Liberia: Court Hears Massaquoi Killed Ex-Sierra Leonean Leader

Gibril Massaquoi appears in the first day of his war crimes trial in Tampere, Finland on February 1, 2021

Monrovia – An ex-presidential guard and a militiaman who fought for jailed President Charles Taylor have testified before the Finnish court conducting the war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi that he ordered the killing of former Sierra Leonean leader Johnny Paul Koroma.

By Gerald C. Koinyeneh, with New Narratives

The death of Koroma, the military head of state of Sierra Leone from May 1997 to February 1998, remains a mystery as his body was not found. He was declared murdered in Liberia on  1st June 2003, a month after he was indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. However, Sierra Express Media reported that he died of natural causes on 10th August 2017 and buried the next day.

But the witnesses, in separate accounts on Monday, told the court that Massaquoi ordered Koroma’s murder while the accused was fighting for Taylor in Lofa County between 2001 and 2002.

“What I know is he (Massaquoi) was leading his troop and he ordered his men to kill Koroma,” said the first witness, identified as “Soldier 39.” “He ordered the arrest of the man, and that if the man refused to report to him, they should shoot him on sight.”

The ex-fighter claimed to be a member of the Special Security Services (SSS)—the defunct, elite presidential guard—and he was assigned to Lofa between 2001 and 2002. He told the court another soldier named Marley informed him the incident happened between Masabolahun and Kolahun.

The second witness, “Soldier 22,” told the court that while serving as a junior militia fighter, he was in a town in Lofa County when Massaquoi ordered Koroma arrested.  

“He gave the instruction that Johnny Paul Koroma should be arrested and later on we only heard the sound of a gun. I did not see his body. We heard that he was killed.”

Following his indictment, Koroma reportedly fled to Liberia. Koroma’s remains were found buried in Foya, according to an unconfirmed report in September 2008. However, DNA test on the remains found in Lofa showed it was not Koroma’s. As of 2010, many still believe Koroma was executed somewhere in Lofa at the hands of Taylor’s forces.

Contradicting statements

The first witness also accused Massaquoi of killing dozens of civilians in  Kamatahun, Kolahun District in the early 2000s.

“It was in 2001 that Angel Gabriel ordered his men to shoot the people in Kamatahun,” he said. “Angel Gabriel” was Massaquoi’s alias. “I can’t remember the month but I remember those who were killed were refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia, mainly women and children.”

The second witness explained a similar story, accusing Massaquoi of summary executions. He alleged that while en route to the battlefront with his commander, “General Sweet Candy,” they saw several men tied at the back of Massaquoi’s vehicle and when his commander inquired, Massaquoi told him that they were spies. The witness said when they returned from the frontline, Massaquoi had already killed the men. Later, he said they discovered that those murdered were civilians.

Massaquoi’s trial is held in the District Court of Tampere in Finland and was moved to Liberia on February 23 at a secret location to allow the court to hear directly from more than 80 Liberian witnesses. The court has ordered journalists to conceal the witnesses’ identities for fear of reprisal and intimidation. Minister of Justice Musa Dean visited the court’s venue on Monday and was welcomed by its representatives and Laurent Delahousse, the ambassador of the European Union (EU).

Massaquoi himself is following the trial via videoconference from Finland. He has been assisting his lawyer, Kaarle Gummerus to draw up some of the questions.

Throughout their four-hour cross-examination, Gummerus, raised potential inconsistencies in the witnesses’ testimonies and pretrial statements.

The first witness had told Finnish police that he was present when Massaquoi allegedly ordered Koroma’s execution. In an excerpt of the recording played in the court, the witness is heard saying he was present when the order was given. However, he backtracked his statement before the judges, and said his response was based on the context of the question asked him but he did not necessarily mean he witnessed the incident.

In another instance, the first witness told the court that he saw Massaquoi in active combat at Waterside in Monrovia between 2002 and early 2003. He alleged at one point, Massaquoi was assigned with General Benjamin Yeaten, the head of the SSS at the time, with a machine gun and on another occasion a sniper rifle at the E.J. Roye Building on Ashmun Street.

Gummerus quickly pointed out that the witness had earlier told Finish police that he saw Massaquoi in Monrovia but did not see him in combat. The defense attorney pressed the witness on that point and requested him to state the year he had seen Massaquoi in combat. But the witness said he could not remember after nearly 20 years since the alleged incident happened.

Like the first witness, the second witness also admitted that he backtracked from several statements he gave Finnish police during pretrial, saying it might have been due to oversight. He was unable to state Massaquoi’s actual name, repeatedly calling him Dugbeh Washington. When pushed by Gummerus, he said he could not remember the accused’s name because he left his diary home.

So far, the court has heard 50 witnesses since it started work in Liberia. The hearing continues Tuesday with three witnesses expected to take the stand. The court’s work in Liberia will end this week and it will move to Sierra Leone to hear other witnesses there.

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