Groundbreaking War Crimes Trial Ends Hearings in West Africa; Witness Inconsistencies Hurt Defense Case


By Mae Azango, New Narratives/Front Page Africe Justice Correspondent

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – After nearly three months the West African portion of the groundbreaking war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi by a Finnish court has come to an end.  The four judge panel, prosecution and defense lawyers wrapped up their work in Freetown on Tuesday after hearing from 19 defense witnesses here.

In the final days of the trial the case has come down to two crucial points: Could Mr. Massaquoi have left the safe house where he was under witness protection in Freetown as part of his role informing to the Special Court for Sierra Leone long enough to travel to Liberia to commit the 2003 war crimes he’s accused of? And were there other combatants using the alias “Angel Gabriel” who could have committed the alleged war crimes?

Mr. Massaquoi was put under United Nations witness protection in a house in Freetown in March 2003 and did not leave until he was relocated to Finland in 2008. Mr. Massaquoi agreed to give information that helped convict former Liberian President Charles Taylor and other key leaders of the Revolutionary United Front for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone’s civil war. In return he was granted immunity from prosecution for crimes in Sierra Leone. Witnesses are kept under guard to stop the accused from threatening them or them passing on messages to the accused. For this reason it is essential that they are kept isolated from other people. Indeed Mr. Massaquoi testified in Finland at the start of the trial that “no one was allowed to leave for months”.

However, at least three of the defense witnesses said they visited Mr. Massaquoi inside and outside the safe house without any challenges from security guards.

One witness, codenamed “Witness 6”, a former associate of Mr. Massaquoi who had known him since they were both captured by the RUF in their village in the Pujenhum District of Sierra Leone in 1992, said he had met with Mr. Massaquoi multiple times when he was under witness protection in Freetown.

“When I came, he was with securities it was not easy to access him,” the witness said. Defense lawyer Sallinen asked, “Did you communicate with him on a one-to-one basis?” Witness 6 replied “Yes. The securities allowed me to see him one on one.”

Another witness, codenamed “Witness 12” and a close relation of Mr. Massaquoi, testified that the accused had travelled outside Freetown on regular occasions.

“Did you meet him outside?” asked the prosecutor. “Yes,” replied the witness. “And every month the special court will give him vehicle to visit his family.”

On the visits the witness said Mr. Massaquoi stayed at a house with his ex-wife, children and another man named Michael Bona, allegedly a former RUF fighter.

Numerous inconsistencies in the witness testimony did not help their credibility. In one case Witness 12 denied the RUF ever fought in Liberia, despite extensive documentation of their actions there and the testimony of many other former RUF members that they had been there.

In another case Witness 3 said he had not seen Mr. Massaquoi after 2002. The prosecution challenged this saying that in an interview with police investigators before the trial the witness had said “throughout the ending of 2003 Gibril Massaquoi and Issa Sesay (another RUF leader) went through Lofa to go to Liberia. Is it true?”

“No, there was no peace process to go for any peace process, it was special court session,” the witness replied.

The Finnish court visits sites at Waterside in Monrovia where Massaquoi’s alleged war crimes were said to have taken place, likely in 2003.

On the question of whether Mr. Massaquoi had ever gone by the alias “Angel Gabriel”, the name of the commander that dozens of Liberian witnesses said directed the atrocities that they suffered or witnessed, every defense witness in Sierra Leone was clear they had never heard him referred to by that name. The defense has been hoping to undermine the prosecution case that Gibril Massaquoi was the commander known as “Angel Gabriel” who dozens of Liberian witnesses identified as having committed rape, murder and torture in Lofa County and later in Waterside in Monrovia. Both locations are in Liberia.

On Monday, a former officer of the RUF said he had fought alongside Mr. Massaquoi from 1994 codenamed “Soldier 43” said Mr. Massaquoi’s nickname was “God Son” “because of the troubles that met him”. Other witnesses said he had been known by other names. “Soldier 43” told the judges he knew of two fighters who went by the aliases “Angel Gabriel” in Sierra Leone.

“Yes, we had somebody by that name,” the witness said in response to defense lawyer Ms. Sallinen’s questions. “He was a junior. He was just a fighter.” The lawyer sought to clarify a statement that the witness had made to Finnish investigators before the trial. In that case he had referred to another man as being “Angel Gabriel.”

“My confusion was that people took this nickname and I knew of one, who I was with my sister; just after the disarmament I met him,” he said. “We called him ‘Gabriel’. Because Gabriel was an Angel, people just add the ‘Angel’ to his name.”

Several other witnesses have testified that they knew of other combatants who went by “Angel Gabriel” however none identified those other men as commanders, Krio speaking and in charge of a battalion of fighters. The Liberian witnesses had been very clear that the “Angel Gabriel” they saw giving the orders for the atrocities had been one of the highest ranking officers in the area.

Helping the prosecution case “Soldier 43” also told the court that neither of the Angel Gabriels he knew had fought in Liberia in the years that the war crimes are alleged to have taken place. Indeed, he said, one had died in 1994-1995.

Another former commander codenamed “Witness 3” also told the court that he’d known of a “junior commander” named Angel Gabriel who had died in 2001. He did not know if he had fought in Liberia and was clear that he did not have command of his own troops.

The court from Tampere, Finland will now return home to hear two weeks of final testimony from international witnesses and concluding arguments from defense and prosecution teams.

This story was in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The funder had no say in the story’s content.