The defence team in the trial of Gibril Massaquoi, the former RUF commander accused of committing war crimes in Liberia, has had some big wins in the concluding weeks of the trial in Tampere, Finland.
Since it resumed in Tampere, after three months hearing testimonies in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the trial has narrowed to two questions: What were the dates of the events for which Massaquoi is accused? And, have dozens of Liberian witnesses got the wrong man when they claimed “Angel Gabriel” is the commander with a Sierra Leonean accent that they say direct the atrocities?
Among the witness in this final part of the trial in the southern Finnish city where Massaquoi was living when he was charged and arrested in March 2020 were two international researchers who extensively documented the atrocities in Liberia in the period in question – 2000 to 2003.
One told the court that she and a colleague had spoken with 61 witnesses who described atrocities in the Lofa, particularly the village of Kamatahun, which matched the descriptions given by many Liberian witnesses.
“They said many of those being taken to Kamatahun had been from Kiantahun. Afterwards, after an order of a commander, they were taken into three houses – one of the witnesses said four houses – and they were burnt alive,” the witness told the court.
The witnesses said the event took place between September and December 2001. The researcher had interviewed them between March and July, 2002, just months after the alleged atrocities took place.
The witness said five testimonies mentioned the infamous Taylor commander Ziza Maza. They also mentioned another top Taylor commander named Colonel Stanley and a number of lower level commanders.
Massaquoi’s lawyer Kaarle Gummerus asked the researcher, “Was there an Angel or Angel Gabriel mentioned in the interviews conducted by you or your colleague?”
The witness answered, “No, I do not recall that.”
In addition to the witnesses the researcher said she had spoken “with local community organisations, as well as members of think tanks, diplomats, refugee right organisations, and so on.”
“In these questions, did Angel Gabriel or Gibril Massaquoi ever come up?” asked Gummerus.
The witness answered, “No”.
A second researcher told the court he spent 15-months between 2012 and 2018 living in the Waterside area of Monrovia, where more of Massaquoi’s alleged crimes took place. He told the court he had spoken to “around 300 soldiers, in Monrovia and 15 different provinces,” as well as, “hundreds of civilians, and some of the conversations were very informal.”
Gummerus asked the witness whether interviewees named specific people.
“Yes, some names have come up,” the witness said naming the war time aliases Stanley, Ziza and General Mosquito. “People are still scared to talk about what happened.”
“Did Gibril Massaquoi’s name come up?” Gummerus asked.
“No,” replied the witness.
“What about Gabriel?” asked Gummerus.
Again the witness answered, “no”.
The testimony of the two researchers helped narrow down the question of dates that has plagued this trial. Liberian witnesses had given a range of changing dates for harrowing rapes, murder and torture of civilians that they said were committed and directed by “Angel Gabriel”, the alleged nickname of Gibril Massaquoi, who refutes it
An expert witness told the court that such memory lapses were entirely normal in a society where many people did not use calendar dates with regularity and for people remembering traumatic events from 20 years ago. He said the lapses could not be said to indicate dishonesty on the part of witnesses in any way.
However the second researcher said he was very clear that the witnesses were describing events that he has pinned down to “July” of 2003 or in the “summer” of 2003. It was the third and final assault by rebels on Taylor’s forces in Monrovia, known to Liberians as “World War 3”.
That date presents a problem for the prosecution. From March 2003 until he left Sierra Leone for Finland under a special deal in 2008 Gibril Massaquoi was under witness protection in a safehouse provided by the United Nations in return for his role as an informant against Charles Taylor. The testimony of witnesses in Sierra Leone, most of whom were close to Massaquoi and thus less credible, made clear that the protection conditions were not tight.
Massaquoi had left the safehouse on occasion and hosted visitors who could have couriered messages or threats between him and those he was testifying against.
Interview records by Special Court investigators showed that Massaquoi went as long as a month between interviews – plenty of time to travel to Liberia.
But the first researcher told the court she found it implausible to think that Massaquoi and Taylor would have been in league with eachother at that time.
“At that time, Massaquoi was collaborating with the Special Court as an insider witness, and as I understand it, providing information on command structure and information against President Taylor,” she said. ‘The indictment of Taylor had been made public in June. So I find it unlikely that [Massaquoi] would have travelled to Monrovia to defend the capital, fighting on the same side as the person just indicted by the Special Court.”
She reminded the court that it was well known that Taylor had little sympathy for people who had turned on him.
“Generally it was thought that Taylor had made Charles Bockarie to be killed on the grounds that he had given the special court information against him,” she said.
The trial has taken a summer break. Tomorrow New Narratives will have the latest from the this phase of the trial.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. We have permission to republish
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