PARIS, France – It didn’t take long for prosecutors to catch Kunti Kamara in multiple traps in day two of his war crimes trial Tuesday. The former colonel with the United Liberation Movement of Liberia insisted repeatedly that he had not been trying to flee Europe when he was arrested in January 2020 carrying a falsified Guinean identity card and a bus ticket to Portugal from where, prosecutors alleged, he intended to get a flight to Guinea.
But police had gone to the house of the community leader where Kamara was supposed to be living under strict observation while on bail and found him missing. Kamara’s cell phone location showed that he was already fleeing. He had a new phone registered in a woman’s name – clear evidence prosecutors said, that he was organizing his escape.
Kamara immediately confessed.
“I do not deny that. I was afraid. I wanted to escape,” the 47-year-old told the Paris Court hearing the case against him. He also confessed to obtaining the fake Guinean identity card.
“I ran the process by myself,” Kamara said. “Because when you’re afraid you can do anything. I knew my passport is already in the system. So that’s why I took the laissez passer (travel document). If I could get into Portugal to go to Guinea is very cheap.”
Kamara had been released to the care of Liberian community leader Mohamed Kenneh’s care in 2019 a few months after he was first arrested on charges of crimes against humanity, torture and other “acts of barbarism” in September 2018.
At the time of his 2018 arrest Kamara was well aware that investigators were closing in on him. His former Ulimo ally Alieu Kosiah had visited him in the Netherlands and called him in Belgium before Kosiah was arrested on war crimes charges in Switzerland in 2016. Kamara had also known Mohamed Jabateh, the Ulimo leader who was convicted of criminal immigration fraud in the United States in 2017.
In phone calls recorded by French police Kamara revealed a deep sense of grievance over Kosiah’s arrest.
“Bad people put him in prison,” Kamara told one confidante. “I have to liberate him”.
Throughout the day Kamara refuted suggestions that he had left the Netherlands in 2016 out of fear of arrest. He had been granted asylum in the country in 2004 and had gained citizenship, qualifications as an electrician and 12 years of peace and relative fortune.
Kamara claimed to have moved to Belgium in 2016 because a language barrier had made him unable to secure a long term work contract in the Netherlands. Dutch authorities had made it clear he would not be able to bring Liberian family members to join him without permanent employment. In Belgium, and later France, Kamara claimed, his employment chances would be better.
In truth, said the presiding judge, Kamara knew that Dutch authorities were adding more and more information about his war time activities to his file. That was making it more difficult for him to get work. In another recorded phone call Kamara confessed that he had left the Netherlands because he felt investigators closing in.
Alieu Kosiah was in jail and “I need to leave the place”, he said in a recorded call, according to prosecutors. “I have a Holland passport and I am a Holland citizen. I was there. I worked there and they made me leave the place. So I came here to France.”
In court Kamara expressed disbelief that he had ever said that in a call. “I don’t understand that,” he said. “I’m confused. Nobody made me to leave Holland.”
Prosecutors spent most of the day attacking Kamara’s integrity, even without raising the war crimes of which he is accused. They highlighted the lies he told Dutch authorities when applying for asylum in the Netherlands. He had told them, untruthfully, that he was living in a refugee camp in Guinea when in fact he lived with a relative. He had denied any role in Ulimo knowing that would have ended any chance of asylum.
They made much of the fact that he had fathered two children by different mothers with whom he was no longer in contact. He also had no contact with one of the two children, a son. In 2014 Kamara had married a Liberian woman he had never met and in fact didn’t meet until two years later when he traveled to Liberia for the religious ceremony in 2016.
Prosecutors pointed to a Facebook page that had a fake name, profile picture and a fake email address. Multiple phones and sim cards were found at one of the homes where he was living.
Kamara appeared to sense that the day had gone badly. He was impassioned in his delivery, holding onto the panes of the window that separated him from his lawyers and reaching his hands out beyond the glass box that held him.
He proclaimed his innocence repeatedly and blamed a discredited conspiracy to target people from the Mandingo ethnic group for his prosecution.
“You know the trial is not a fair trial,” he said. “They already arrest people and put them in jail and when they arrest Charles Taylor’s people they release them. Why you people cannot be released?”
In fact people from Ulimo, dominated by Mandingo ethnic group, have made up less than half of those arrested for war crimes in Liberia. Only three Liberians have been convicted of war crimes committed in Liberia’s civil war so far – Kosiah and Jabateh from Ulimo – and Tom Woewiyu of Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia. A fourth man, former Armed Forces of Liberia commander Moses Thomas, was found liable for the Lutheran Church massacre and ordered to pay $US84m in damages in a US civil court.
Much of the day had been devoted to Kamara’s early life. He had a peaceful childhood in Karnplay in Nimba until his father died in 1994 and then, in 1989, when he was 15, Charles Taylor’s rebels invaded Liberia and shot his mother dead. She had been inside their house when bullets came through the door and killed her.
After Taylor ally Prince Johnson killed President Samuel Doe the remaining Kamara family fled to Guinea where they fought hunger and ethnic tension. When Alhaji Kromah, head of ULIMO, came recruiting fighters in 1992 a 17-year-old Kamara readily signed up. Kamara’s alleged war time activities were not on the agenda today. Prosecutors will begin to reveal their evidence Wednesday.
During the trial Tuesday the Mandingo community in France faced scrutiny for their role in helping Kamara evade justice. Mohamed Kenneh of the Association of Liberians in France had signed an agreement with the court assuring that Kamara would live at his house and observe strict curfew and other rules while released on bail. In court Kenneh conceded that he had not taken that agreement seriously and had only signed it as a favor to Kamara. He had not objected to Kamara moving out of his house in breach of that agreement.
Kamara also claimed that Kenneh had urged him to testify on behalf of Alieu Kosiah during his trial in Switzerland but Kamara said he refused.
Layee Bamba, the head of the Mandingo Association in France, conceded that Kamara had told him police had seized his documents and were looking for him when Bamba bought Kamara a bus ticket to Portugal.
The trial continues Wednesday.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.