By Anthony Stephens and Evelyn Kpadeh Seagbeh, New Narratives Justice Reporters
PARIS, France —The trial of Kunti Kamara, a former battlefront commander for the United Liberation Movement of Liberia, began Monday at the French Court of Appeals for crimes against humanity, torture and acts of barbarism allegedly committed in Liberia between 1993 and 1994.
Known as “Kunti-K” among other war names, the 48-year-old is being prosecuted under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which says that crimes committed against all of humanity know no borders and can be tried anywhere in the world.
In an early phase of the investigation Kamara denied all the allegations.
"I will continue to prove that these people are criminals in Liberia and that there are people behind them in Liberia; someone is manipulating them to prosecute me,” he told investigating judges according to the indictment. “Everyone will be able to tell you I am innocent.”
But Kamara admitted to being a commander of two sections of ULIMO rebels. He also allegedly admitted reporting to a commander called “Deku” and another called “Mohammed Tumuyah”. He said he joined ULIMO because he wanted to defend himself against Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia forces.
The trial will last four weeks and will hear from more than three dozen witnesses and experts including many who have been brought here from Liberia by the French prosecution team. It is expected Kamara will testify on his own behalf. Alieu Kosiah, Kamara’s ULIMO ally who is appealing his own war crimes conviction by a court in Switzerland last year, will also testify. Kamara upended Kosiah’s defense case when he appeared as a defense witness and testified that Kosiah had committed the crimes for which he was accused. His testimony shocked the defense. The prosecution and civil parties said it was crucial to the success of their case.
The case is being brought by France’s Anti-Terrorist unit within the public prosecutor’s office. Until now the unit has only tried cases related to the 1994 Rwandan genocide. France had a strong presence in Rwanda in the colonial period. This is the first time in France that a trial has been held for acts committed in a country other than Rwanda.
Among the many gruesome allegations against Kamara is the torture and murder of one man who was said to have had his elbows tied together behind his back before Kamara cut open his rib cage, removed his heart and ate it. Other charges allege Kamara forced victims to transport goods for ULIMO. There are also allegations of rape and sexual slavery by Kamara and men under his command. The indictment generally alleges Kamara joined in ULIMO’s reign of terror of people in Foya.
In Lofa, ULIMO survivors celebrate the trial
In phone calls, some alleged victims of Kamara’s crimes told New Narratives/Frontpage Africa that they knew him by his other war name “Co Kundi”. Many named him as responsible for the the 1993 “ngisakornjai” murders in which they said six men— Saah Gborway, Zaza Gbanya, Saah Musa, Augustine Pillo, Tamba Africa (a well know black smith) in Foya, and Tamba Sumnor were allegedly murdered by Kamara’s rebels on his orders.
Victims’ family members said they were pleased to see Kamara face trial in France given successive Liberian governments have refused to hold Liberia’s accused war criminals to account in a war and economics crimes court as recommended by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“Since our own governments have refused to punish these people for the things they did to us during the war, let the international community punish them,” said Evelyn Pillo, who claimed her youngest brother Augustine was among the six men killed in the Ngisakornji murders.
Just as Kosiah’s victims told a team of NN/FPA reporters in 2020, Kunti-K’s alleged victims are calling for the death penalty, or life imprisonment Kamara. France, like all of Europe, has abolished the death penalty.
French police first arrested Kunti-K in October 2018-credict: Anadolu Agency
Kunti-K’s trial comes two years after he was rearrested by French authorities after he had violated his bail conditions by attempting to flee France to Guinea. A nationalized Dutch citizen, Kamara had attempted traveling with an expired passport. He told French investigators that he had intended to visit Kosiah in Switzerland.
The Paris Court of Appeal had ordered his release in 2019 on grounds that prosecutors had violated his human rights by not issuing a communication permit to his lawyers before debate on the extension of his pre-trial detention.
His initial arrest in France followed a formal complaint to French prosecutors on behalf of his alleged victims by Swiss based human rights organization, Civitas Maxima and its Liberian partner, Global Justice and Research Project. The two organizations have been behind dozens of investigations of alleged Liberian war criminals in the US and Europe. Some of them have led to convictions and sentences, including Kosiah and Mohamed Jabateh.
“The trial in France should send a signal to those who murdered Liberians during the two Liberian civil wars that the long arm of the law will find them, irrespective of where they may be hiding or whatever threats they may issue,” warned Hassan Bility Director of the GJRP in a text message. “I want them (alleged Liberian war criminals) to know that the rest of the civilized world is standing with us.”
Liberian Law Enforcement Assist French Investigators
Liberian police and French investigators from the Central Office for Combating Core International Crimes and Hate Crimes traveled to Foya in Liberia, took photographs and reconstructed alleged crime scenes. They also interviewed alleged witnesses of Kamara during those investigations.
Kamara is the second warlord to be directly prosecuted for his alleged role in any of Liberia’s two civil wars, which officially ended in August 2003. Kosiah was the first. The Swiss Federal Criminal Court will hear an appeal to his conviction in January next year. Jabateh, also known as “Jungle Jabbah”, is the third ex-ULIMO commander to face prosecution. He was found guilty of criminal immigration fraud by the US Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania in 2017. He’s currently serving a 30-year sentence.
Kamara is standing trial 16 months after he testified on Kosaih’s behalf in his (Kosiah’s) own war crimes trial. Kamara did tell the court that Kosiah was present on the scenes of the hostilities and did commit the crimes he was convicted and sentenced for. His testimony shocked the defense and turned the entire trial on its head. The prosecution and civil party believed it was crucial to their victory against Kosiah. Kosiah also implicated Kamara by telling the court during the first phase of the trial (December 2020) Kamara was involved in the capture of Lofa. He said Kunti confirmed this to him.
Fresh calls for war crimes court
Amb. Schaack Credit: US Department of State
Kamara’s trial begins as Beth Van Schaack, US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, is visiting Liberia to ask the administration of President George Weah for progress on accountability for the Liberian civil wars.
“As you also know, there has been no accountability here on the criminal side, or the civil side for those who have been most responsible for those abuses… I will be having some meetings with members of the government and I plan to ask: what the status of the draft statute is and why it is not being put forward; what are the blockages and how can the blockages be solved?” Ambassador Van Schaack said at a news conference her country’s Ambassador to Liberia, Michael McCarthy.
The ambassador’s visit comes as the Liberian Government has been sued at the ECOWAS Community Court of Justice over its failure to investigate and ensure prosecution for the St. Peter’s Lutheran Church massacre, killings also recorded by the TRC. The civil suit was filed by survivors of the carnage, a few months after a Philadelphia court awarded them a $US84 million damages judgement against Moses Thomas, the commander of the Special Anti-Terrorist Unit on the night of the mass killings. The government has yet to respond to the suit.
This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.