Bellinzona — History is being made in this Swiss town, the capital of the Canton of Ticino, where, thousands of miles away from the West African state of Liberia, a former warlord of the country's brutal civil war will go on trial Thursday for war crimes committed during the height of the conflict.
It is only the second time in Swiss history that a figure from a major civil conflict is going on trial. Alieu Kosiah was a commander of a faction of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) between 1993 and 1995. In 2001, a Swiss military court upheld a 14-year sentence for a former Rwandan mayor, Fulgence Niyonteze, who was sent to prison in Geneva for his part in the 1994 genocide.
Like Kosiah, Niyonteze's was a landmark case. He was the first Rwandan war crimes suspect to stand trial outside Rwanda or the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Tanzanian town of Arusha.
In 1999, Niyonteze was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, incitement to murder and war crimes. But that sentence was reduced on appeal 14 years after the judges decided they were only competent to consider the charge of violating the Geneva Conventions. In 2011 Switzerland passed its own laws under the principal of "universal jurisdiction" which allows Swiss courts to try a suspect accused of crimes against humanity regardless of where those crimes were committed. Similar laws have been enacted around the world to prevent war criminals from escaping justice while living in exile.
The long-running civil war in Liberia killed about 250,000 people before fighting finally ended in August 2003 with the signing of a cease-fire agreement and former President Charles Taylor's departure from Liberia.
'Historic' for Liberia, Switzerland, Civitas Maxima Says
"This a historic trial for both Liberia and Switzerland," said Mr. Alain Werner, Director of Civitas Maxima, the Swiss-based organization which has been working along with its Liberian sister organization, the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) at the helm of most of the investigations leading to the arrests and trial, trumpets the significance of the trial. "Kosiah will be the first Liberian national to be tried for war crimes allegedly committed during the First Liberian Civil War, and he will be the first person to be tried for war crimes in a non-military court in Switzerland."
Mr. Kosiah served as a commander of the ULIMO, and is accused of committing mass atrocities in that role. The Swiss Court indictment says Kosiah allegedly directed and participated in the commission of systematic killings, rapes and forced labour of civilians in the Lofa county.
At the end of the war in 1997, Kosiah moved to Switzerland, where he obtained permanent resident status.
In 2014, seven people living in Liberia, assisted by Civitas Maxima, alerted the Swiss Attorney General of Kosiah's alleged crimes and filed a complaint against him. In August 2014, the Swiss Attorney General decided to open an investigation against Kosiah.
Kosiah was arrested in Bern on 10 November 2014 for his alleged participation in the war crimes committed in Western Liberia between 1993 and 1995. In particular, he is accused of having systematically targeted attacks against civilians. On 13 November 2014, a Swiss judge ordered that Kosiah be placed in custody where he has remained until now.
During the investigation victims and witnesses accused Kosiah of committing acts of sexual violence, recruiting child soldiers, looting, ordering and participating in forced transport of looted goods and ammunition, forced labour of civilians in cruel conditions, ordering and committing murder, and for acts of cannibalism.
In 2019, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court dismissed the complaint accusing Kosiah of participation in a massacre committed by the ULIMO but has been detained awaiting his trial for other war crimes.
Atrocities, Allegations Dog Kosiah
Kosiah is the very first Liberian to be arrested and tried over crimes committed during the Liberian Civil War. Earlier trials in Philadelphia in the United States saw Mohammed Jabbateh, of Ulimo and Jucontee Thomas Woewiyu of the National Patriotic Front for Liberia convicted for lying to immigration authorities about their involvement in the early years of the conflict. They were not tried directly for war crimes.
ULIMO which operated in Western Liberia during the 1990s, fought against the National Patriotic Front led by Charles Taylor during the First Liberian Civil War and managed to gain control over parts of the region, including Lofa county.
It is in the northernmost part of Liberia that many who witnessed atrocities allegedly committed under Kosiah's watch have been clamoring for justice.
Dubbed "the Monster" by survivors of the war, Kosiah is infamously remembered for the Black Monday attack on June 28, 1993 when rebels had rounded up villagers in Foya, Lofa County and killed many.
Villagers, including a few whose testimony Swiss authorities are relying on when the Federal Criminal Court of Switzerland in Bellinzona hears the case this week, recall Kosiah, 45, as a ruthless commander who had threatened people with death and mayhem. The case involves dozens of witnesses, thousands of pages of testimony and has been complicated, according to the Swiss Attorney general's office, by a lack of official Liberian cooperation.
What to Expect from Hearings This Week
When the hearing commenced Thursday, after the court opens the proceedings, given the composition of the court and ascertained the presence of the persons summoned to appear, the court and the parties may then raise preliminary issues.
The first two days of the trial, Thursday and Friday, will be devoted to the preliminary issues which precedes evidentiary proceeding (hearings, other evidences) and pleadings.
Legal experts in Switzerland say the preliminary issues are all the questions related to the procedure. They do not concern the substantive law (offences, liability, etc.) but may relate to the following:
The competence of the charge
This may relate to the validity of the indictment. The latter can be modified during the debates.
Questions and conditions the jurisdiction of the court (material jurisdiction and jurisdiction by reason of location) or tribunal conclude that the matter pending before the court could result in a penalty or measure that is beyond the jurisdiction of the court.
This means there is no in the legal text, but often in connection with the prescription. The doctrine also adds the possible withdrawal of the claim or the death of the accused.
The files and the evidence taken and the court must proceed ex officio to examine the evidence.
Also key this week is the admission of the public to the hearing. The principle is that the proceedings are public before the court of first instance, with the exception of the deliberations (audio and video recordings are prohibited). The court may restrict or even prohibit the public if it is necessary for public safety or public order or in the event of heavy attendance.
At the end of these two days, the court will then decide to rule on these issues immediately. The treatment of preliminary issues makes it possible to no longer interrupt the proceedings unnecessarily and the charge can no longer be withdrawn or modified.
Witnesses Testimony Key
Much of the evidence against Kosiah will be derived from witnesses as well as remnants of a traumatized county still reeling from atrocities allegedly committed by Kosiah. Plaintiffs or witnesses from Liberia will not attend due to COVID restrictions and will instead testify in 2021. Kosiah faces a maximum possible sentence of 20 years.
Mr. Kosiah insists that he is innocent and denies "recruitment and use of a child soldier, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (directly or by order), desecration of a corpse and rape".
Eager to clear his name, Mr. Kosiah through his lawyer Dimitri Gianoli, argues that one of the big problems with this case is he had not yet arrived in Lofa (county) at the time of the crimes he supposedly committed there. "What counts for (him) is to be able to officially re-establish his honour by making himself heard openly and clearly," he said. "(He) has always been very clear on his whereabouts in Liberia and the court filings include testimonies collected in Switzerland that confirm it," Gianoli told Reuters this week.
The US-based watchdog group, Human Rights Watch which has been monitoring the case is hopeful that the trial would serve as a "wake-up call" for Liberia.
Balkees Jarray, Associate International Justice Director for Human Rights Watch said: "The rebel leader Alieu Kosiah's trial for alleged war crimes committed decades ago, during Liberia's first civil war, is a powerful message to would-be perpetrators that justice may be slow but it never forgets. Swiss authorities should ramp up their efforts to pursue additional atrocity cases against other suspects in Switzerland where there is credible evidence."
HRW laments that so far, there has been no domestic criminal accountability for war crimes and other unchecked horrors committed during Liberia's armed conflicts from 1989-96 and 1999-2003. "Victims have increasingly looked for justice through European courts, such as Switzerland now, using the principle of "universal jurisdiction," which allows authorities to investigate and prosecute certain international crimes committed outside a country's borders because such crimes are so serious their punishment concerns humanity as a whole. Judicial officials in Belgium, France and the United Kingdom have pursued cases related to Liberia using this principle."
The Kosiah trial comes after Swiss NGOs, former federal prosecutors, parliamentarians, and others have criticized judicial officials in Switzerland of lagging behind other countries despite having solid legislation to address serious crimes committed abroad.
The court in Bellinzona will hear from the defendant during the first phase of the trial, which is scheduled to conclude on December 11. The trial will resume in 2021 and although no dates have yet been set, the Kosiah trial will mark yet another quest for justice for victims of Liberia's brutal civil war, even as Liberia's postwar past and current governments tread on a snail pace in bringing key figures of the civil war to book for crimes against Liberians.
Amid Arrests, Liberia Mum on Justice for Victims
Kosiah is one of several Liberians under investigation or charges for war crimes. All are happening outside Liberia with Civitas Maxima and GJRP at the helm of most of the investigations.
Among them: Martina Johnson, a former front line commander of the National Patriotic Front. She was arrested in 2014 on suspicion of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Belgium, a country where she resided since 2003. Liberian victims implicate Martina Johnson as having participated directly in mutilation and mass killings in late 1992 during the "Operation Octopus", an infamous military offensive by the Charles Taylor's NPFL on the capital Monrovia. Johnson is understood to be sick and a trial date has not been set.
In June 2017, the Metropolitan Police Service arrested Agnes Taylor, Charles Taylor's ex-wife, charged with torture for her alleged involvement with atrocities committed by Charles Taylor's rebel group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), during the first Liberian Civil War. She was charged with seven counts of torture and one count of conspiracy to commit torture in relation to her involvement with the NPFL. She was the second person formerly associated with the NPFL that has been charged with crimes committed during Liberia's civil wars. On December 16, 2019, the Central Criminal Court decided that the case should be dismissed over a technicality. She could still face prosecution.
Former President Charles Taylor is currently serving a fifty-year sentenced for crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone's civil war. In 2012, the former President was sentenced to 50 years in prison by the Special Court for Sierra Leone after he was convicted of being responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning what the court called some of the "most heinous and brutal crimes in recorded human history." Taylor has never been charged with crimes committed in Liberia.
In 2006, Mr. Taylor's son, Charles Emmanuel Taylor, aka, Chuckie was placed under arrest at the Miami International Airport after flying from Trinidad to Miami. He was tried as a US citizen. He was accused of participating in torture in Liberia and is the only person ever convicted under America's Torture Law, enacted under the universal jurisdiction principal. He is currently serving a 97-year sentence in a federal prison in Florida.
Woewiyu who founded the NPFL with Taylor served as Spokesman and Defence Minister until political dissonance led him to create and lead the NPFL-CRC during Liberia's First Civil War (1989-1996).
In May 2014, Woewiyu was arrested at the Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, U.S.A, upon his return from a trip to Liberia. Woewiyu was charged with 2 counts of fraudulently attempting to obtain citizenship, 4 counts of fraud in immigration documents, 3 counts of false statements in relation to naturalization, and 7 counts of perjury. He died earlier this year from Covid-19.
Mohammed Jabateh, aka Jungle Jabbah, was arrested in Pennsylvania, in October 2017, charged with two counts of fraud in immigration documents and two counts of perjury for having lied to authorities about his war time activities. He was a ULIMO commander, then later ULIMO-K post-faction split, during the First Liberian Civil War and responsible for commanding atrocious wartime crimes including murder, conscription of child soldiers, and cannibalism.
In October 2017, a jury convicted Jabbateh and he was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the maximum possible sentence for his charges. This sentence is also one of the longest sentences for immigration fraud in U.S. history.
In March this year, authorities in Finland arrested a Sierra Leonean national suspected of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia, becoming the first African who is not a Liberian to be held in connection with the country's 14-year civil war. Gibril Massaquoi was remanded by Finland's National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in Tampere in southern Finland, where he lived. He is accused of homicide, sexual violence, and recruitment and the use of child-soldiers.
In July 2018, France detained a suspected former militant commander from Liberia's brutal civil war and placed him under formal investigation for crimes against humanity for alleged atrocities including torture and cannibalism.
The suspect, a naturalised Dutch citizen is Kunti K, suspected of being a former commander in the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), which fought during the 1990s. He was arrested in a northeast Paris suburb of Bobigny where he had been hiding out at the home of a friend, he is suspected of torture, murder, slavery, the use of child soldiers and cannibalism between 1993 and 1997.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project.