. You have tried to continue life but it’s still there somewhere back. How can you continue your life if you don’t deal with these issues?”
Judge Paiho’s words echo those of war crimes court campaigners and legislators who are pushing a bill to establish a war crimes court into law. They have repeatedly said that justice for war crimes is essential if Liberians are ever to trust their government and unite to rebuild their country. So far speaker Bhopal Chambers has blocked passage of the bill, opponents say, at the direction of the Weah administration.
In an exclusive interview with New Narratives’ partners, Judge Paiho said the court’s second visit to Liberia has cost the Finnish government nearly $US1million.
“Yes, it’s Finnish taxpayer’s money. And it is true some Fins back home are not happy about the trial,” Judge Paiho said. “Some people back home are saying, ‘why we are dealing with the case and not just send Massaquoi to Liberia and let the Liberians take care of it?’ But this is not up to us. It is about the international agreements has made and also under our laws that a person who lives in Finland must be tried in Finland. This is not an international court in Liberia, this Finnish court just hearing witnesses in Liberia.”
The Finnish court came to Liberia February of this year to hear testimonies of war victims from Lofa and Monrovia in the second Liberian civil war in 2001- 2003. They spent 12 weeks in total in Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone. The court was delayed when two of the judges were hospitalized with typhoid at the start of the Sierra Leone hearings.
The court came back to Liberia last month to drill down into two key questions: The first is the explosive suggestion that Gibril Massaquoi escape UN-provided witness protection in Sierra Leone in June to August 2003 – when he was informing to the Special Court for Sierra Leone on former colleagues with the RUF and then-Liberian President Charles Taylor – to travel to Liberia to fight on behalf of Taylor?
The court has also probed accusations by the defense team that Hassan Bility, head of Liberia’s Global Justice Research Project, tried to bribe witnesses to testify against Mr. Massaquoi, Agnes Taylor who was charged with war crimes in the United Kingdom, and Mohammed Jabbateh who was convicted in relation to war crimes in Philadelphia in 2017.
Mr. Bility has played a key role, with Swiss-based Civitas Maxima and the Center for Justice and Accountability in the United States, in gathering evidence for a dozen cases in the U.S. and Europe, including those against Mr. Massaquoi, Ms. Taylor and Jabbeteh.
Bility has rejected the accusations. The U.S. ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy, visited GJRP’s offices in Monrovia on Thursday to express the American government’s confidence in Bility and GJRP’s work bringing accused Liberian perpetrators to justice.
One of the most difficult cases
Judge Paiho said the Massaquoi case has been one of the most difficult in his professional career.
“First of all, this is a war crimes case. We don’t usually have war crimes cases in Finland. To have more than 100 witnesses that makes this case very difficult,” said Judge Paiho. “It has been very interesting to learn a lot more about the culture. People are talking a different way. And when the witnesses talk, it has to be translated to English and from English to our language, and I can say we would probably be losing something in between but hopefully not the point.”
The language challenge has made the hearings long and complicated. The judges all speak excellent English but they wanted translators just to be sure they were understanding everything.
“We needed both English and Finnish translators just to be sure of what the witnesses were saying,” said the judge.
One of the many challenges of the case has been the inability of witnesses to pin down dates. Judge Paiho expressed sympathy for that.
“These people in their villages, they do not have calendars. Life is not based on dates but their daily lives go on day after day,” he said. “This calendar does not mean anything to them. It’s more about rainy season or dry season or who was the president at that time, but that doesn’t say which year it was.”
The judge’s understanding of the challenges for witnesses with dates may provide some comfort to the prosecution. The defense had tried to argue the inconsistencies undermined the witnesses’ credibility. Many witnesses had been unsure of whether the crimes Mr. Massaquoi is charged with happened in June to August 2003, during the period when the LURD rebel group attacked Monrovia, eventually forcing Taylor to resign.
“Of course, we are wondering why there are changes in some of their stories,” he said. “We have learned to understand that people are living in different worlds here than in Finland, so you cannot say, ‘These people categorically that these people are lying, that it happened a certain year’. You cannot say categorically that these people are lying because they changed the year.”
Judge Paiho does not expect a verdict in the case before February or March next year. Even then, it is likely the case is far from over.
“It is most likely they will appeal,” he said though he was careful not to indicate which side he believed would be appealing the verdict. Either way it will be a long process.
“They will have to start within a year, but as this is a very big case, and they have to think if they are coming hear the witnesses again here in Africa or if there is going to be change in the law that allows the court of appeals to hear all the tapes we have made. So, there are a lot of questions.”
Judge Paiho said he expected the court to hear from Alan White, the former chief investigator for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Dr. White has come under scrutiny during these hearings because the three witnesses who testified that Mr. Bility tried to bribe them admitted that Dr. White had called them during the investigation. Mr. Massaquoi was supposed to be in UN-backed witness protection in Sierra Leone under Dr. White’s watch when witnesses allege he was committing war crimes on behalf of Taylor in Liberia.
“He will testify, he has promised to testify,” said Judge Paiho. “And US officials have given us clearance that he can hear him.”
The court will resume in Finland on the 26th of October.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West African Justice Reporting Project.