Liberia: Finnish Appeal Court Orders Retrial of Former RUF Commander for War Crimes

Gibril Massaquoi was acquitted by the District Court in Tampere in April 2022. Credit: Africanews

A Finnish court has ordered that Gibril Massaquoi, a former commander for Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), be retried over alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Liberia. Massaquoi was acquitted of the charges in his first trial after judges found prosecutors had not proved his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

The retrial will start in the Finnish city of Turku in January 2023. Just as the district court in the city of Tampere did in Massaquoi’s first trial, the appeal court will travel to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear witness testimonies. The court spent months in the two countries in 2021 hearing testimonies and visiting the scenes of the alleged crimes.

By Anthony Stephens with New Narratives

Judges in the appeal case expect to begin hearings in Liberia in February. The chief prosecutor in the case said he was keen to take advantage of the opportunity to prove the case this time around.

“We are grateful that we will have a second chance to prove our case,” said Tom Laitinen, the chief prosecutor, in a WhatsApp message. “It remains to be seen how the court of appeal will evaluate the evidence.”

The first trial ran for 16 months – far longer than the trials of others accused of atrocities in Liberia’s civil wars in Europe and the United States. “We are more eager than exhausted,” said Laitinen. “We wanted the appeal, and we got it.”

Kaarle Gummerus, Massaquoi’s lead lawyer didn’t respond to a request for comment sent by WhatsApp.

In an 850-page ruling issued in May, the District Court said prosecutors had failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Massaquoi, 52, sneaked out of a Freetown “safe house” where he was being protected by the then UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, because he was serving as an informant against leading RUF figures including then Liberian president Charles Taylor. Taylor was later convicted for his role in Sierra Leone’s conflict and is serving a 50-year sentence in a UK prison.

Prosecutors allege Massaquoi sneaked out of the safehouse and traveled to Liberia to lead combatants on behalf of Taylor in Monrovia in 2003. He is also accused of leading combatants on behalf of Taylor in Lofa County in the years prior to that. Prosecutors accuse Massaquoi of committing crimes including rape, ritual murder, torture and recruitment of child soldiers.

But Massaquoi’s lawyers argued that he was not in Liberia when the crimes were committed and that it was impossible for him to have left the safe house because it was fully secured. There was also doubt cast upon the prosecution case that Massaquoi had gone by “Angel Gabriel” as numerous Liberian witnesses claimed.

The trial also brought intense scrutiny of the role of Civitas Maxima, the Swiss based human rights organization and the Global Justice and Research Project, (GJRP) its Liberian partner, which have documented the alleged crimes of all perpetrators indicted for actions in Liberia. Massaquoi’s lawyers presented several witnesses who claimed they were offered bribes by GJRP staff. Both organizations denied the accusations. In turn prosecutors alleged that Alan White, the American former chief investigator for the Special Court, had been coaching those witnesses.

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