Liberia: Swiss Appeals Court Upholds First Conviction of Perpetrator in Liberian Civil Wars

Bellinzona — In a landmark verdict delivered by the Appeals Chamber of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court, former warlord Alieu Kosiah has been sentenced to twenty years in prison for crimes against humanity following a four-week trial hearing his appeal of his 2021 conviction.

Sitting in the front row, wearing a black suit and blue shirt, Kosiah was impassive at first. But as the verdict was read the now-48-year-old former commander of the Ulimo rebel group chuckled, nodding his head in apparent disbelief. Contrary to his expectations, Kosiah was not acquitted. Instead, his punishment for war crimes was upheld, and he was additionally found guilty of crimes against humanity. The prosecution had initially not pursued the latter charge, which was later appealed by the plaintiff, resulting in this revised verdict.

Kosiah was the first person convicted of war crimes in the Liberian civil wars which left 250,000 dead and a million displaced between 1990 and 2003. Liberian governments have refused to hold a war crimes tribunal. Two perpetrators have been convicted in the United States on charges of immigration fraud related to their war time activities. A fourth perpetrator was convicted in a French court in November. A Sierra Leonean rebel accused of atrocities in Liberia was acquitted by a Finnish court in 2022. An appeals court is hearing an appeal of that verdict.

At the end of his sentence, Kosiah will be expelled from Switzerland. With more than eight years already served since his 2014 arrest, he may be eligible for early release in 2028 for good behavior, once he has served two-thirds of his sentence. The court upheld the first court's direction that Kosiah pay fines totaling more than $US55,000 to the victims.

Throughout the appeal trial, the accused repeatedly said he was not present during the events described in the indictment. He alleged that the prosecution was a conspiracy orchestrated by the NGO Civitas Maxima, led by Geneva lawyer Alain Werner.

This line of argument was quickly dismissed by the judges. They noted that "before taking the plaintiff's statements into account, numerous independent sources, articles and the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented the activities of the Ulimo (United Liberation Movement of Liberia) in Lofa."

They also pointed out that Kosiah's own statements during the initial hearings, as well as those of several defense witnesses, contradicted his claims of absence from the battlefields between 1993 and 1995. According to the court, Kosiah "actively participated in the conquest of Lofa as a member of the Ulimo General Staff and was a close associate of Commander Pepper and Salt."

The judges said the defense had failed to provide concrete evidence of the alleged conspiracy and noted that the witnesses' statements, although at times conflicting, did not indicate any coaching by the organization.

"Mr. Kosiah confused the credibility of the witnesses with the credibility of their testimony," the judges found, accusing him of systematically trying to find inconsistencies in the victims' testimony without ever addressing the substance of the complaints against him.

While Kosiah was acquitted of some charges related to the cruel treatment of civilians, he was found guilty of most of the allegations, including several counts of murder, desecration of corpses, forced transportation, and rape. The court also condemned the defense's decision to present three "highly implausible" witnesses at first instance to contradict the claims of the clients represented by lawyer Maître Romain Wavre.

Dimitri Gianoli, Kosiah's lawyer, expressed disappointment and criticized the decision as a political one that overlooked the inconsistencies in defense witnesses' testimonies.

Waivre expressed relief and described the verdict as a significant victory for his clients, reaffirming the sincerity of their suffering throughout the investigation. Similarly, Maître Raphael Jakob, another defense lawyer, welcomed the court's decision and suggested that it could impact the prosecution of other atrocities before Swiss authorities.

Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima, with a broad smile on his face, emphasized the symbolic importance of the court recognizing the atrocities committed in Lofa as crimes against humanity. He praised the victims for their courage in facing multiple challenges, including Ebola, COVID-19, and threats, to testify in Switzerland over the course of nine years. Werner stated, "For the victims, this is recognition. It's heroic."

Contacted by phone in Monrovia, Hassan Bility, former journalist and director of the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) also expressed his joy and emphasized the significance of this conviction, the first in Switzerland related to crimes against humanity. He called for justice to be celebrated and criticized the fact that there had been no war crimes court in Liberia meaning victims had been forgotten while "perpetrators continue to enjoy state resources in Liberia."

The verdict comes as GJRP is facing immense pressures from perpetrators and their allies. "We are aware that this victory comes with threats against me and my dedicated staff, but we cannot allow these threats to deny the Liberian civil war victims justice. The international community must keep its promise to ensure justice for all human beings, irrespective of their race, nationality or geographic locations."

The Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland expressed satisfaction with the decision, highlighting Switzerland's ability to prosecute and try cases under international criminal law. The Office extended gratitude to the victims who had made considerable efforts to testify in Switzerland.

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

Antoine Harari With New Narratives

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