Finnish War Crimes Court Opens in Liberia for Massaquoi Appeal; Visits Alleged Crime Scenes in Lofa and Waterside

Finnish Judges, prosecution, defense lawyers and security personnel visited Kamatahun and Kortuhun, in Lofa where Gibril Massaquoi allegedly committed his crimes. Credit: Tokpa Tarnue/New Narratives

Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to reflect that Paula Sallinen, Massaquoi’s defense lawyer, said the case was skewed against her client because Finnish police promised not to investigate Liberians who may have been responsible for the crimes. Sallinen did not say Liberian police covered up the role of Liberians. FPA/NN regret the error.

KAMATAHUN, Lofa County – The Finnish court assessing charges of war crimes against Gibril Massaquoi, a former commander of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front, has returned to Liberia for the third time. On Tuesday the court will begin hearings in the Finnish prosecutors’ appeal of last year’s acquittal of Massaquoi by a lower court.

By Anthony Stephens and Tokpa Tarnue with New Narratives

In April, the District Court in the city of Tampere found prosecutors did not prove Massaquoi’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and it acquitted him of all the charges, including aggravated murder and aggravated rape. In an 850-page ruling the court said there was “a reasonable doubt” that Massaquoi, now 53, had committed the crimes. The court also said there were inconsistencies in the testimonies of witnesses, an issue that has been the crux of the proceedings in the marathon trial that lasted 15 months. Prosecutors rejected the ruling and their request for an appeal was granted by the Turku Appeals Court.

“The trial in the court of appeal is a chance for us to try to overturn the judgement by the district,” said Tom Laitinen, chief prosecutor in the trial admitting that it will be a difficult task to convince the three-judge panel hearing the case..

“We have a lot of work in front of us,” said Laitinen in a WhatsApp message. “It doesn’t frustrate us to hear the witnesses again. This is an opportunity for us to do a better job.” He was cautious in his expectations for the case. “The burden is the same as before, but it is always a challenge to convince a higher court that the lower court has erred.”

Kimmo Vanne, presiding judge of the Turku Appeals Court which is hearing the case, said proceedings will be open to the public, including allowing journalists to take pictures in the courtroom, except for protected witnesses which include alleged rape victims.

Musa Dean, Liberia’s Justice Minister, has not responded to a request for comment on the matter. The original trial held months-long hearings in Liberia in 2021, making it the first trial related to Liberia’s civil war to take place on Liberian soil. There was speculation at the time that Liberia’s government which had blocked efforts to establish a war crimes court, would suppress coverage of the trial for fear of bringing attention to its inaction on war time justice. But the trial went on without obvious government intervention and reporters were given complete access to the hearings.

As during the two previous occasions when the court came to Liberia and then went to Sierra Leone, Massaquoi is not attending these hearings. Unlike last time he is no longer in detention. He will again follow by video-link from the district court in Tampere, according to Kaarle Gummerus, Massaquoi’s lead lawyer.

The delegation travelled in a convoy from Monrovia to Lofa on long and rocky dirt roads to for their onsite inspections.

As with the trial, judges, prosecution, and defense lawyers and Finnish security personnel travelled hours separately over the weekend to Kamatahun and Kortuhun in Lofa County and Waterside in Monrovia on rocky dirt roads and under a scorching sun to see the places where Massaquoi’s crimes are alleged to have taken place.

Kortuhun is close to Liberia’s border with Sierra Leone, from where prosecutors allege Massaquoi came to commit his crimes, including locking up civilians in buildings and burning them alive. They allege he committed his crimes when RUF forces backed up Charles Taylor’s forces in a war against rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. Taylor was Liberia’s president at the time.

Prosecutors have also claimed that Massaquoi, a one-time spokesman for the RUF, sneaked out of a “safe house” of the then UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone to come Liberia to commit his alleged crimes. Massaquoi was an informant for the court and was said to be key in the conviction of ex-RUF commanders and Taylor, who is serving a 50-year sentence in the United Kingdom for aiding and abetting rebels in the Sierra Leonean civil war.

Massaquoi’s lawyers do not deny he was in Liberia but have argued he left Liberia for Sierra Leone after hearing that Taylor had allegedly planned to kill him. Massaquoi and his family moved to Finland in 2008 in a deal with the Special Court that did not grant him immunity from prosecution for crimes in Liberia. He was arrested in March 2020 after Civitas Maxima, the Swiss based justice activists, and the Global Justice and Research Project, its Liberian partner, presented what they said was evidence of his alleged crimes in Liberia.

Massaquoi’s lawyers are upbeat they have what it takes legally to convince the higher court to affirm the ruling of the lower court.

Massaquoi’s defense lawyers Paula Sallinen and Kaarle Gummerus join the site inspections.

“We are confident and prepared for a trial,” said Kaarle Gummerus, in a WhatsApp message to New Narratives. “We have some new witnesses in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Europe and also some new documentary evidence,” said Gummerus. “We are not frustrated. We are vigilant.”

Defense lawyers, Paula Sallinen and Kaarle Gummerus were present during on-site inspections in Lofa and at Waterside in Monrovia.

The district court controversially ordered Massaquoi’s release from pretrial detention more than two months before acquitting him—to the annoyance of human rights activists. Both defense and prosecution are providing no further details about new witnesses in the appeal proceedings to support their arguments.

“There might be new witnesses for us too,” said Laitinen. “But I am not sure.”

New Narratives has gathered that Joseph “Zizar Marzah” could be one of the new witnesses for the prosecution. Marzah, who refused to testify in the first trial, was a key commander under Taylor.  He told NN in an exclusive interview that Massaquoi fought alongside him in Liberia and that the district court erred by acquitting him.

During appeal proceedings in Finland, the defense sought to downplay Marzah’s evidence. Paula Sallinen, a defense lawyer, said Marzah’s name and not Massaquoi’s had come up in Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings into mass killings in Lofa og members of the Gbandi tribe. Sallinen said the case was skewed against her client because the Finnish police only had permission to investigate Massaquoi and not other potential Liberian perpetrators. She said, “police promised the Liberian authorities that the role of the Liberians would not be investigated.”

Marzah has accused Benjamin Yeaten, a former director of Taylor’s once feared Special Security Service of the killings. Yeaten’s whereabouts are unknown.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West African Justice Reporting Project.