Three witnesses in Monday’s session of the ongoing war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi accused the Sierra Leonean former rebel leader of mass murder of civilians during Liberia’s second civil war.
The first witness, codenamed “Soldier 13” by the court to hide his identity, was called by both the prosecution and defence lawyers.
He was a commander of the Sixth Navy Division for the Liberian government forces under former President Charles Taylor. Appearing before the Finnish court, he accused Gibril Massaquoi and his operation commander “Salami” of massacring civilians in Waterside and Konia, Lofa County in 2001.
“I saw Massaquoi, ‘Salami’ and their men when they came in a pickup (truck) and opened fire on some civilians who went to look for food in a store in Waterside. I was not on the spot to see who gave the command to kill the civilians but I saw ‘Salami’ on top of the pickup, using a heavy calibre machine gun and shooting while Massaquoi and their men in the pickup all opened fire on the civilians,” he said.
The witness said he carried the wounded civilians to JFK hospital and helped buried the dead. He reported the incident to Massaquoi’s commander General Benjamin Yeaten, one of former President Taylor’s most trusted commanders, and never saw Massaquoi again. ‘Salami’, he said, was killed on the bridge in Waterside.
“Soldier 13” said in 2001 Massaquoi and his men massacred people in Konia Town, Lofa County near the Guinea border. When he and his men arrived soon after they arrested many of the RUF fighters and called Yeaten to report the incident. Yeaten brought Massaquoi and his men to Monrovia.
Asked how and when he first met him Gibril Massaquoi, he responded: “I was assigned to Lofa in 2000 and Massaquoi introduced himself to me as spokesperson for the RUF. And how come we were fighting together in Waterside, was because when LURD (a faction trying to overthrow the Taylor government) bypassed and attacked Monrovia, Yeaten told our boss man Roland Doue to send for additional manpower. So when we arrived Monrovia, we met Massaquoi and Salami in Waterside.”
In court “Soldier 13” responded to defence questions about the last time he saw Massaquoi saying it was in 2001.
But in the police investigation leading up to the trial he had said it was 2003. The defence played a recording of the investigation interview for the court in which he gave the later date. “Soldier 13” explained the discrepancy claiming he was talking about Taylor turning over power to his vice president in 2003 by which time Massaquoi had left Liberia.
The witness expressed his shock as the recording was played and clearly contradicted that claim.
“It was in 2003 Massaquoi and ‘Salami’ were in Liberia and ‘Salami’ was killed by rocket on Via Town Bridge and people were happy,” he said in the recording. “But after that, I did not see Gibril Massaquoi again. And it was not long after Taylor turned power over to his VP Moses Blah.”
The defence caught the witness contradicting himself about the massacre in Konia. “Solider 13” had said on the same day as the massacre in Konia in Lofa, Massaquoi gave the order to kill Jonny Paul Kromah, another Sierra Leonean rebel leader. The order was carried out.
Defence lawyer Kaarle Gunmerus asked the witness how it was possible that Jonny Paul Kromah was killed in 2001, when he contested in the 2002 general and presidential elections in Sierra Leone? The witness countered that he did not think it was the same Jonny Paul Kromah.
Massaquoi, a former top commander of the Sierra Leonean rebel group the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), is on trial in the European country of Finland where he had been relocated under a deal between the Finland government and the Special Court for Sierra Leone for which he was a key informant.
He was charged in March 2020 under the principle of “international jurisdiction” for war crimes and crimes against humanity that he allegedly committed in Liberia. In an unusual step the presiding judge decided the court of 12 people would travel to Liberia and Sierra Leone to hear from more than 80 witnesses rather than making the witnesses travel to Finland.
Massaquoi, who had played a leading role in the rebellion in Sierra Leone, joined the Liberian civil war because of the RUF’s connection to former Liberian President Charles Taylor whose close ally was Foday Sankor, the founder and leader of the RUF.
The second witness, a former Liberian military officer turned prosecution witness codenamed “Soldier 11”, testified about the Waterside massacre saying it was “Salami” and another Sierra Leonean “Yeanni” who killed the civilians in the store at Massaquoi’s order.
“When Massaquoi arrived in Waterside and saw ‘Yeanni’ and ‘Salami’, he said, ‘Gentlemen you guys are doing well, fire anybody you see looting from any store.’ Plenty civilians, were killed while taking food and it hurt me because they were my mother’s people.”
The defence lawyers dwelt on the dates raised by the witnesses. They insist that if the events occurred in 2003 as some witnesses have claimed at various times in their testimony, their client could not be guilty.
According to Gunmerus in 2003 Massaquoi was informing on his former colleagues at the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor, was one of several men tried and convicted there with Massaquoi’s testimony. Taylor is currently serving a 50-year prison sentence in the United Kingdom for aiding and abetting war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.
A third witness called by the prosecution and codenamed “Soldier 15”, said he joined the Liberian army in 1997 after the Liberian elections. He served under Roland Duoe who was army chief of staff.
“Soldier 15” was the first witness to raise the Maher Bridge massacre which took place in Bomi County in 2002. He claimed he saw the massacre and it was done at the orders of Yeaten.
“After we captured Bomi, we put the civilians in a vehicle to carry them to a refugee camp, and when we reached to the Maher Bridge, Yeaten and his death squad soldiers including “Zigzer Massa”, and “Superman”, put all of the civilians down from the truck and they started killing the civilians and throwing their bodies into the water,” he said.
“Soldier 15” also spoke about the massacre of civilians in a store in Waterside saying when “Salami” died on the bridge, Massaquoi was assigned to Yeaten and killed the civilians. He said it was Yeatan who gave the order to kill the civilians in the store in Waterside.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.
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