The long-awaited trial of former Liberian warlord Alieu Kosiah began this week in the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona with questioning of the accused. According to the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland, where he has lived for more than 25 years, Kosiah allegedly committed war crimes during Liberia's first civil war. Combative, the accused strongly denies everything.
Kosiah was a child, he says, when he first went into exile in Sierra Leone. There he joined the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) rebel movement, in whose ranks he then rose. According to the prosecution, as a minor, he "ordered his troops to commit, between 1993 and 1995, in Lofa County [northern Liberia], murders of civilians, rape and acts aimed at enslaving and terrorizing the population". And so he is being tried years later under universal jurisdiction in Switzerland, his second country of exile. He went there shortly after Charles Taylor was elected president of Liberia in 1997, to escape the inter-ethnic violence affecting his Mandingo community.
As the trial opened on December 3, Federal Criminal Court president Jean-Luc Bacher put some preliminary questions, then moved to questioning Kosiah before later giving the floor to the public prosecutor and defence. Responding to nearly a hundred questions, Kosiah denounced a "conspiracy" led by Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima and its Liberian partner the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), who after learning of his presence in Switzerland gathered testimonies and pushed for prosecution.
"Mr. Interpreter, did the accused answer the question?"
"Yes and no, Your Honour."
Kosiah often appeared to be dodging the questions, causing Bacher to sigh into his microphone and repeat: "I am asking you questions, if you don't want to answer, you say I don't want to answer. It's not complicated!"
Combative, surrounded by piles of documents, dressed in a dark jacket and white shirt, Kosiah came to life when the judge questioned him:
"Were you one of the 'big men' of the ULIMO armed group?"
"It depends. For some you are a big man and for others you are a small man, everything is relative. During the six years of the war, I was at the front while the big men stayed in the air conditioning taking it easy."
"So you were the highest ranking officer in the field?"
"No. There was a boss higher up than me at the back of the front line."
Urging the defendant to give precise, concise answers, Bacher asked him to detail his wartime movements and rank. Kosiah replied that he could not "remember in detail" and that he was "a human, not a computer". When the judge asked him again about his rank and the number of men under his command, Kosiah lost patience:
"When you are fighting a war, you don't take notes!"
The Liberian said he did not have men under his command until appointed colonel. He had held different ranks, from sergeant to lieutenant colonel. Then it was the judge who lost patience:
"I was a soldier myself. What's the point of having a rank if you don't give any orders? It doesn't make sense!"
The minutes of Kosiah's court examination are nearly 700 pages long. The accused was heard nearly 30 times, often contradicting himself.
Then he was questioned relating to the second count, recruitment of a child soldier nicknamed "Papa", for which Kosiah is said to be responsible. Questioned at the defence request during evidence gathering, the child soldier stated that he was Kosiah's bodyguard during the conflict in the Lofa region, near the border with Guinea, and fought under his command. Judge Bacher questioned Kosiah on this:
"Papa stated that you were in Lofa in mid-93."
"No, he didn't. Maybe the plaintiffs said so, but Papa never did."
"How old was Papa?"
"About 13, I would say."
"Do you think it's possible that a child under the age of 15 could act of his own free will in such a context?"
"I think it is, I have an example... I joined the army when I was 15, nobody forced me."
"Did you send Papa to the front line?"
"No, I didn't send him, he went voluntarily on his own."
"Yet Papa said he went on your orders?"
"That's fake news! If Papa said that, he lied."
"Did you give Papa military training?"
"He says yes, but the answer is no. I always behaved well with Papa. The proof is that he said he considered me as his father."
"Kidnapped by the Swiss government"
Kosiah denies all the charges against him, saying he was not in the places where the crimes were committed and that he did not know the victims. Accused of murder, forced transportation, degrading treatment and rape by seven different plaintiffs, who all live in Liberia and were unable to attend this hearing, Kosiah became enraged. He was, he says, "kidnapped by the Swiss government for six years" and accuses the NGO Civitas Maxima of conspiracy.
"Why do you think these seven witnesses are lying?" asked the judge. "What would be their motives?"
"I don't know. Probably because of the NGOs." Then Kosiah broke down and suppressed a sob.
"I've been locked up for six years, I have emotions, I'm not an animal. Maybe people here see me as a criminal, but I didn't know any of these gentlemen who accuse me. I am the real victim."
A few questions later, the magistrate did not hide his scepticism:
"You admitted lying during your asylum procedure by claiming to be Guinean, why should we believe you now?"
"I was honest about the reasons for my departure. The Swiss government was also mistaken, they said I was Nigerian."
"You admitted to lying. So be reasonable."
On Tuesday, December 8, it was public prosecutor Andreas Müller's turn to question the accused. He reviewed statements by Massa Washington, president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia (TRC), who said ULIMO soldiers used rape as a weapon of war. Kosiah stated that he never met the complainant who accuses him of rape, then asked the prosecutor:
"Massa made an investigation in Lofa. If she says I was so brutal, why didn't my name appear in the TRC... if I am a criminal?
"Your name appears in the third category, of people Washington says committed very serious crimes but that the Commission could not prove."
Six years of pre-trial detention in Switzerland
Questioned by his lawyer Dimitri Gianoli on Wednesday 9, Kosiah said that his Mandingo ethnic group was discriminated against "by the rest of the Liberians" and considered as foreigners. His father, he says, was a diamond dealer and the war turned their lives upside down, forcing him to leave school. He also described the difficulty of being locked up for the last six years in Switzerland, "without being able to communicate" with his family or his son. Kosiah denies and questions the testimony of the plaintiffs, appearing to know the prosecution case by heart. He said he has mandated a lawyer to file criminal complaints against all the complainants.
As a common thread in his defence, Kosiah attempted to describe to the judges the context of the war and the discrepancy between the situation in Switzerland and that in Liberia. He emphasized the cultural gap when asked too much detail about elements of a civil war that took place 25 years ago. And Kosiah defied the court:
"You can put me in prison for a thousand years, I will not be intimidated by anyone. I am afraid of no one but the Lord."
Gianoli's questions brought more digressions from Kosiah, and the judge again lost patience at the end of the afternoon:
"Counsel, your client's words are part of the arguments. You are not going to repeat them, I imagine? The idea is not to give your client the floor indefinitely, but to have him answer specific questions."
In the press room, Rodney Sieh, editor-in-chief of the Liberian newspaper Frontpage Africa, seems saddened by the situation. "I don't understand the defence put forward by Kosiah's lawyer, Mr. Gianoli. He lets his client contradict himself without intervening," says Sieh. "It pains me to see a black man in a courtroom full of white men having to defend himself."