Bellinzona, Switzerland – Alieu Kosiah, a former commander with the United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO) on trial for war crimes during the Liberian civil war, fought back tears in court Friday as he admitted that he was a founding member of the organization accused of wreaking havoc on innocent Liberians.
Report by Rodney D. Sieh, [email protected],
“I am a founding member of Ulimo,” an emotional Kosiah told the court under grilling by lawyers for the victims who brought the case. “I know how, when and every detail of Ulimo”.
In day two of Kosiah’s historic trial, the first of a Liberian accused of committing war crimes in the country’s 14-year civil conflict, Kosiah detailed the personal toll he has suffered over the last six years since he was arrested and detained by Swiss authorities awaiting trial. Lawyers for the seven victims who brought the case showed little sympathy as they led the accused through his involvement with Ulimo.
Kosiah told the three-judge panel presiding over the case that Ulimo was formed out of late President Samuel K. Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia. Doe had been overthrown and killed at the start of the civil war. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia, headed by Charles Taylor had overtaken large parts of Liberia and backed Revolutionary United Front rebels’ incursions into neighboring Sierra Leone. Many of Doe’s AFL members had fled to Sierra Leone.
“When they [Taylor’s forces] hit, the Sierra Leone army had a small army and could not fight back,” Kosiah claimed. “The Sierra Leone army asked the late General Karpeh to form a force to put all the old soldiers that fled from Liberia to form Ulimo. They started recruiting police officers, and all paramilitary groups. They needed more manpower because the RUF was advancing. All because the Sierra Leonean government realized they could not fight the RUF on its own.”
The victims’ lawyers, including Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima, asked Kosiah whether he knew what the term “Tabay” meant. Kosiah said he knew Tabay referred to a form of torture where a victim’s arms are tied tightly together at the elbow behind their backs. He said it was widely used by the NPFL but denied it was ever used by Ulimo. Kosiah later acknowledged that Ulimo might have used Tabay if they suspected someone of being a member of the NPFL, but claimed it was never used on civilians.
Kosiah also denied the existence of a strike force within Ulimo. “There was no strike force in Ulimo but rather a group called “The Alligator Battalion” assigned in Lofa County.” He said that people who are not familiar with military terms started calling the battalion a “strike force battalion”, but the strike force was not a battalion.
Kosiah claimed he was a member of the 1996 Interim government, made up of members of all warring factions in the lead up to elections in 1997. But Kosiah said he was at constant loggerheads with Joe Tate, the late, then head of the Liberia National Police. “I was head of the Criminal Investigation Division. You have the full director, the original director and the 101, 102 and 103. I was 103. The 101 was a Taylor appointee, who was arrogant and stupid. This guy [Tate] was a confidant of Taylor. He was arrogant, I was from ULIMO and he was from NPFL,” he said.
When Taylor was declared winner of the 1997 presidential elections, Kosiah said he decided to flee Liberia. “We were fighting Mr. Taylor and he won the election, so why would I stay there? So I fled. Those of my friends who stayed behind were killed. So, it was good that I fled,” he said.
Entered France with ‘Fake Document’
Kosiah said it was never his intention of ending up in Switzerland. “I wanted to go to England but as a refugee I couldn’t because of immigration papers. So, what happened was that I came to France.”
Kosiah admitted that he entered France with a fake Guinean passport. After Taylor’s election Kosiah said most Mandingo people became afraid. “There were ULIMO friends in Conakry who were faking documents to allow asylum seekers to find their way into Europe. ULIMO did not have official ID cards.”
“Liberia was not good. Sierra Leone was at war and so, I took an opportunity to leave by any means I could – even it meant traveling with a fake passport,” he said. “When you get a real passport, who will give you visa? I was desperate. The Europeans don’t give visas easily.”
Kosiah said he later moved to the Netherlands but Dutch authorities caught him and deported him back to France. He then went to Switzerland.
“My objective leaving Africa was not go to a French-speaking country. I went to Holland and was sent back to France. I wanted to be somewhere where people speak English.”
When he finally moved to Switzerland, Kosiah explained that Swiss authorities raised a red flag when he decided to get married to a Swiss citizen. Kosiah admitted that he did not declare to Swiss authorities that he had been deported to France.
The Swiss authorities decided his passport was false. “We wanted to get married and the Swiss government told me to leave the country. As soon as I put my document in, I was asked to leave the country. They brought my ticket and asked me to leave.”
Kosiah claimed he was afraid to return to Liberia because Taylor was still in charge.
“Why would I go there? They would have killed me,” he said. Kosiah was angry the Swiss had denied his right to marry. “There’s no law in Switzerland from getting married. She [his fiancé] has a right to marry to whosoever she wants to marry to. We put in our document and I waited until we got married. And that was the end of the story. We never intended to get marry to stay in Switzerland; but we married because I loved her.”
Kosiah broke down as he explained the consequences for his life of the last six years of detention while he was awaiting trial. “My fiancé couldn’t wait for me because of my detention,” he said. “She said she did not know when I would be free. She did not deserve to be responsible for my past. After three to four years, I decided to give her the greenlight to do what she wants to do.
Judges Rule Against Victims’ Requests
Earlier in the day the three-judge panel dealt a series of blows to the victims’ case rejecting a series of their lawyers’ requests.
Victims lawyers’ had requested the court postpone the trial to a later date when the victims and witnesses could be present in the court. The trial was delayed from March because of Covid-19 travel restrictions. As the pandemic rages in Switzerland, the court cut the trial into two parts – having Kosiah testify this week and the victims testify at a second phase of the trial, tentatively set for February. The judges rejected that request though they are considering giving victims access to Kosiah’s testimony via a video link.
The judges also rejected the victims’ request to allow Col. Eric Emeraux to testify on their behalf. Col. Emeraux is the head of France’s Central Office to Fight Crimes Against Humanity and had considerable knowledge about the activities of Ulimo because he had played a key role in the investigation and arrest of ULIMO figure Kunti K. in France in July this year. He had not investigated the crimes of Kosiah. The victims lawyers had argued that Emeraux’s testimony is key because the judges could hear from an expert who has been to the scenes of alleged Ulimo crimes and heard from many witnesses.
Judges agreed with Kosiah’s lawyer that Emeraux will not bring any relevant information to the case given the case is against Kosiah and not ULIMO in general. Additionally, the judging panel rejected the plaintiff’s lawyer’s request to expand Kosiah’s crimes to crimes against humanity in addition to war crimes.
One win for the victims’ came with the judges’ rejection of a request by Kosiah’s lawyers for Alain Werner to be removed from the case. They had argued Werner was conflicted because of his role as the head of an NGO that helps gather evidence for trials of accused war criminals.
The case before a three-judge panel at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona is a first for Switzerland under a 2011 law allowing prosecution for war crimes committed anywhere. The Swiss Attorney General’s office has said the case took a long time to prepare partly because of a lack of help from Liberian authorities.
Kosiah’s testimony will continue on Monday.
This story was a collaboration between Front Page Africa and New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.