Liberia: Witnesses Angered By Defense Questions at Gibril Massaquoi War Crimes Trial in Monrovia

Two of the four judges in the trial of Gibril Massaquoi Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

MONROVIA – Tensions bubbled up in Friday’s session of the war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi as prosecution witnesses became visibly irritated at cross-examination questions by defense lawyer Kaarle Gummerus.

By Joaquin M. Sendolo with New Narratives

The first witness to take the stand, codenamed Civilian 35 by the court to hide his identity, clashed with Gummerus who tried to establish that the witness was being rewarded for his testimony.

“You and the Finnish police or group that contacted you to testify discussed offering you a scholarship,” Gunmerus asked the witness. “Wasn’t it the discussion?” 

Civilian 35 responded angrily: “I did not discuss scholarship business with anybody. I am a geologist and have a Master’s degree from England.  What scholarship do I want again when I am working and well paid on my job?” he asked the court. The witness conceded that he had asked questions about how he would be compensated to cover transport and absence from his work to testify in the trial. “I was only concerned, and I told the person who called me, to state how I will get to Monrovia and what would become of my job in Maryland County. And after some time of discussion on the issue of this war business that I know of myself, I agreed to come to town to testify.”

Defense lawyer Kaarle Gunmerus Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

Gunmerus countered the witness’s answer by playing a recording for the court, made during Finnish police’s investigation of the case. In the recording, “Albert”, the person who made the call is heard saying, “Please come, it could be for a scholarship.” The witness did not respond on the tape.

In court Civilian 35 denied he was seeking any scholarship.

“You hear what the recording is saying. Albert spoke of a scholarship, but you did not hear me say I accept a scholarship. The issue of scholarship was used as a psychological method to get me come to town, not because I wanted a scholarship,” he said.

The trial of 51-year-old Massaquoi, the former commander of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group from Sierra Leonean is being conducted by the district court in Tampere, the city in the European country of Finland where Massaquoi had been relocated in exchange for testimony that helped convict former Liberian President Charles Taylor and other rebel leaders in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Massaquoi had been a close associate of Taylor. The court moved to Liberia last month to hear from Liberian witnesses and to view the scenes where the crimes are alleged to have taken place. 

Massaquoi is charged with committing and inciting the murders of civilians and enemy fighters, rape and other human rights violations during the second Liberian civil war in the northern part of Liberia bordering Sierra Leone as well as Monrovia.

In Friday’s hearing Massaquoi’s defense lawyer Gunmerus questioned Civilian 35 as to whether he knew Massaquoi by the alias “Angel Gabriel”, as many other witnesses have claimed.

“Thank you for reminding me,” Civilian 35 told Gunmerus. “’Angel Gabriel’ was his doer name. I mean his wicked name that was used when he is ready to do his wickedness.” 

In another line of questioning Gunmerus challenged how the witness’s was able to remember so many details of the events from nearly 20 years ago but then gave different dates to investigators from those he gave the court. 

“Where you are, will you be hearing gun firing all over around you and people torturing you and you care to remember date?” the irritated witness fired back to the Finnish lawyer. “One of my workmates told me certain things yesterday and he had to remind me. Are you saying that such thing does not happen to you white people?”

Civilian 35 remained on the witness stand for four hours – longer than previous witnesses. He told the Finnish court that he came across Massaquoi and his RUF rebel group in Kamatahun, in northern Liberia, where government forces managed to repel the forces of another rebel group, the LURD. He heard them speaking a Sierra Leonean dialect.

“I saw them in yellow t-shirts speaking Krio, and they had the slogan: ‘We will kill all, not one will leave,’” the witness said.

He echoed previous witnesses who said a Liberian military commander named Benjamin Yeaten appeared to be directing Gibril Massaquoi and his Sierra Leonean fighters.

“Before Benjamin Yeaten could introduce the RUF forces to his soldiers, Massaquoi introduced himself that he was Gibril Massaquoi, a commander of the group and a spokesman for the RUF,” he said.

The witness said Massaquoi ordered a man tied up and killed on a charge of spying. Another was butchered and the human meat given to a woman to cook pepper soup for the RUF fighters.

“I myself was ordered to lie down and open my mouth, which I did. A soldier of the RUF urinated in my mouth,” he said.

In another atrocity Civilian 35 said he witnessed, RUF soldiers saw a pregnant woman and argued what gender the baby was. They cut the woman’s belly open and pulled the fetus out. He also said the RUF lynched a man who they believed was a correspondent for the BBC saying, “Your mouth can run too much.”

He said Yeaten had tempered the violence of Massaquoi’s troops against Liberian civillians.

“It was Benjamin Yeaten who came and told the RUF forces and government forces under the command of Zigza Marzah that the civilians were not the target of the government but enemies (LURD) were, and he ordered people who fled from the town as a result of the fighting to return and carry on their normal businesses. But all the atrocities and torture that took place in Kamatahun and the surrounding villages were carried out on the orders of Zigza Marzah and Gibril Massaquoi,” Civilian 35 said.

Another witness codenamed Civilian 70 told the court that in his home town of Kpokulahun in 2001, government forces and the RUF forces arrested him and others including his wife and aunt. He said the soldiers were going from farm-to-farm arresting and torturing people.

“We, the men, were the target, and that’s how one of the soldiers who knew me asked that I find my way out for the seven women arrested. I went into the bush but not far, and when I returned the next day after Massaquoi and his men had left with Zigza Mazah, I saw all the women including my wife and aunt lying down dead and naked after they were raped and tortured,” Civilian 70 said through tears.

He recalled the names of some of the soldiers as Zigza Marzah, Stanley, Mark Guan, Idrissa Massaley, Gibril Massaquoi alias “Angel Gabriel”, Alexander Zinnah, alias “Gen. Don’t Connive”, and Musa Kamara, alias “Spiderman”.

“The RUF fighters were not going to the frontline but in the safe zone carrying out all the wickedness, and I saw Gibril Massaquoi among these commanders introducing himself as ‘Angel Gabriel, tell God I sent you,’” he said angrily in response to defense cross-examination.

Civilian 70, showed a scar on his head that he said he received from torture. He told the court that he later crossed over to Sierra Leone and was at the refugee camp when an NGO brought him to Monrovia where he received treatment at the Redemption Hospital.

Civilian 60, a woman, said she was a friend Gibril Massaquoi’s girlfriend at the time. She also became a girlfriend of Massaquoi’s driver, claiming that they were always making trips to Lofa County in the war zone where RUF forces committed many atrocities.

“Massaquoi almost killed my friend for entering his secret room where his arms and other medicine (enchantments) were stored, and he told her that if she were not pregnant for him, he would have killed her,” said Civilian 60.

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