Liberia: Massaquoi War Crimes Trial Resumes in Monrovia

The Liberia courtroom in March credit: Hanna Nordenswan

MONROVIA — The trial of Gibril Massaquoi, the former Revolutionary United Front commander accused of murder, aggravated rape and aggravated war crimes during the 1999-2003 civil war in Liberia, returns to Monrovia this week.

By Mae Azango with New Narratives

The trial of the 51-year-old Sierra Leonean is being conducted by the District Court of Tampere in Finland where Massaquoi has been living since 2008 working as a cleaner and postman. In March 2020, the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) arrested him in a Tampere parking lot after investigating his suspected links to war crimes in Liberia.

Massaquoi and members of his family were living in Finland under a special agreement with the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone to which Massaquoi had testified against fellow combatants. The trial began in Finland in February but moved to Liberia and then Sierra Leone for three months to hear from witnesses and visit the scenes of the alleged crimes in Waterside, Monrovia and Lofa County.

According to the criminal indictment, Massaquoi ordered the murder, torture and mutilation of civilians and participated in their cannibalisation. Massaquoi has denied all charges.

The court, which is being held at a secret location to protect the witnesses, is returning to Liberia unexpectedly after startling allegations from defence lawyers that prosecution witnesses were coached by local justice advocates Global Justice Research Project and their Swiss partner Civitas Maxima.

The court will also try to seek clarity on the question of Massaquoi’s whereabouts during the key final moments of the war in Liberia in July 2003 when forces opposing the rule of then-President Charles Taylor attacked the government’s last hold out in Monrovia. Finnish prosecutors had believed that his suspected crimes ended by March 2003 when Massaquoi, who had agreed to testify against his former brothers-in-arms, moved to the Sierra Leone Special Court Shelter in Freetown.

Prosecutors now believe Massaquoi, who was being held under UN witness protection in Freetown at the time, travelled to Monrovia to direct troops on behalf of the embattled president in July 2003.

“Now, in the course of the process, doubts have arisen as to whether this conclusion was correct after all. Several witnesses have reported that the suspect was still in the Waterside area (of the Liberian capital, Monrovia) in the summer of 2003, just before the end of the war. Based on that, we have extended the time period of possible crimes,” State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen told the news agency STT.

Prosecution witnesses have testified that witness protection was lax, with numerous visits by people who could have conveyed messages to and from Taylor, and Massaquoi’s presence at the safehouse could not be established for long periods of time.

Witnesses for the defence said it was highly unlikely that Taylor, who had a reputation for killing anyone suspected of informing against him, would have continued to work with Massaquoi after his widely known agreement to become an informant to the Special Court.

Laitinen said the trial could be wrapped up before the end of this year.

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