By James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent
BELLINZONA, Switzerland – There were more extraordinary scenes in the trial of Alieu Kosiah for war crimes in Switzerland on Thursday when the second of Kosiah’s own witnesses, there supposedly to back Kosiah’s claims of innocence, told the court that Kosiah committed the war crime of recruiting a child soldier.
Today’s witness, a former ULIMO combatant whose identity is concealed by order of the judge, testified that Kosiah had recruited children, including the first defense witness who appeared the previous day, as combatants.
“I know that Kosiah had RTOs as bodyguards,” said the man, who testified before the court in Bellinzona from an undisclosed location via videoconference. “I knew one of them.” “RTO” was what ULIMO called child-soldiers.
In surprising testimony on Wednesday, the first defense witness testified that Kosiah had recruited him to be a combatant at age 12. The witness, who had arrived from Liberia the day before, then told the court that Switzerland needed to grant him asylum to protect him from retaliation, thought he did not say from whom.
Both men, under the questioning of defense lawyer Dimitri Gianoli, told stories of Kosiah’s kindness to them and insisted they did not see him commit any war crimes. Under cross examination by lawyers for the seven victims who brought the case, known as plaintiffs, the two men’s testimonies then corroborated the charge of recruitment of a child soldier.
The defense’s decision to put these two witnesses on the stand has baffled observers in this case. In short interviews outside the trial, Gianoli said Kosiah has been heavily involved in the choosing of his two defense witnesses. The court may well conclude Kosiah’s decision to use these two witnesses shows that he still does not understand that recruitment of child soldiers is a war crime.
‘I think Kosiah was confused’
Kosiah’s main defense in this trial is that he was not in Lofa County, where the acts were allegedly committed in the 1990s. Both defense witnesses also contradicted that claim telling the court said Kosiah was in Lofa between 1993 and 1994.
The three-judge panel hearing Alieu Kosiah case and the court’s clerk. New Narratives/Leslie Lumeh
ULIMO had been formed in May 1991 in Sierra Leone by Mandingo refugees and runaway soldiers of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL). Four months later, the group attacked NPFL from Lofa, which it made its foothold. It marched on to the western part of the country, ravaging towns and villages. The group committed a fifth of all the human rights violations the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded in its 2009 report.
The second defense witness told the three-judge panel Kosiah fought in ULIMO’s capture of Voinjama and Foya. Kosiah told the court in December last year and again on Monday that he did not fight in those areas.
“After we took over Zorzor, Kosiah…joined us and we all went and captured Voinjama and Foya,” said the man who told court he was a frontline fighter.
After Kosiah’s lawyer Dmitri Gianoli informed the man that his client had said he did not capture Lofa, he said, “I think Kosiah was confused.” The man added “Pepper and Salt,” another ULIMO commander, had ordered the Foya conquest to prevent further attacks from rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in the area. He said he and Kosiah also fought the NPFL in Belefana and Gbarnga in Bong County, and after the war he met him in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
There were two other admissions in the man’s four-hour testimony. He corroborated the testimony of one of the plaintiffs that Kosiah wore a military uniform, unlike many ULIMO fighters. He also said that the war crimes suspect drove a Toyota Land Cruiser during his time in Lofa.
The lawyer of four of the plaintiffs Alain Werner, appeared pleased by the man’s assertions, quizzing him on routes the Mandingo-dominated faction traveled to make a case to the court he was telling the truth.
Gianoli, who is on his first war crimes trial, appeared to see the damage the men’s testimonies had caused. In one instance, Gianoli told the man that another former fighter had told the court on Wednesday Kosiah did not fight in Foya. The man hit back and said that witness handled ULIMO’s civilian affairs and was not aware of what took place the frontline.
Gianoli’s main strategy has appeared to be to point out inconsistencies in the plaintiff’s testimony. The plaintiffs must prove guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” for Kosiah to be convicted. Seeing that he was not successful with his main strategy, Gianoli appeared to try to use the man to contradict other witnesses. He asked the witness about the ferry and canoes two plaintiffs talked about last week. The man affirmed that. He further asked him whether people crossed cars on the ferry at the Guinea border via Sorlumba as the plaintiffs had said. “I cannot tell you more,” the man replied. “I was based on the frontline.” Asked on the term “Dingo,” which Kosiah told the court was a derogative way of referring to Mandingos, the man said it was not an insult. “That is just the short way they call us,” he told the court. And Gianoli asked the man whether it was true that a well was at Foya market, hoping he contradict another of the plaintiffs who said he saw seven people killed and their bodies dumped in the borehole. But the man again said he did not know.
After that, Gianoli attempted to discredit the witness’s knowledge of ULIMO, its command and structure. The emerged once more, even telling the court the meaning of CO was commanding officer and names of rebels the court had not heard.
Kosiah, wearing an army green jacket and a white shirt, was quiet throughout the man’s testimony, in and out of Gianoli ears, writing and slipping papers to his lawyer.
“[Today’s] witness did not help our defense,” Gianoli said after outside of the court. “Yesterday’s witness (the former child-soldier) technically made our case.”
Kosiah is the first Liberian to be prosecuted for war crimes in connection to Liberia’s 14-year war, which killed an estimated 250,000 and displaced a million. He had moved to Switzerland since 1997 and became permanent resident a year later. He was arrested in the Swiss capital of Bern in November 2014 suspected of war crimes. His case is the first in a Swiss civilian court.
There were two more defense witnesses on Thursday after the man’s testimony. There will be one more defense and two prosecution witnesses on Friday. Trial ends on March 5.
This report was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.