Liberia: Is The Man Welcomed by Finland in 2008 An Angel of Death or a Peacemaker – “No Google Search”￼
- On 16 February, the Pirkanmaa District Court ordered the release of Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean man accused of serious war crimes related to the Liberian civil war (1999-2003), pending the outcome of the district court’s verdict.
- The court found that an exceptionally long period of time had elapsed since the alleged offences, almost 20 years, and that the man had been in pre-trial detention for two years.
- The district court has announced that it will give its ruling in March-April. The prosecution has demanded a life sentence for Massaquoi, the rebel group’s commander, for murder, rape and aggravated war crimes.
Gibril Massaquoi, commander of the Sierra Leonean rebel group RUF (Revolutionary United Front), testified against his comrades at the UN Special Court (2002-2013) for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone and was himself granted immunity.
The Special Court only investigated war crimes in Sierra Leone, not in Liberia. On 29 August 2012, Dr Alan White, then the American Chief Investigator of the Office of the Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), gave a video interview of his negotiations with the rebel group.
Parts of this video interview have been translated in Finnish, in which White openly talks about his impressions of Gibril Massaquoi, whom he had met in 2002. It is clear from White’s account that Gibril Massaquoi was prepared to testify against his former comrades-in-arms (time stamps 12:50-13:56 and 17:38-19:52). “I met him in a hotel. This man had killed thousands of people. For two weeks in a row. I interviewed him in a hotel room in a secret place, where he revealed the whole RUF operation. My interlocutor was Senior Commander Gibril Massaquoi. He was well educated, mostly self-taught, but he is a very dangerous man. He was a senior RUF commander and we had travelled together to some crime scenes. In one of them there were several buildings with the sign ‘go away Massaquoi'”.
“One of those (crime scenes) was Savage Waters. Allegedly, it was there that a thousand people were killed on the spot and dumped in a small pond area where we would find some body parts later. Very cruel, but he was afraid of being imprisoned for the rest of his life. We got on well and he trusted me. I got him to draw a whole diagram of the command structure, who did what, where the crimes took place and so on. From that, we got witnesses and people we thought would be willing to talk to us,” White says in the video.
At the initiative of Chief Investigator White, Massaquoi was granted immunity for crimes committed during the Sierra Leonean civil war (1991-2002). He could not be charged with murder before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, as the court’s jurisdiction only covered crimes committed after 1996. The murders he was alleged to have committed had taken place three years earlier. The decision to grant Massaquoi immunity from prosecution was not widely supported by his colleagues in the Special Court. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone concluded that Gibril Massaquoi was directly responsible for the torture and execution of at least 25 people in Pujehun, Sierra Leone in 1993.The act was linked to internal disputes within the RUF rebel organization. Although the truth commission found Massaquoi guilty of torture and extrajudicial killings, he was not held legally responsible. Massaquoi was not prosecuted for any subsequent crimes he may have committed in Sierra Leone because he had immunity as a star witness.
Coming to Finland in 2008
Massaquoi and his family were resettled in Finland under an agreement between Finland and the Special Court for Sierra Leone in August 2008. Finland offered permanent residence permits to Massaquoi, who was a witness for the prosecution, and his family.
The agreement between Finland and the Special Court for Sierra Leone is similar in nature to the agreement between Finland and the International Criminal Court. However, the starting point for Finland was that Finland would not commit to providing a witness protection program for the Massaquoi family. According to Alan White’s interpretation, Massaquoi is still in the witness protection program. Detective Inspector Thomas Elfgren, who led the investigation into the alleged crimes committed by Massaquoi in Liberia, disagrees. “White claims that Massaquoi has immunity, but he does not. There is no legal immunity, and no legal immunity, because he has been under investigation for subsequent events in Liberia, and not for crimes under the mandate of the Special Court in Sierra Leone. State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen, who is prosecuting the Massaquoi war crimes trial, cannot share White’s view either.
“The Special Court has had the power to grant protection only against its own prosecutions, but has not had the power to grant immunity from prosecution binding on national authorities.”
No background check?
The commander of a brutal band of rebel fighters lived ten years of a peaceful and untroubled life in Finland, and no one recognized him here. However, the chief investigator of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Alan White, claims that the Finnish authorities knew his background when they admitted him to Finland. White opposes any cooperation with the Tampere Criminal Court and refused to testify at the trial. Massaquoi was offered an internship as a research coordinator at the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Tampere through the jobseeker center (TE).
Did Professor Tuomo Melasuo, the director of the Institute at the time, know anything about the earlier stages of Massaquoi’s life?
“I know this person, as he was a trainee at the research institute I was running at the time. When universities select researchers for different positions and projects, they pay attention to their so-called scientific profile and do not consider or check their backgrounds,” says Melasuo. The Finnish authorities were also unaware of the dark past of the man from the crisis region. This seems strange, since it was Massaquoi, the RUF spokesman, who made the rebel statements to the international media. According to Criminal Inspector Elfgren, Massaquoi was marketed to the Finnish authorities as a witness for the Special Court for Sierra Leone who needs protection. “My guess is that what happened here was that officials in Finland felt that a special UN court, which in principle enjoys great confidence, would provide us with a witness”. “The people at the Court, in this case Alan White, knew exactly who they were offering to Finland. Neither Alan White nor James C. Johnson of the Special Prosecutor’s Office of the Special Court for Sierra Leone have said a word in the documents about the background of Massaquoi,” says Elfgren. Less flattering is also the behavior of the Finnish safety authority in this matter. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the Finnish Security Intelligence Service (SUPO) for a statement on Massaquoi. SUPO apparently found no anomalies in the man’s background checks that would have led to further investigations. “I am absolutely convinced that both SUPO and others did not do a Google search,” says Elfgren.
The NGO transmits information
The net began to tighten around Massaquoi after he had already been in Finland for about ten years. It was not about his activities in Sierra Leone, but in neighboring Liberia, where the notorious RUF supported the then despot, Charles Taylor. Preliminary information about Massaquoi’s alleged crimes in Liberia was provided to the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) and the Attorney General by the Swiss-based NGO Civitas Maxima (CM) and its Liberian sister organization Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP). The information was provided by a Finnish law firm.
A Liberian witness named Hassan Bility had already accused Massaquoi in 2009 of torturing him in Liberia. Bility had mentioned Massaquoi’s name when he testified against former Liberian President Charles Taylor in The Hague. Mr Bility is a former Liberian journalist and human rights activist who was detained several times under President Taylor.
This information could have led to investigations against Gibril Massaquoi in Finland already in 2009. For some reason, this information never reached the Finnish authorities. “It is possible that this information could have led to a preliminary investigation as soon as Massaquoi arrived in Finland. It is my understanding that Finland would have at least considered conducting a preliminary investigation on the basis of that information,” says Tom Laitinen, State Prosecutor. The Finnish Central Criminal Police started an investigation into Massaquoi in 2018 regarding his alleged war crimes in Liberia in 2003.
Defence questions witnesses
In a trial in Tampere, Kaarle Gummerus, thelawyer defending Massaquoi, has questioned the reliability of the Sierra Leonean and Liberian witnesses and has accused them of lying. According to Massaquoi’s defense, it is also a question of learned narratives. Chief Inspector Elfgren has 46 years of experience in interrogations. He believes that it is impossible to get more than 100 witnesses to lie consistently through external coercion. “If a conspiracy is to be made, to accuse someone of having done something, it is very difficult to make and prepare and plan something like that here in Finland, because at some point it would be revealed that someone is just telling a learned story. It is a hundred times more difficult to get into a community – such as a village in Lofa and create a conspiracy and say, ‘now tell it this way’. It just doesn’t work,” says Elfgren.
State Prosecutor Laitinen points out that assessing the reliability of witnesses requires a subtle assessment “which pays attention to the witness’s own account and how the account appears when compared to the totality of the evidence received”.
“There is no question of dishonesty or untrustworthiness in the witnesses’ statements, says Elfgren, giving an example. “A young woman who was questioned in Lofa had been raped. When asked how old she was, she said she didn’t know, as they often don’t, they live by the rising and setting of the sun and the changing of the seasons. It was a normal, natural response and much to illustrate that it was not a made-up response. Hearing witnesses 20 years after the alleged events is challenging in many ways. The defense has criticized the fact that witnesses’ statements and the dates of events have changed over time, raising doubts about outside influence on the statements.”
According to Elfgren, it is natural that witness testimonies change. Changed accounts can be explained, for example, by the fact that the preliminary investigation may have initially triggered memories that later became more specific. This does not automatically call into question the events that took place, nor the war crimes in Liberia in which Massaquoi is alleged to have participated. “Suppose, for example, if a witness gives a clear, detailed and corroborated description of the 9/11 NYC terrorist attack, but because of difficulties of accuracy, gives the wrong date and says 9/12 or 9/10, hardly anyone would question the witness’s account of the Trade Center collapse”, Elfgren says.
The role of the investigative assistant
Gibril Massaquoi’s defense has also criticized the judgement of the NBI for cooperating with the NGO GJRP (Global Justice and Research Project) in the preliminary investigation and using a certain man from its staff as an assistant. For security reasons, we will refer to him here only as Mr X.
Mr X has helped the Finnish police to contact people who may have had information of interest to the Finnish police about the events of the Liberian civil war in Monrovia and Lofa. Mr X has not met all the persons whose names and contact details he has given to the police. Massaquoi’s defense lawyer, Kaarle Gummerus, disputes Mr X’s competence in the preliminary investigation. “In the Gibril Massaquoi case, GJRP X has handled the search (identification) of potential witnesses and preliminary interviews on behalf of the Finnish police. These preliminary investigative measures may not be carried out by private parties. This procedure is contrary to the Pre-Trial Investigation Act.”
Prosecutor Laitinen considers that “the key issue for X is how the pre-trial measure is defined”. Elfgren contests Gummerus’ argument. “This claim by Gummerus is sheer nonsense, simply because there is no legal provision for it. There are no police regulations. He has specifically made an interpretation in his own way. We have tried to read the law and see where on earth he derives such a provision from, but there is no such thing.” Laitinen has met X in person several times. “His local knowledge, his way of meeting people and his ability to connect with them have been crucial factors in finding witnesses. In Laitinen’s view, Massaquoi and his defense team have, during the trial, wrongly labelled X ‘the beginning of all evil’.”
The NBI has not used local police in Liberia because they would have had no control over how the information flows. “The GJRP people, especially X, were much better trained than the local police for that task. X has been trained as a military investigator at the IICI (Institute for International Criminal Investigations) in The Hague. This is a training center used by several judicial authorities and NGOs in different countries. X has assisted the judicial authorities of several countries in war crimes investigations,” says Elfgren.
How does a safe house work?
In the context of the Witness Protection Program, Gibril Massaquoi was placed with his family in a shelter in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, on 10 March 2003. Massaquoi has claimed that he was unable to leave the safe house in Freetown. “Massaquoi could not have left the safe house without being noticed.” According to Massaquoi’s defense lawyer, Gummerus, the safe house had 24/7 security. “At the time of the changeover, the premises and people were checked. The exchanges were recorded in the logbook. Massaquoi did not leave the safe house without a guard. There was never a situation where Massaquoi was unreachable at the safe house,” explains Gummerus. This issue is crucial to the criminal case, because if this were the case, Massaquoi could not have committed the serious crimes allegedly committed in Monrovia, Liberia, between 1 May and 18 August 2003. “A total of 29 witnesses have told the district court that the accused is guilty of the crimes committed in Waterside, Monrovia. Is it then the case that all 29 witnesses are lying? In our opinion, no,” says State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen. According to the prosecutor, the Massaquoi safe house was not a prison and it was possible to leave. The argument put forward by the defense contradicts the testimony of one of the guards at the safe houses. The guard was heard by video link as a witness at the Tampere District Court. He said that the first two shelters used by Massaquoi and his family had security “loopholes”. In the district court, 11 other witnesses also testified that people were able to enter and leave the shelter without security measures.
Witnesses speak of “Angel Gabriel”
Numerous witnesses from Liberia, including several former soldiers, have testified that “Angel Gabriel” was Gibril Massaquoi’s favorite or fighting name. In the Quran, ‘Jibril’ was an archangel sent by God, like Gabriel in the Bible. According to witness accounts, Massaquoi equated himself with an angel and spoke with a Sierra Leonean accent, rather than Liberian English. None of the witnesses has claimed that there was another RUF commander in Liberia called Angel Gabriel. According to witnesses, Angel Gabriel announced the slogan before killing or torturing people. “I am Angel Gabriel and I will be the last one you will meet before God,” he allegedly said before murdering the two men. In the second murder, according to a witness, Massaquoi said: “If you want to meet God, you must first meet me”.
According to witnesses, Angel Gabriel murdered his victims by shooting, stabbing, burning alive and hanging in the town of Lofa, among other methods. The defense claim that there could have been another high-level RUF commander in Liberia, named Angel Gabriel, has not been substantiated. The defense does not deny that Massaquoi has been in Liberia in previous years, but the defense claims that these visits were related to his role in the peace negotiations between Sierra Leone and Liberia.
A multi-million-euro process
At this stage, a rough estimate of the costs related to the investigation and trial of the alleged crimes of Massaquoi is €2.5 million.
Was Finland’s massive financial investment in the Massaquoi case worth it?
“From the citizens’ point of view, the Massaquoi case may seem like a waste of taxpayers’ money. The Finnish authorities have been obliged to take action on the matter. Finland is a pioneer when it comes to the ability to investigate and try international crimes. This is of great importance for Finland’s international standing and confidence. There is also a human side to our efforts – the victims of horrific suspected crimes must have a means and an opportunity to get justice,” says prosecutor Laitinen.
Detective Inspector Elfgren believes that this is a huge historical case. “The first case in which anyone in Liberia was held accountable for their actions. Not to mention the fact that we in Finland were the first country to go there to work.”
The Massaquoi case also has other important international dimensions. If the court in Tampere convicts Massaquoi of war crimes, it will raise many questions about the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone. In this sense, Alan White’s fear that Finnish action may make it more difficult to prosecute war criminals in the future may prove to be correct.
“The Special Court’s concern was how to credibly promise protection to key witnesses in future cases. The disclosure of various information and statements in the Massaquoi trial could damage the Special Court’s reputation”, Elfgren speculates.
LIBERIAN CIVIL WARS 1989-1996 and 1999-2003
The Liberian civil war lasted 14 years from 1989 to 2003. Liberia’s first civil war took place between 1989 and 1996, when the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor (b. 1948), fought against the Liberian regime. Taylor was elected President of Liberia in 1997. A second civil war began in April 1999. Fighting for Monrovia began in June 2003. Taylor stepped down in 2003. He was arrested in March 2006 near the Cameroon border and imprisoned in Sierra Leone. For security reasons, the trial before the Special Court for Sierra Leone was transferred to Leidschendam-Voorburg near The Hague in the Netherlands. Taylor was charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. On April 2012, he was found guilty. He was sentenced to 50 years imprisonment. He is serving his sentence in the UK. 250 000 people died in Liberia’s conflicts between 1989 and 2003.
THE CIVIL WAR IN SIERRA LEONE 1991-2002
Charles Taylor’s NPFL equipped and trained the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), which launched the Sierra Leonean civil war led by Foday Sankoh (1937-2003) in 1991. The revolution failed, but the war only ended in 2002. Sierra Leonean Gibril Massaquoi (b. 1969) was one of the RUF commanders. Massaquoi is suspected of, among other things, burning dozens of people alive in the village of Kamatahun Hassala in Liberia and murdering people in the Liberian capital Monrovia. The alleged crimes are therefore linked to Liberia’s second civil war. Sierra Leone’s diamond deposits played an important role in the conflict. Taylor’s main objective was to gain control of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines through the RUF. He financed his own war by trading in ‘blood diamonds’. Some 50 000 people died in Sierra Leone in the civil war.