Liberia: Witness Tells Finnish Appeals Court in Monrovia He Has Received Death Threats for His Work, Emotionally Claims “Massaquoi Ordered the Torturing of my Genitals”

Gibril Massaquoi’s acquittal hearings are taking place in Monrovia. Credit: Forgbe Kloh/New Narratives.

MONROVIA, Liberia–Aprosecution witness has emotionally told a Finnish court that he was tortured on the orders of an ex-Sierra Leonean rebel commander accused of widespread human rights violations in Liberia.

By Lennart Dodoo with New Narratives

In an occasionally shaky and frail voice, “Background 1” (name given to him by the Turku Appeals Court to protect him from reprisal), said the alleged act almost damaged his life.

“I’ve been tortured two times and at different places,” said Background 1. “The one that touched me, the one that almost destroyed my life is that one executed by Gibril Massaquoi in Clay [Bomi County]. I still had on my boxers, and they tried to electrocute my genitals.”

The witness said the alleged incident happened on July 26, 2002, but was released five months later—December 7, 2002. Bomi is about two hours’ drive from Sierra Leone, where the witness and many others have alleged Massaquoi, a commander for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), came from to join other RUF soldiers, as they helped troops from the Liberian government to battle rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, who had launched an incursion on the government in Lofa County. Witnesses have told the Court the RUF soldiers came to Liberia at the request of Charles Taylor, who was the Liberian President at the time. In April 2012, Taylor was convicted and sentenced to 50 years for supporting the war in Sierra Leone.

In April 2022, a Finnish District Court acquitted Massaquoi and said prosecutors had not proved his alleged crimes “beyond a reasonable doubt.” As with the District Court, Massaquoi and his lawyers have repeatedly denied on appeal he was in Liberia during that time to have committed, or ordered his soldiers to torture, rape and kill civilians or enemies. They have argued he was under “protection,” providing information to the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. But as he reflected on his alleged humiliation, Background 1 said Massaquoi also took part in the act.

“He would ask me a question and each time I don’t answer, he would tell the woman to electrocute my genitals,” said Background 1. “This is one of the tortures I will never forget and that is why I remember Gibril Massaquoi so well.”

Background 1 said after Massaquoi made the woman to torture him several times. He said without getting any information from him, he was taken to an underground cell, where there were several other prisoners, especially Mandingoes. He said Massaquoi had wanted him to confess that he was plotting for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former Liberian President, who was critical of Taylor’s despotic government at the time, but he refused.

“I didn’t necessarily confess because there was nothing for me to confess,” he said. “When I was uncontrollably yelling and crying, they moved me back to the underground cell.”

The witness claimed before all that, he had been stripped naked in front of a building, where Benjamin Yeaten (one of Taylor’s top generals), Massaquoi, Joe Tuah and other soldiers were sitting and “teasing” him with torture. He said he was later taken into a room. The witness claimed in the room, his both arms were tied tightly behind his back to the extent that his two elbows could touch each other. This type of tying was referred to as “tabe” by the rebels. The witness displayed a scar on his right elbow, which he claimed the rebels put on him during the incident.

“In Liberia, we have a rope called twin. It is made of rubber; the rope entered my flesh, and this is scar.”

He said one day, a helicopter transported him and another cellmate (name withheld) to a base in Foya, Lofa County, where he was detained until December 7, 2002, when he was released through negotiations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Ambassador to Liberia at the time.

The witness said he was immediately flown out of Liberia.

Defense lawyers had little questions for the witness, who often corrected them on his testimony to the District Court.

The witness, also a human rights advocate, claimed to have received death threats for advocating for justice for victims of Liberia’s civil wars. He did not however link Massaquoi to any of the alleged threats. Front Page Africa/New Narratives is not disclosing more details of his work to protect him from retribution. There have been condemnations of human rights defenders, including from Beth Van Schaack, and Human Rights Watch. Background 1 said based on his experience of the wars, he has been working assiduously to ensure that alleged perpetrators face justice.

“Over 250,000 Liberians got killed during the war and there are people who witnessed those actions,” said Background 1. There are no shortages of victims or witnesses for someone to pay someone and tell them what to say. There is no reason to coach someone or a person like me on what to say. A victim knows what to say.”

The hearings continue on Wednesday.

The coverage of the appeal of Massaquoi’s acquittal is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.