BELLINZONA, Switzerland – The final witness in the war crimes trial of Alieu Kosiah, called by Swiss state prosecutors, took the stand on Friday and gave testimony corroborating plaintiff claims that the former United Liberation Movement for Democracy of Liberia (ULIMO) commander killed young civilian men that he and his rebels had forced to carry looted goods in Kolahun District, Lofa County in 1993.
By James Harding Giahyue, New NarrativesSenior Justice Correspondent
The witness, a mathematics teacher who was flown in from Liberia to testify, told the Swiss Federal Criminal Court that he was among groups of young men who were forced to carry the goods long distances back to the rebel base. Many witnesses have told the court that Kosiah and his rebels killed men who could not carry the loads.
The man told the court that he witnessed Kosiah shoot a young man named Musa Kpandeh in Kolahun after he complained of being tired from transporting looted goods—including parts of a generator—on the 10-hour walk from Pasolahun. Rebels, allegedly under Kosiah’s orders, had raided the town early in the morning and forced them to carry the items.
“Yes, Kosiah shot [the man],” said the teacher. “He had a pistol.”
Now 45, the teacher said that Kosiah killed Morlu Kpandeh, the other man, in Konehun for dropping ammunitions he had forcibly transported a whole day from Gondolahun.
“Kosiah fired him and he died,” he told presiding judge Jean-Luc Bacher. “Their goal was to make sure their looted goods were safe, even if the lives of the civilians were not safe.”
The teacher said Kosiah’s gang of rebels had killed two other men on the route from Pasolahum to Kalahun town.
“It was difficult for us but we had to manage to survive,” he said. The court has ordered journalists to conceal the identities of the witnesses because they have a credible fear of retaliation or intimidation.
Kosiah is charged with 25 counts of murder, cannibalism, rape, sexual enslavement, forced transportation, looting and recruitment of a child-soldier. The alleged crimes happened between 1993 and 1995 in Lofa County. Seven Liberians –who have testified already—are the plaintiffs in this case.
Kosiah denies the charges, saying he was not in that part of the country at the time. He, also 45, faces 20 years in a Swiss prison – thr maximum penalty for any crime – in the European country that borders Austria, France, Germany and Italy.
The teacher’s testimony corroborated those of the fourth and fifth plaintiffs—they recognized each other in court—on the alleged killings in the Gbandi countryside. His account also matches other details of the plaintiffs’ testimonies. Like them, he mentioned the same places of Kosiah’s alleged forced transportation—the Lofa River, Gondolahun and Belle Fasama—among others. He gave the same accounts involving the generator, Kosiah’s attire and said the dates the events occurred
The witness painted a chilling portrait of Kosiah and ULIMO, established in May 1991 by Mandingo refugees and runaway soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).
“ULIMO intimidated and beat civilians. It was impossible not to participate [in the forced transport],” he said. “They thought they were gods.”
His testimony came after two dramatic days where Kosiah was permitted to invited witnesses to testify on his behalf. While both witnesses tried to defend Kosiah they also, apparently inadvertently, collaborated accusations of at least one war crime leveled against Kosiah.
In a baffling decision that suggested he still did not understand the charges level against him, Kosiah called as his first supporting witness a man he had recruited as a ULIMO fighter when he was just 12-year-old. Recruitment of a child soldier is one of the war crimes Kosiah is charged with.
The witness then threw the proceedings into confusion by demanding Switzerland grant him asylum because he said he was afraid of retaliation from Kosiah’s allies. Kosiah’s second witness, a former ULIMO commander, told the three-judge panel that Kosiah was present in Lofa between 1993 and 1994, something Kosiah had denied, and collaborated that he had recruited the first witness as a child soldier.
Dmitri Gianoli, who heads Kosiah’s defense team, tried to discredit the teacher’s accounts during cross examination by suggesting he had been put up to his testimony by justice activists. The prosecution witness admitted he had first sought a scholarship at the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), which has been instrumental in gathering evidence in this trial and others, but then found out the group documents wartime atrocities. Gianoli tried to prove to the court the witness had prior knowledge of GJRP’s investigation of his client but the teacher said a friend had misled him.
Gianoli tried to make the case that the man and two of the plaintiffs had staged their testimonies but the prosecution witness held on firmly to his story. The witness also told the court that, though he had met one of the plaintiffs in Pasolahun during the war, they had not met since 2007. The man also answered Gianoli’s questions about some details of the town like the name of the town chief and the owner of the generator.
Kosiah’s defense has sought throughout the trial to sow doubt in the plaintiffs’ case. On Friday they tried unsuccessfully to have the teacher give details that differed from previous witnesses. Responding to a question on the looted generator, the witness demonstrated how townsmen used sticks, lifted the machine and carried it on their shoulders. He named the same rebels the plaintiffs had named in their testimonies: “Scarred Face Kaba,” “Senegalese” and “Elephant Tail.”
Following his cross-examination, the teacher urged Swiss authorities to persuade the Liberian government to establish a war crimes court for the country. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report in 2009 recommended a war crimes court for Liberia to try ex-warlords such Alhaji Kromah, the co-founder of ULIMO, and Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence in Britain for war crimes in Sierra Leone. But that has yet to happen more than 10 years after the TRC ’s report.
Kosiah is the first Liberian to be prosecuted for war crimes over the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003), which killed an estimated 250,000 and displaced a million. He had moved to Switzerland in 1997 and became permanent resident a year later. But he was arrested in the Swiss capital of Bern in November 2014 suspected of war crimes.
Prosecution, plaintiffs and defense lawyers will begin legal pleadings on Monday through Friday, and a date for the final ruling will be announced.
This report was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.