By Mae Azango, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent
MONROVIA, Liberia – The war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi took a dramatic turn on Friday when a defense witness accused top human rights advocate Hassan Bility of bribing him and other witnesses to lie about Mr. Massaquoi’s actions in the civil war.
The first witness, 48, codenamed L1 to protect his identity, said Mr. Bility offered him $US16,000 to lie against Mr. Massaquoi, the former Revolutionary United Front commander on trial by the court in Finland for crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Liberia’s civil war. L1 also claimed Mr. Billity wanted him to lie about other convictions in international courts that Mr. Billity had been instrumental in securing.
“He told me, since I fought the war and did not get money, they [international authorities] will give you money and asylum. He wanted me to go and testify against one Gibril, Jungle Jabbah and Alieu Kosiah,” L1 told the four-judge panel hearing testimony in a secret location in Monrovia. L1 was referring to combatants found guilty in earlier trials in the U.S. and Europe.
“He told me to lie on the man and say he entered Liberia and raped and open people’s stomach because he fought war. He gave me $US200 and said he was going to pay me $16,000 and give me $4,000 advance.” L1 later said Mr. Bility had also recruited people to falsely implicate Agnes Taylor in her war crimes case in the United Kingdom.
But the claims were immediately countered by an explosive prosecution revelation that the witness had exchanged WhatsApp messages with Alan White, the former chief investigator for the Special Court for Sierra Leone.
“Alan White texted me but my phone spoiled and I just bought a new one, so when I open my WhatsApp, I will show you the messages,” said the witness.
Chief Prosecutor Tom Laitinen surprised L1 by producing the WhatsApp messages. He quoted a message from White to the witness on April 21, 2021:
“I understand you spoke to the defense counsel of Massaquoi,” said Dr. White in the message presented to the court as evidence. “Can you provide names and number of witnesses you spoke to? Also, were there witnesses present and heard your conversation with Bility when he asked you to lie against Massaquoi and Agnes Reeves for an asylum for you and your wife in Europe?”
L1 became visibly uncomfortable at this revelation. His feet shook and he shifted repeatedly in his chair.
Mr. Laitinen asked how Dr. White knew L1 had spoken with Massaquoi’s defense lawyer.
“The arms we took to fight, we were very united,” the witness said. When Mr. Laitenen asked what fighting had to do with the question, L1 replied “poverty can make you to do a lot of things.”
The mention of Dr. White has added another twist in a trial that has already taken several unexpected turns. Dr. White has been highly critical of the Finnish court’s decision to prosecute Mr. Massaquoi. In an article earlier this year Dr. White said, “Accepting a relocated witness with knowledge of his past and pursuing prosecution twelve years later is a politically damaging action that will impact future war crimes prosecutions. I am deeply concerned about the motives and reasons behind this investigation and prosecution.”
Now Dr. White’s motives are under scrutiny. As head of investigations for the Special Court for Sierra Leone Massaquoi was under Dr. White’s watch during the period June to August 2003 when he was in a safehouse in Freetown protected by UN guards as Mr. Massaquoi dished out damaging information that would help convict his former allies including then-President Charles Taylor.
A central question of this phase of the trial is whether Mr. Massaquoi was able to escape the Freetown safehouse to travel to Liberia to commit war crimes on behalf of Taylor as dozens of witnesses have testified in this trial.
Dr. White has been called to testify in Mr. Massaquoi’s trial but has yet to make himself available to the court. Dr. White’s name also came up in Liberia last week when Foreign Lobby Report, a U.S. media outlet, revealed that Dr. White had registered on the U.S. foreign agent registry as a lobbyist for a new organization, Liberian Renaissance Office Inc. a coalition of Liberian opposition political parties. The outlet claimed Dr. White’s company was paid $180,000 to lobby US politicians on the opposition parties’ behalf.
Prosecution cross examination revealed more inconsistencies in L1’s testimony. He gave different dates for his meeting with Bility in court and in police interviews in 2020. L1 told the court that despite Bility’s alleged enticement to lie the witness could not go through with it. L1 said he took $US200 from Bility but refused to go further with the deal which he claimed would require him to travel to Ghana to rehearse his testimony with other witnesses.
“I did not get the $4,000 advance because I did not go to Ghana but he gave me $200 as my transportation,” said L1.
L1 claimed that Bility told him he took Rev. J. Milton Blayee, known as General Butt Naked during the war, to Ghana with others. But when contacted for a response on Friday Blayee denied the accusation.
“I do not know anybody by the name Hassan Bility, nor can I even place the face to the name, neither have I sat in one room with him,” said Rev. Blayee by phone. “Quote me, the witness is lying on me. I can even stand on television and say what I am saying. I was in Ghana 2006 and left since 2007 when my wife and children came to join me in Liberia, but I have never gone to testify against any General outside of Liberia.”
Bility is the director of the Global Justice and Research, which worked with the Swiss organization Civitas Maxima to gather evidence that persuaded prosecutors in Finland, where Massaquoi was living as part of an immunity deal with the Special Court for Sierra Leone, to investigate his role in the Liberian wars. The two organizations have been instrumental in the convictions of Mohammed Jabbateh, Thomas Woewiyu and Alieu Kosiah by international courts. They have also played key roles in the arrests of Martina Johnson, Agnes Taylor and last week’s civil ruling against Moses Thomas, the former Armed Forces of Liberia commander found to have ordered the 1990 Lutheran Church massacre.
Bility has been the target of an apparently coordinated campaign in some local Liberian media outlets that have made the allegations of bribery and accused Bility of having a role with Ulimo.
L1 repeated that second claim in his testimony Friday saying he had met Bility twenty years ago as a liaison recruiting people to fight for Ulimo, the rebel group made up of Mandingo and Krahn fighters.
“Bility recruited many of us to go fight at Po River, and he was encouraging us and saying the only way Mandingoes could get their liberty was if we go and fight,” he said.
The two organizations have long dismissed the allegations as baseless lies.
Earlier this year Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima told Front Page Africa, “For years alleged war criminal commanders associated with ULIMO, NPFL and other factions have been united together in denying any crime, and also accusing Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project of committing themselves criminal acts to subvert the course of justice in its attempt to find justice for victims of war crimes committed in Liberia.”
“We have never answered any of these specific baseless accusations made over and over against us because we believe it should for judges to evaluate evidence, and any accusation against us should be made in court, not in newspapers.”
The accusation that Bility has bribed witnesses may have implications beyond this case if found true by the Finnish court. More than 200 witnesses have testified in trials and cases against accused Liberian combatants in the U.S. and Europe over the last six years. Those verdicts may be called into question. But the fact that so many witnesses have testified and persuaded juries and judges in several jurisdictions may convince the Finnish judges that L1’s accusation is unlikely to be true.
A second witness, called by the prosecution and codenamed Z2, added to evidence given by more than a dozen witnesses in this hearing claiming they saw Massaquoi committing crimes in Waterside market in Monrovia between June and August 2003.
He told of one incident where there was shooting in the parking square on Water Street and Massaquoi ally, General Salome, told them there was heavy shooting going on.
“Salome said he received an order from “Angel Gabriel”, [Massaquoi’s alleged war name] that if anyone was found looting, they should be executed,” said Z2. “Just within that time, we saw some women crying. And they said the Aggbah boys opened fire and killed people in the biscuit store. When we got there, we met many people dead. But they had carried some people around the bridge area had already executed seven people, then Glassco called Yeaten and they went upstairs. We started arguing with Salome and others then Yeaten came down and gave them some money and told us to leave it, he was going to settle it.”
The trial continues on Monday.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Justice Reporting Project.