Frustration Shows on Final Day of Massaquoi Hearing Before Court Moves to Liberia


TAMPERE, Finland –   Gibril Massaquoi’s frustration at facing war crimes charges that could send him to jail for life showed on his second day of testimony Friday. The 51-year-old, who must have thought his risk of war crimes charges ended when he was settled in Finland in return for testimony that helped convict former Liberian President Charles Taylor and others in the Special Court for Sierra Leone, reacted sharply to Finnish State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen’s questions.

By Saila Huusko, with New Narratives

“You are the one that’s missing the point,” he snapped at Laitinen, saying that the prosecutor was mixing the roles that different parties to the conflict had played. Laitinen was challenging the defense’s description of the routes taken by Massaquoi as part of the delegation for the Sierra Leonean rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that traveled between Sierra Leone and Liberia during Sierra Leone’s peace process in 2000 and early 2001. Massaquoi’s defense is seeking to show that the defendant could not have been at the scenes of the crimes he is alleged to have committed.

A Sierra Leonean national and former commander and spokesman for the RUF who worked closely with Taylor, Massaquoi is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and aggravated rape, allegedly committed during the Second Liberian Civil War from 1999 to 2003. Massaquoi denies all charges, saying he was not in Liberia when the alleged crimes took place.

From safe house to Finland

The charges against Massaquoi, cover a period between January 7, 1999 and March 10, 2003.

The judge heard that on March 10, 2003, Massaquoi and his family were moved to a safe house by the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL).

On Friday morning the defense team turned to the events leading up to that day. Massaquoi spoke of how he became involved with the OTP and agreed to inform it on the inside workings of the RUF. In the second half of 2002, Massaquoi’s meetings with OTP representatives in Sierra Leone were frequent. “The process went on almost on a daily basis, sometimes once in every two days,” he said.

Massaquoi signed a witness protection agreement that promised safety for himself and his family, he said. It also provided immunity from prosecution for the role he had played in the conflict in Sierra Leone.

”Did the witness protection agreement limit your future activities in any way?” defense lawyer Kaarle Gummerus asked.

“One thing that was made clear was that if they take notice that I have committed, for instance, war crimes or crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone or in another country, outside of what I have explained, they might withdraw the agreement,” Massaquoi replied.

Massaquoi’s involvement with the OTP eventually led him to Finland. He relocated to the Northern European country with his family in 2008 after the country signed a law allowing the settlement of such informants.

A representative of the Residual Special Court for Sierra Leone was in the court this week but he did not disclose his name and said he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“He didn’t believe anything I said”

Massaquoi has been detained by Finnish law enforcement since his arrest in March of 2020. On October 1, 2020, following his meeting with family, a cleaner at the Vantaa prison where he was being held found notes in the toilet of the visiting area. The notes were handwritten by Massaquoi.

Last week, prosecution alleged that the notes were meant to direct witnesses on what they should say. Massaquoi denied this on Friday.

“It was not a matter of influencing my own witnesses, it was just a reminder. That’s different. Not everyone can remember what happened after 5 years, let alone 20 years,” he said.

“Was there something in the investigation that made you want to write such a note?” defense lawyer Gummerus asked, referring to the pre-trial investigation carried out by Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in 2018-2020.

“Yes,” Massaquoi replied, “right at the start of the investigation, the police did not ever believe whatever I was telling them.”

A noticeably agitated Massaquoi said that the head of the investigation, Thomas Elfgren, paid him a surprise visit in prison in the summer of 2020. During the meeting, Massaquoi alleged, Elfgren informed him of a court decision to continue to keep him in detention and also

criticized his selection of defense lawyers questioning their preparedness for such a trial.  

“Not only that, but I also felt that Elfgren was the court I was facing. Whatever I said he never believed me,” Massaquoi said. In his telling, he ended the meeting by asking to be taken back to his cell.

Head investigator Elfgren replied to Massaquoi’s allegations by text message from Monrovia. “It’s not appropriate for me to begin regularly commenting on allegations made in court. When it comes to the lawyers and their selection – it’s not the police’s business. I recommend that Massaquoi’s very capable lawyers clarify this and the selection process to him once more,” he wrote.

On the question of beliefs, Elfgren said: “In the pre-trial investigation, what the police believe is quite irrelevant. The investigation is conducted in order to obtain information that is possibly or likely relevant for the process. It’s the job of the court to evaluate what meaning or value it ascribes to the stories.”

Defense lawyer Gummerus said that he and colleague Paula Sallinen did not plan to pursue the incident as a line of defense.

Poking holes in the narrative

During his turn at questioning, prosecutor Laitinen focused on the differences between the statements Massaquoi made in the pre-trial investigation and the answers he gave to the defense lawyers earlier in the day and on Thursday.

Laitinen also cited a manuscript for a book, an autobiography of sorts, that had been found by investigators on Massaquoi’s computer. Titled “The Secret Behind the Gun: Understanding the RUF Insurgency and the Socio-Economic and Political Problems of Sierra Leone,” the book is written by Massaquoi, but with contributors, the accused told the court on Thursday.

Pointing to a number of contradictions between statements in court and the stories in the manuscript and the pre-trial investigation, Laitinen asked Massaquoi whether his version of events had changed at some point. In answer to a number of questions, Massaquoi said that he could not remember the exact details of some events, due to the long time that has passed since the early 2000s.

Next steps take the court to Liberia and Sierra Leone

The court will now travel to Liberia and Sierra Leone, where they expect to hear from up to 80 witnesses.

Because of concerns about his security in Liberia, Gibril Massaquoi will remain in Finland. He will be accompanied by one of his defense lawyers and participate in the hearings via a video link.

To conclude the first two weeks of trial, district judge Juhani Paiho uttered words surely never before heard in a Finnish courtroom: “We will continue next week, on Wednesday, in Monrovia.”  

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project