Defence Strikes Blows in Liberia War Crimes Trial
FINLAND — The defence team in the trial of Gibril Massaquoi, the former RUF commander accused of committing war crimes in Liberia, has had some wins in the concluding weeks of the trial in Tampere, Finland.
Since it resumed in Finland, after three months hearing testimonies in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the trial has narrowed to two questions: What were the dates of the events for which Massaquoi is accused? And, have dozens of Liberian witnesses got the wrong man when they claimed “Angel Gabriel” is the commander with a Sierra Leonean accent that they say directed the atrocities?
Among the witnesses in this final part of the trial in the southern Finnish city where Massaquoi was living when he was charged and arrested in March 2020 were two international researchers who extensively documented the atrocities in Liberia in the period in question – 2000 to 2003.
One told the court that she and a colleague had spoken with 61 witnesses who described atrocities in Lofa County, particularly the village of Kamatahun. Many matched the descriptions given by many Liberian witnesses in Massaquoi’s trial.
“They said many of those being taken to Kamatahun had been from Kiantahun. Afterwards, after an order from a commander, they were taken into three houses – one of the witnesses said four houses – and they were burnt alive,” the witness told the court.
The Liberian witnesses said the event took place between September and December 2001. The researcher interviewed them between March and July 2002, just months after the alleged atrocities took place.
The first researcher told the court five testimonies mentioned the infamous commander Ziza Maza, one of the top army commanders under then President Charles Taylor. They also mentioned another top Taylor commander named Colonel Stanley and a number of lower level commanders.
Massaquoi’s lawyer Kaarle Gummerus asked the researcher, “Was there an ‘Angel’ or ‘Angel Gabriel’ mentioned in the interviews conducted by you or your colleague?”
The witness answered, “No, I do not recall that.”
Massaquoi denies he ever used the name “Angel Gabriel”. In addition to the witnesses the researcher said she had also spoken “with local community organisations, as well as members of think tanks, diplomats, refugee right organisations, and so on.”
“In these questions, did Angel Gabriel or Gibril Massaquoi ever come up?” asked Gummerus.
The witness answered, “No”.
A second researcher told the court he spent 15-months between 2012 and 2018 living in the Waterside area of Monrovia, where more of Massaquoi’s alleged crimes took place. He told the court he had spoken to “around 300 soldiers, in Monrovia and 15 different provinces,” as well as, “hundreds of civilians, and some of the conversations were very informal.”
Gummerus asked the witness whether interviewees named specific people.
“Yes, some names have come up,” the witness said naming the war time aliases Stanley, Ziza and General Mosquito. “People are still scared to talk about what happened.”
“Did Gibril Massaquoi’s name come up?” Gummerus asked.
“No,” replied the witness.
“What about Gabriel?” asked Gummerus.
Again the witness answered, “no”.
The testimonies of the two researchers helped narrow down the question of dates that has plagued this trial. Liberian witnesses had given a range of dates for harrowing rapes, murder and torture of civilians that they said were committed and directed by “Angel Gabriel”, the alleged nickname of Gibril Massaquoi, at Waterside market in Monrovia. Sometimes the same witness gave conflicting dates. The prosecution alleges Massaquoi and other RUF combatants were in Monrovia to support Taylor’s forces.
An expert witness told the court that such memory lapses were entirely normal in a society where many people did not use calendar dates with regularity and were remembering traumatic events from 20 years ago. He said the lapses did not indicate dishonesty on the part of witnesses.
However the second researcher said he was very clear that the witnesses were describing events that he has pinned down to July of 2003 or in the “summer of 2003″. Those were the dates the third and final assault by rebels with the LURD group on Taylor’s forces in Monrovia, known to Liberians as “World War 3”. Taylor resigned and went into exile in Nigeria in August.
That date presents a problem for the prosecution. From March 2003 until he left Sierra Leone for Finland under a special deal in 2008 Gibril Massaquoi was under witness protection in a safehouse provided by the United Nations in return for his role as an informant against Taylor and RUF leaders. The testimony of witnesses in Sierra Leone made clear that the protection conditions were not tight. Massaquoi left the safehouse on several occasions and hosted visitors who could have couriered messages or threats between him and those against whom he was testifying. Interview records by Special Court investigators showed that Massaquoi went as long as a month between interviews – plenty of time to travel to Liberia.
But the first researcher told the court she found it implausible to think that Massaquoi and Taylor would have been in league with eachother in the summer of 2003.
“At that time, Massaquoi was collaborating with the Special Court as an insider witness, and as I understand it, providing information on command structure and information against President Taylor,” she said. ‘The indictment of Taylor had been made public in June. So I find it unlikely that [Massaquoi] would have travelled to Monrovia to defend the capital, fighting on the same side as the person just indicted by the Special Court.”
She reminded the court that it was well known that Taylor had little sympathy for people who betrayed him.
“Generally it was thought that Taylor had made Charles Bockarie to be killed on the grounds that he had given the special court information against him,” she said.
The trial has taken a summer break. In part two of this series New Narratives will report on other details of this phase of the trial.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.