Liberia: Massaquoi Denies Charges in War Crimes Trial


TAMPERE, Finland – Gibril Massaquoi took the stand for the first time Thursday in his war crimes trial at the Pirkanmaa District Court.

By Saila Huusko, with New Narratives

Massaquoi, who is charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and rape, in Liberia between 1999 and 2003, repeated what his defense lawyers have previously told the court: that he wasn’t in Liberia when many of the crimes allegedly took place.

“My last time in Liberia was towards the end of June, 2001. I went there only to pick up my things and my pick-up truck. My driver drove me back from Monrovia to Makeni, Sierra Leone,” Massaquoi said.

The Pirkanmaa District Court in the Finnish city of Tampere. Saila Huusko/NewNarratives

A former spokesman and commander in the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Massaquoi, 51, was given asylum in Finland in 2008 in return for his testimony against key players in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He is being tried in Tampere, a city he has called home for over a decade. The trial is taking place under the principle of “universal jurisdiction” which allows countries to try accused perpetrators for crimes committed anywhere. The understanding is that crimes against all of humanity know no borders. 

Dressed in a burgundy checked suit, Massaquoi was calm and composed throughout his testimony. Answering questions from Kaarle Gummerus, his lawyer, Massaquoi said he was working as a schoolteacher in Pujehun when he was recruited by the RUF in 1991. He rose through the ranks to become the group’s spokesman and a member of delegations sent to peace negotiations between RUF and other actors in the region’s conflicts.

Charges brought by the Finnish state accuse Massaquoi of murder as well as commanding soldiers to murder civilians. But in Massaquoi’s telling he stopped his role as a fighter in 1999, the first year specified in the charges.

“When was the last time you were in combat?” asked Gummerus. “The last time was when I was released from prison in 1999. And that was infighting between RUF members,” answered Massaquoi.  

The infighting and leadership struggles within RUF played a prominent role in Massaquoi’s testimony on Thursday, along with the stop and start peace process. In 2000, Massaquoi said, he was appointed to lead the RUF’s delegation in Monrovia, Liberia. “President Charles Taylor was the intermediary between the RUF and ECOWAS (The Economic Community of West African States),” he said.

The defense’s line of questioning centered on the timing of Massaquoi’s movements between Sierra Leone and Liberia. Lawyers asked Massaquoi about the routes taken on drives between the two countries, hoping to illustrate that he was there for personal reasons only.

Gibril Massaquoi enters the courtroom on February 3, 2021. Saila Huusko/NewNarratives

Hearing and translation problems marred the hearing with frequent stops in Massaquoi’s testimony as both parties complained of an inability to comprehend the proceedings. Eventually Massaquoi was given a marker and a flipboard. Adopting the demeanor of a schoolteacher, he punctuated his answers by writing out the names of the places, people, and organizations in Sierra Leone and Liberia for the Finnish court members to understand.

The trial continues on Friday when the prosecution will take its turn questioning Massaquoi. That will wrap up the first part of the trial in Finland. The court will then travel to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear witnesses there.

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