Sierra Leone: Former Special Court Guard Tells War Crimes Court Massaquoi Escape Possible

After nearly a year of hearings, including five months in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the ground-breaking trial of Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean rebel charged with committing war crimes in Liberia, looks set to end this month. From there the fate of the 51-year-old former commander of the Revolutionary United Front will be in the hands of four judges of the District Court of Tampere, Finland's second largest city.

Since the trial resumed in Tampere in October, after a second, unexpected set of hearings in Liberia, there have been just four sessions. The prosecution and defense teams have wrestled with new evidence, including notes, Finnish police say were illegally obtained, from an interrogator of the United Nations-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone after the interrogation of a Liberian witness who has accused Massaquoi of torturing him.

The court has also sought to have two key officials from the Special Court appear. Alan White, the former Chief Investigator of the Special Court, and Saleem Vahidy, the former chief of the court's Witness and Victims Unit, are seen as key to answering a central, explosive question of this trial: did Massaquoi escape the Special Court witness protection program in Sierra Leone where he was giving evidence against Liberian President Charles Taylor and others about their crimes in Sierra Leone, to travel to Liberia between June and August 2003 to commit war crimes on behalf of Taylor?

After months of negotiations, both men have declined to appear according to Presiding Judge Juhani Paiho. White "was not willing to testify" said the judge by email and Vahidy is "not able to testify due to personal reasons not related to the case."

The idea the Special Court would have a protection system in place that allowed their star witness to leave the safehouse to travel to Liberia at the risk murder by Taylor (who, according to testimony in the trial had already killed others he suspected of informing to the Special Court, including RUF general Sam Bockarie) or to inform Taylor what was happening inside the investigations, would seem preposterous.

Massaquoi took the stand himself to tell the court as much. Under questioning by defense lawyer Kaarle Gummerus, Massaquoi systematically rejected the prosecution's accusations.

A Finnish researcher, who has appeared in the trial previously, returned to repeat his assertions that travel on main routes between Monrovia and Freetown at that time would have been nearly impossible because of the heavy presence of LURD, the opposing rebel group that would go on to overwhelm Taylor's forces and force the president into exile in August.

And yet dozens of Liberian witnesses in the Liberia hearings were adamant that they had seen Massaquoi, whom they knew by the name "Angel Gabriel", murdering civilians and directing the murder, rape and torture of civilians in Bo Waterside in Monrovia and in villages in Lofa County between June and August 2003 as the forces of the LURD rebel movement closed in on President Taylor's last strongholds.

In earlier testimony former Massaquoi allies had described the Special Court security as lax, saying people came and went from the safe houses where Massaquoi and his family were held. In the final hearing of 2021 the court heard from a former guard of the safe houses in which Massaquoi and his family lived from 2004 until they were relocated to Finland in 2008 in a widely criticized immunity deal with the Special Court. The witness, whose identity is being withheld by the court for his security, did not guard Massaquoi during the 2003 period in question. He described a witness protection program that gave Massaquoi surprising freedom given his admissions of violence, the threats to his life and the importance of his testimony. He testified that the security would not have been any better during the June to August 2003 period in question.

New Narratives was unable to travel to the court because of Covid restrictions but relied on court transcripts provided by Civitas Maxima, the Swiss-based justice advocates that helped gather evidence for the investigation of Massaquoi that are regarded as accurate by court watchers. They record the witness saying Massaquoi was protected by just one guard, who was not armed, in the first years of his detention which began in March 2003. Only later, after an attack on the safehouse that the witness believed was staged, did the Special Court move Massaquoi and his family to a more secure house and assign an armed guard around the clock.

Under prosecution questioning the former guard said there was definitely a possibility for Massaquoi to leave the houses that the witness guarded without the protection officers knowing.

Prosecutor Laitinen: "How did Massaquoi have the possibility to leave without the security becoming aware of it?

Witness: "Sometimes the protection officer was present, sometimes not."

Laitinen: "How did you make sure that whether Massaquoi was present in the Kington safe house or not?"

Witness: "When he came downstairs, or I went upstairs. There were no cameras in the safe house and no device on Massaquoi to monitor if he went out or not."

Laitinen: "Did Massaqoui have an obligation to let you know that he was there?"

Witness: "No. We have a notebook in which we sign when a protection officer comes to work."

Laitinen: "Was Massaquoi able to leave the safe house ... just by notifying you so that you were aware that he leaves?"

Witness: "Yes, if he notified that he wanted to go somewhere he was picked up."

Laitinen: "So he did not leave alone but with another protection officer?"

Witness: "He might have been there or might have not. We did not have a device to monitor him."

The witness told the court that Saleem Vahidy, the Witness Unit chief, was ultimately responsible for loopholes in the safe house.

The court's finding on that matter could have much bigger implications for international justice and the Special Court.

"If new evidence determines that, though Massaquoi was a high-profile witness, his protection was porous--the next question would be, how widespread was this practice?" asked Aaron Weah, an expert on transitional justice in Liberia and Sierra Leone when this question first arose in hearings last year.

"If the court finds that Massaquoi's witness protection scheme was violated on the watch of the Special Court monitoring, it raises a much bigger questions about the Court's integrity and how it impacted on certain outcomes."

The Special Court convicted nine men of crimes against humanity, war crimes and/or violations of international law for their roles in Sierra Leone's civil war. They included former Liberian President Charles Taylor who is serving a 50-year prison term in the United Kingdom. Several others are serving 50 year sentences in Rwanda.

The court's return visit to Liberia in August 2021 came after prosecutors amended the dates of the indictment to include the June to August 2003 period once it became clear that dozens of Liberian witnesses were adamant that "Angel Gabriel" whom the prosecution allege is Massaquoi, had directed atrocities on Taylor's behalf in the Waterside area of Monrovia as the then-President was defending the city against the advancing forces of the LURD rebel group that eventually drove Taylor into exile in August.

The role of Special Court Chief Investigator Alan White, already under a cloud over the question of Massaquoi's escape from the safe house, became even more murky after three witnesses came forward to accuse Hassan Bility, head of the Global Justice Research Project and a key player in gathering evidence to support the Finnish prosecution's case, of offering them bribes to testify against Massaquoi and two other alleged war criminals facing prosecution in international jurisdictions. Bility strongly rejected the accusations and Milton Blahyi, another former warlord whom the witness alleged was also offered bribes, denied he had ever met Bility, let alone been offered a bribe.

Bility has been such a key figure in the convictions of war criminals in the United States and Switzerland and in ongoing cases in Europe and the United States, that prosecutors there became alarmed that the accusations could taint their cases. But White's actions came into question again when all three witnesses admitted that the American, who is based in Texas, had called them before they testified to discuss the case.

Another controversial element in these hearings was the defense team's submission of notes taken by a Special Court interrogator of his interrogation of a key Liberian witness during the investigations of the Special Court. The Finnish police and prosecutors strongly opposed the admission of the notes which they said had been obtained illegally. Interrogation notes are not publicly available or admissible as evidence and were seen only by a small group of key Special Court officials. The defense did not divulge who provided it to them.

The judges allowed the document as evidence and defense lawyer Gummerus used it to question the credibility of the witness (identity concealed) who had a key role in implicating Massaquoi and in gathering evidence for the case against him. In earlier testimony the witness had told the court that Massaquoi had tortured him at Taylor's direction. But the interrogator in these notes said the witness had said that a woman had tortured him as Massaquoi looked on.

The court heard the following passage from the document:

"About an hour later, Taylor stopped. If he wouldn't stop, Taylor would give him to someone else who could get him to talk. He invited someone else. A person and his/her husband seriously tortured the witness by using electric shocks to his testicles. He was also hit with a stick. He was held captive for six months. He was transferred to 13 different prisons, especially a place called Clay's. He was tortured several times."

Prosecutor Tom Laitinen rejected Gummerus's assertion, underscoring that these were the notes taken by the interrogator only and were not signed by the witness. Laitinen also argued that, given the focus of the interrogation was Taylor and not Massaquoi, it was not reasonable to rely on this evidence in Massaquoi's case. He also said this was just one of more than fifty torture and interrogations endured by the witness.

The case resumes on Monday but, with the refusal of the Special Court officials to appear, it is not clear there will be any more witnesses. If that is the case, the court will move to final statements before the judges begin their deliberations.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.

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