Alieu Kosiah, the convicted Liberian warlord challenging his 20-year sentence for war crimes, told the Swiss Federal Court hearing his appeal that the trial had destroyed his life. In 2021 the Swiss court found Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia (Ulimo), guilty of 21 of 25 counts including murder, rape and recruitment of a child soldier. He’s facing fresh charges of crimes against humanity on appeal and could see his sentence increased should he lose.
By Anthony Stephens with New Narratives
As the appeal enters its final stages Kosiah said he had been “destroyed forever”, regardless of the outcome of the appeal and his family is also stigmatized for their link to him.
“My life is technically destroyed,” said Kosiah when invited to respond to allegations against him, according to a translated transcript of the trial taken by Civitas Maximas, the Swiss-based justice activists. “Today if you go on the internet and put in Alieu Kosiah, you will see the mention of war crimes appear. There’s even a report that says I killed 2,500 people. Whatever the outcome of this trial, everything remains on the internet.”
Kosiah was responding to a question from Olivier Thormann, presiding judge of the court’s appeal chamber, about the impact of the trial on him and his family. Kosiah, 47, was the first Liberian to be convicted and sentenced for his role in any of the country’s two civil wars—a decision he’s questioned. Kosiah said the case has also affected his personal life because he was divorced by his two wives.
“I don’t want her to have to go through this,” said Kosiah of his first wife, whom he said divorced him because of the trial. “I was a soldier but not her.” He claimed his second wife, whom he had traditionally married in Africa, also severed her relationship with him. Koisah alleged that other members of his family are also impacted.
“One of my brothers and a cousin called their sons by my name,” Kosiah said. “My son is called Alieu Kosiah. I told them to use a middle name for their sons so that they wouldn’t have to carry the weight of that name all their lives.”
The former Ulimo commander repeated his long-held defense that witnesses in the trial were coached and bribed to lie about him by Alain Werner, Director of Civitas Maxima, and Hassan Bility, Director of the Global Justice and Research Project, which worked with Swiss prosecutors to document Kosiah’s alleged crimes in Liberia. As in previous instances, Kosiah provided no evidence to support his allegations. Werner and Bility have also repeatedly denied the allegations, which have dogged all the trials of accused war criminals with which they have been involved.
Kosiah admitted he went to Lofa after it was captured by Ulimo from Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front (NPFL) but he claimed he was in Zozor and not Foya, where prosecutors have alleged he committed his crimes. Kosiah said in Zorzor he held the ranks of battalion commander and regional commander.
“It was a special order from Alhaji Kromah [then head of Ulimo],” said Kosiah of his promotion to commander by the now deceased Kromah. “I never asked Kromah why. To be honest, not all commanders were so lucky. Some didn’t get a post, but the majority of ULIMO commanders were given a post by Kromah. It’s the most important job I had because the rest of the time I was used like an animal in the bush.”
Kosiah justified his decision for taking up arms, insisting it was in defense of his kinsmen – Mandingoes were targeted by NPFL forces.
“I think the problem is that people in Liberia see us as foreigners,” said Kosiah on direct examination by his lawyer, Dimitri Gianoli. “Until today I have never seen anyone who could explain to me why Mandingos were targeted during the war. There are less than one percent of Mandingo in the police or in the army, they had no political ambition. So I see no justification for attacking them.”
Gianoli praised Kosiah as a good man. “He loves his country, its history. He has documented himself,” he said.
As Kosiah has done during the two phases of the trial, Gianoli also questioned the witnesses’ credibility.
“The complaints betray a desire to target and implicate Alieu Kosiah,” said Gianoli. “These complaints are therefore in no way reliable. The evolution and adaptation of the stories prove that we have sought to adjust a state of affairs according to a desire to have the versions corroborated with each other.”
He also repeated claims that there were email exchanges between Werner and Bility in 2013 in which Werner asked Bility to find information about Kosiah, who had sought an asylum in Switzerland, so that he could be prosecuted for his alleged crimes in Liberia. Kosiah alleged Bility had initially said he did not know much about Kosiah, but later said he could get information to achieve “the desire objective.”
Werner and Bility have always dismissed the allegations.
Kosiah answered questions about his experience in prison and said speaking to his mother was one comfort. “I want to see her again and speak with her in Mandingo and not in English,” said Kosiah. “I want to ask the judges if, after this week, I will be allowed to speak to my mother in Mandingo which is what I need. I don’t need psychological [support]. Spending a moment with my mother would be enough for me to be fine.”
Kosiah has already served more than nine of the 20 years of prison time to which he was sentenced. He was detained for six years before the trial took place, an unusually long time that was criticized by human rights defenders. Kosiah told Judge Thormann that he has found life difficult in prison.
“To be honest, I feel like the first court was a lot harder on me than this court,” said Kosiah. “So, when I got the verdict, I wasn’t that surprised. It affected my morale, but it didn’t change my job or my relationship with the security people at the camp. I keep everything inside and it’s hard.”
Kosiah said he works from prison and earns 24 CHF or $US24, which enables him to buy whatever he wants. A Muslim, Kosiah said he sometimes prays in prison because it gives him “courage and deep conviction” that he’s “innocent.”
The trial will conclude this week and a verdict is expected in several weeks.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project.