Liberia: Defense Focuses on Witness Inconsistencies in War Crimes Trial

The witness’ seat facing directly at the four Finnish Judges who have moved to Liberia to hear the testimonies of over 45 witnesses in Liberia New Narratives/Lennart Dodoo

MONROVIA – Over the past three weeks of hearings lawyers representing Gibril Massaquoi in his war crimes trial have focused heavily on inconsistencies in witnesses’ testimonies in an apparent effort to discredit the prosecution case.

By Lennart Dodoo, with New Narratives

On Tuesday defense lawyer Kaarle Gunmerus played sections of a recording made during Finnish investigators’ interviews with a witness in 2020. Despite prosecutor protests Gunmerus convinced the presiding judge to play 30-second portions of the tape 13 times to make very clear the difference in the witness’s two testimonies.

The witness, code named Civilian 62 by the court to protect his identity, had told the investigators that he didn’t know the leader of the soldiers carrying out atrocities in Waterside during the period as Gibril Massaquoi, but rather as “Angel Gabriel”.

During cross-examination on Tuesday, Civilian 62 told the court that he heard the name Gabriel Massaquoi from the man who informed him that some Finnish people were in town and were interested in hearing his account of what occurred in Waterside.

“I told him I didn’t know that name but the name that was ringing in Waterside at the time was “Angel Gabriel” and he said it is the same person,” Civilian 62 said.

However, the witness had earlier told the court that it was a lady who was captured alongside him who told him Gibril Massaquoi was his real name while “Angel Gabriel” was a war name.

“I was asking ‘why are they calling him “Angel Gabriel” when he is not doing anything good?’ The woman next to me said, Gibril Massaquoi is his real name, “Angel Gabriel” is his war name”, Civilian 62 told the court.

Defense lawyer Kaarle Gunmerus Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives

In another inconsistency, the witness told the court Tuesday that he was 14 years old in 2001 when he was held captive by the soldiers in Waterside, where he and his older brother had gone to look for rice to buy to sell. But he had informed the Finnish investigators that he was between the ages of 15 to 16 at the time of the incident.

When pressed by defense lawyer Gunmerus on why he gave the investigators a different age, the witness said he may have been confused at the time.

In order to secure a guilty conviction prosecutors must convince the four-judge panel that Massaquoi is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt”. By highlighting these inconsistencies Massaquoi’s defense is hoping to sow doubt in the judges’ minds.

A view of the courtroom where witnesses’ testimonies are being heard by the Finnish Court that has moved to Liberia to hear witnesses’ testimonies/New Narratives/Lennart Dodoo

Massaquoi, 51, is currently on trial in Finland for committing and inciting the murders of civilians and enemy fighters, rape and other war crimes and human rights violations during the second Liberian civil war.

He denies all the allegations saying he was not in Liberia at the time the events occurred.

Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean national, has lived in Finland since 2008 where he was relocated in exchange for devastating testimony that he gave to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Experts say Massaquoi’s testimony was instrumental in the conviction of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and other leaders of the Sierra Leone civil war. Massaquoi was arrested in Finland in March last year after Swiss victims’ advocates Civitas Maxima working with Global Justice Research Project, alerted prosecutors to Massaquoi’s alleged crimes in Liberia.

The Finnish Court moved to Liberia to hear the testimonies of witnesses – more than 45 for Liberia. The court will also hear testimonies in Sierra Leone.

Civilian 62 said, he and his older brother had gone in search of rice to sell. His brother gave him the money and sent him to wait at their usual spot in the Waterside area where they often bought rice.

The witness said he saw a group of men bursting a store to loot. He went there and also grabbed a bag of rice. On his way out of the shop, he heard a heavy sound and people began to shout, “’Angel Gabriel’ men coming again ooh”. He then saw a pick truck of full of soldiers who began shooting into the store.

“When these guys came, ‘Angel Gabriel’ and his guys jumped out of the pickup. He said, ‘kill anyone you see coming out with rice’. They were shooting for about one minute, 30 seconds. Some people died. Some people hid themselves. He gave the order that they should search the store to see who was alive and pretending to be dead,” he said.

His brother was among those who were shot and killed at the store.

“Unfortunately, my brother left behind. I saw them bringing him outside,” he said.

Civilian 62 said there were women with babies on their backs in the store. They were all thrown in the back of the pickup truck and taken to an unfinished building on the Waterside bridge.

“When we got there, ‘Angel Gabriel’ took a girl by the hand said, ‘I’m carrying her, she’ll be my wife. He said, y’all take the other girls and enjoy yourselves’,” the witness said.

He said a girl who had resisted following one of the soldiers was shot by Angel Gabriel. “She fell on my lap and he walked close to me and bent down. He asked me ‘Do you want to see God?’ I shook my head because I was afraid.”

While they were being tortured at the bridge, a soldier came in a pickup truck and began to ask the soldiers why there were holding civilians captive and torturing them according to the witness. “He said, ‘This is not the reason I brought you here. I brought you here to help me, not to kill innocent people.’”

The witness said this Liberian soldier seemed to be higher in rank was being referred to as “Chief 50” or “General 50”.

Benjamin Yeaten who served as the Armed Forces of Liberia’s deputy commander and director of the Special Security Service during the presidency of Charles Taylor was widely known by his own radio call sign “50”. He was a Liberian militia leader and mercenary. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Yeaten was mentioned in testimony last week. A previous witness told the court that the Liberian soldiers who came in a pickup truck to the Waterside checkpoint to their rescue informed “Angel Gabriel” and his men that they were sent by Benjamin Yeaten.

The trial continues on Wednesday.

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