Liberia: Massaquoi Defense Claims Liberians’ Roles in War Crimes Were Ignored in a Deal with Liberian Government as Appeal Court Moves to Liberia
Editor’s note: The story has been corrected to reflect that Paula Sallinen, Massaquoi’s defense lawyer, said the case was skewed against her client because Finnish police promised not to investigate Liberians who may have been responsible for the crimes. Sallinen did not say Liberian police covered up the role of Liberians. FPA/NN regret the error.
MONROVIA – Witness tampering has been the focus of the first hearings in the appeal of the acquittal of Gibril Massaquoi, the former commander with the Revolutionary United Front, accused by Finnish prosecutors of committing atrocities in Liberia during the country’s civil wars.
By: Anthony Stephens with New Narratives
In April 2022, a district court in Finland acquitted Massaquoi, 53, of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder and aggravated rape, after a marathon trial lasting more than a year with long visits for hearings in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A four-judge panel found prosecutors failed to prove Massaquoi’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Massaquoi was released from detention where he had been held since his 2020 arrest.
Now prosecutors are back hoping to prove the case. The appeal, before the Turku Court of Appeal, began earlier this month. The court will move to Liberia in February. A key issue for prosecutors has been Massaquoi’s apparent coaching of witnesses.
“Massaquoi had a meeting with his family in prison,” said prosecutors according to a translated transcript of the trial taken by Civitas Maxima, the Swiss-based justice activists. “After that meeting, a handwritten bundle of paper, which had been folded very small, was found in the toilets of the meeting room. When the police opened the bundle of documents, it turned out that they were notes written by Massaquoi and were addressed to people who have been heard or who are considered to be heard in this matter.”
Prosecutors claimed that Massaquoi sent notes to Elizabeth, his ex-wife, who testified on his behalf during the first trial.
“Don’t tell them anything about what happened after 2003, it’s none of their business,” said the note, read by prosecutors. “You lived in Makeni….I went to a meeting called by Sesay in the fall of 2000. I told you that I went on a peace journey with others, and you never saw me leaving Makeni with the troops.”
Massaquoi’s defense lawyers did not contest the veracity of the notes. “Massaquoi has been worried that people don’t remember things,” said Paula Sallinen. “In addition, at that stage, he had been criticized for his choice of assistant and he was worried that he would not be believed at all.”
The defense sought to downplay the significance of the notes. “It is probably undisputed that the note was found in the prison. It is very long and wide-ranging and it has never gone anywhere, so it has never been able to influence anyone, not the memory or anything else.”
Witness tampering was a constant theme in Massaquoi’s trial. Three defense witnesses claimed they had been offered bribes to testify against Massaquoi by Hassan Bility, the head of Global Justice and Research Project, which works with Civitas Maxima to gather evidence of war crimes. The claims were rejected by Milton Blahyi, one of the potential witnesses, alleged to have been offered a bribe.
The same defense witnesses conceded they had been contacted by Alan White, the former chief investigator of the then Special Court for Sierra Leone, whose oversight of witnesses in the Sierra Leonean trial, to which Massaquoi was an informant, would have come into question had Massaquoi been found guilty.
The case against Massaquoi was sparked in 2020 when Civitas Maxima and GJRP presented evidence to Finnish authorities that he had committed crimes on behalf of President Charles Taylor the Liberian President at the time in Liberia. Massaquoi was granted exile and immunity in Finland in return for testify against Taylor and other rebel commanders in the Sierra Leone court.
Witness tampering is just one of the issues the three judges of the appeal court will have to contend with as the trial runs its course over the coming months. Like all trials involving crimes from two decades ago, this trial has been dogged by allegations of memory failure and inconsistencies in witness testimonies. Those challenges factored heavily in the first court’s 850-page ruling.
“The witnesses’ accounts have been very similar in some respects, and in some respects they have changed in court in the same way compared to the pre-trial phase,” said the court. “This has been the case in particular with regard to the time of the events. This suggests a kind of collective processing of the facts on the basis of which the witnesses formed their perceptions, or at least external influences. In some respects it has been difficult to distinguish between what was based on the witness’s own observations and what was otherwise based on information obtained by the witness. These factors undermine the reliability and relevance of individual reports as evidence.”
But prosecutors have insisted the district court was wrong. “If a witness has said that he saw Massaquoi quietly or a few times 20 years ago and even in a situation where Massaquoi was shooting at him or his relatives, it cannot be assumed that the witness would be able to identify Massaquoi from the pictures.”
“The evidence that is received this spring must be evaluated in a structured way so that questions related to the probative value of one testimony or piece of evidence do not unreasonably weaken the probative value of other evidence: you cannot “comb” all the evidence related to the same topic into the trash can.”
But defense lawyer Sallinen cautioned the court. “The Court of Appeal must pay attention to whether the witnesses are speaking about their own experiences or information heard from others,” said Sallinen. “In addition, attention must be paid to the change of narratives.”
Just like judges of the district court, the appeal court judges, who are due in Liberia this weekend, will travel to Lofa County and Waterside in Monrovia to conduct “on-site inspections” of the scenes of the alleged crimes. Prosecutors have alleged Massaquoi killed and ordered the killings of civilians and fellow soldiers in the two areas.
One witness who could make an appearance in the Liberia hearings is Joseph Marzah, commonly known as Zizar Marzah, a one-time key Taylor commander and Massaquoi ally. Marzah refused to testify in the first trial. In an exclusive interview with New Narratives after the acquittal he said the court made a mistake.
“Gibril Massaquoi fully took part in war here,” Marzah said listing the Lofa towns he was with Massaquoi. “He passed through the towns of Zorzor, Fessibu and Vasala.”
Marzah said on Taylor’s orders, he put the rank of captain on Massaquoi because of his strong performance on the frontlines of battle.
“Gibril Massquoi was assigned to me. When we sent him for our logistics like arms and ammunition, he went for them and brought them to us,” said Marzah. “Where there was intense fighting, he joined us to fight. In 2001 and 2002, he was with us, and we battled LURD in Chicken Soup Factory, Double Bridge, ELWA and Shefflin.”
The defense sought to downplay Marzah’s evidence against their client saying Marzah’s name had come up in the TRC report in connection to the killings, not Massaquoi’s.
“The TRC reports mention Zizar in particular Marzah and Stanley, e.g. Kamatahun Hassala in regard to burning into people’s houses,” said Salminen. “However, their role was not investigated. It is obvious that the police investigation has been skewed from the beginning by the fact that the police promised the Liberian authorities that the role of the Liberians would not be investigated.”
But Marzah denied the allegations to New Narratives. He claimed he protected members of the Gbandi tribe because his wife was a Gbandi woman.
“It was Benjamin Yeaten [another top Taylor commander known as “Chief 50”] who sent Brigadier General Gourtor, [known as “Idi Amin” after the late Ugandan President], “Butu Lazen” and the late “Busy Boy”. They went to Kamatahun Hassala to carry out those executions,” Marzah alleged.
Yeaten’s whereabouts are unknown, but many of the witnesses in the previous trial accused him of widespread atrocities. Widely called “Chief 50”, Yeaten headed Taylor’s Special Security Service, now Executive Protection Service.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project.