Liberia: ‘Defense Case Is Strong’ – Gibril Massaquoi’s Lawyer Says in Exclusive Interview

Gibril Massaquoi in detention in Finland consults with Paula Sallinen, one of his defense lawyers, during his trial Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – Paula Sallinen, one of Gibril Massaquoi’s Defense lawyers is now in Freetown, Sierra Leone, leading the defense case for Mr. Massaquoi. Nineteen witnesses will appear in the Sierra Leone sessions of the trial – all of them defense witnesses.

By Mae Azango New Narratives Justice Correspondent 

In an exclusive interview at the secret location of hearings in Freetown, Ms. Sallinen said this section of the trial is designed to ascertain her client’s whereabouts between the years 1999 to 2003. Mr. Massaquoi contends that he was not in Liberia when the atrocities Liberian witnesses alleged he committed in Lofa and Monrovia took place. The defense is trying to establish that Mr. Massaquoi was under witness protection for his role in the Special Court for Sierra Leone when the atrocities in Liberia took place so he could not have committed the crimes. More than a dozen witnesses have testified that they knew Mr. Massaquoi to be under protection during that time.

“Here in Sierra Leone we focus on what Massaquoi did between 1999 to 2003 and with whom, and what activities he took part in, especially involving those peace negotiations, his personal life and what he did and with whom. We also have witnesses who were with him in Liberia and witnesses who fought for the RUF talking about those circumstances,” Ms. Sallinen said.

Ms. Sallinen said she was not concerned that several witnesses, included one who said she had given birth to Massaquoi’s child, had changed their statements.

“No, it won’t hurt our case because we knew beforehand when I attended previous hearing done by the Finnish police when they came months ago. We have all of their witness statements and we know our client spent much time with her, but he was not always with her, because he had to do peace negations in Liberia, and Sierra Leone. We know he had to go to Nigeria to take part in Abuja 1 peace negotiations, so we know she and other witnesses cannot fill in all of the blanks. Also many witnesses in Liberia could not remember months, or dates of when they saw him, and it’s understandable by both parties that it is hard to remember dates. But during our cross examinations I will raise the question and we will go back to it,” she said.

Ms. Sallinen said she was clear where her client stands. He has denied all allegations and charges and she expected to prove that his case.

The lawyer said she had been on the case for about a year. But she has followed the case closely since Massaquoi was charged.  “I was working along with my colleague Kaarle Gunmerus when I was a law student. When I graduated I joined the team. The case came to our firm because cases of such nature in Finland, you get to choose your lawyer, so Massaquoi chose us to represent him and the state pays, so we were not appointed by the court to represent him.

Ms. Sallinen said Mr. Massaquoi has been watching every second of the trial through a monitor. He is in detention and is given access to the monitor along with the other defense lawyer, Mr. Gunmerus. Massaquoi is taking a strong hand in his defense. He shares his thoughts and questions with Mr. Gunmerus who relays the questions to Ms. Sallinen.  The team had the same process when the court was in Liberia and Ms. Sallinen stayed with Mr. Massaquoi and Mr. Gunmerus was in Liberia.

Ms. Sallinen explained what would happen after the court leaves Sierra Leone.  “When we return to Finland, we will be in a week quarantine and then within two weeks we will hear expert witnesses and also additional witnesses from Finland and the United States. Then from there, we will try to give the closing statement before the end of June and then the final judgment will be maybe early September of this year,” she said. 

Giving her thoughts about Liberia and the quest for justice, she said: “I would like to tell Liberia that I hope you can have your own special court someday that is working and looking for the war crimes committed by Liberians and in Liberia. So that is my wish for or Liberia.”

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.