After two days of courtroom housekeeping and official reading of his charges, prosecution and defence lawyers continued to further present their arguments on Thursday in the trial of Sierra Leonean war crimes suspect Gibril Massaquoi.
The two sides provided context within which each will argue their case going forward.
Mr Massaquoi, 51, is charged with committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia between 1999 and 2003.
Prosecutors say he committed and commanded the murder and rape of civilians in Lofa County and Monrovia, Liberia. Mr Massaquoi denies the charges.
Prosecution, led by State Prosecutor Tom Laitinen, began the day by showing the court maps and aerial images of Lofa County, the northern Liberian country on the border with Sierra Leone.
Their aim was to help the Finnish court understand the location and landscape of the events listed in the charges.
According to one charge, civilians had fled the village of Kamatahun Hassala to other villages. “Civilians were brought from these villages [to Kamatahun Hassala], upon orders from Massaquoi, and locked in houses.
The houses were then set on fire,” the prosecution told the court. Additional charges of violence in Kamatahun Hassala include the rape and killing of at least seven women.
The prosecution also showed images of the areas in Monrovia where Mr Massaquoi allegedly killed and ordered the killing of civilians.
But Mr Massaquoi’s defence team refuted the prosecution’s claims, reemphasizing their client was not in Liberia when the alleged offenses were carried out.
Lawyers Kaarle Gummerus and Paula Sallinen argued that Massaquoi had traveled to Monrovia frequently due to his role as an RUF delegate, but that his last visit there happened in June 2001.
According to them, Mr Massaquoi had come to Monrovia collect some of his belongings but ended up having to flee for fear of violence.
Both prosecution and defense agreed that Mr Massaquoi demonstrably held a high position within RUF, having been the RUF spokesman for a number of years as well as the group’s delegate in Sierra Leone’s peace process.
“We will prove that somebody in Massaquoi’s position had no motive to go to war on the side of Charles Taylor,” said Mr Gummerus, slamming the prosecution for having no evidence to convict the former him.
“This case is all about the reliability of the witnesses’ narratives, because they are the only evidence the prosecution has.”
Around 80 witnesses are expected to testify in Liberia and Sierra Leone. This was seen as the best solution, given the court’s relatively smaller size. This way, Mr Laitinen explained to reporters earlier, the court would also not have to ask people to interrupt their lives in order to undertake extensive travel to attend court in Finland.
According to Mr Laitinen, the international crimes spelled out in the charges fall within universal jurisdiction. Being party to the Geneva Conventions, Finland is obligated to try the crimes regardless of where the alleged crimes took place.
While such cases can be brought on behalf of humanity, they don’t exclude the possibility that individual plaintiffs with a claim against Mr Massaquoi may yet appear.
The task of finding those plaintiffs, Laitinen said, is difficult given the lack of a reliable civil registry. “Nearly a mission impossible,” Mr Laitinen said.
The prosecution will therefore build on witnesses’ statements. “The investigation has found witnesses with the ability to present evidence. The question may be whether they are willing to.”
The defence lawyers also took a shot at the credibility of the witnesses. “We ask the court to consider how the witnesses have become involved in the investigation. It appears that the majority of them are either directly or indirectly involved with either Civitas Maxima or the GJRP.”
The research into Mr Massaquoi’s past started with the Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima in collaboration with the Liberia-based Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP).
Their findings were brought to Finnish authorities and Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) launched an inquiry into the case in Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2018. Another name by which Massaquoi allegedly went by, “Angel Gabriel,” came up in in the process leading up to the investigation.
“It is amazing that the names Gibril Massaquoi and Angel Gabriel came up in the police investigation [of 2018-2020],” the defense team said. “At the end of 2000s, the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathered materials based on which it wrote the 2009 report. It included the statements by twenty thousand witnesses and those guilty of war crimes. There is not a single mention of Gibril Massaquoi or Angel Gabriel. Neither is there a mention of Gibril, Gabriel, or Angel,” Gummerus and Sallinen said.
The timing of the alleged events is expected to become a key question in the proceedings. ”I agree with the defense in that the alleged timing and its vague nature are a problem of sorts,” prosecutor Laitinen said. “I will be the first to admit that even I have trouble remembering details of events that took place 10 or 20 years ago,” Mr Laitinen said.
Both sides anticipate eventful few months ahead. “For my part, I expect a very interesting trial,” said prosecutor Laitinen.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project
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