... But defense pleads innocence; claims unfair trial
Anthony Stephens with New Narratives
Prosecutors in the war crimes trial of Kunti Kamara, an accused Liberian warlord have asked the French jury hearing his case to find him guilty of all the charges he’s accused of, but his defense claims he’s innocent and has not been accorded a fair trial.
Kamara, 47, is accused of crimes against humanity and torture, including cannibalism, forced labor, murder, and complicity in rapes. He’s accused of committing the crimes as a commander for the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (Ulimo)—charges he denies—attacking the credibility of witnesses, known as civil parties, who have brought the charges against him. Kamara admits he was in Foya, an area in northern Liberia, where all the crimes were allegedly committed for four months. But he insists to the nine-jury panel that he spent a large part of his time there on the front.
The jury comprises three judges and six ordinary French citizens. Unlike in Liberia and other common law jurisdictions like the US and the UK, which require a unanimous jury verdict, the French legal system requires a simple majority jury decision, which means only five of the nine must agree to find Kamara guilty of his charges. If found guilty, Kamara faces 30 years in jail—the maximum under French law. Legal analysts say his acquittal could be a blow to the civil parries and prosecution who have come under attack from his supporters for his prosecution.
Judges and jury in the Paris trial of Kunti Kamara. Credit: Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives
Knowing what’s at stake, state prosecutors seized the moment on Monday to de defined every element of his charges in their final argument and justify to the jury why they should adjudge him guilty.
“It’s your responsibility to sentence Mr. Kamara for all the crimes he did,” said Aurelie Belliot, a prosecutor in the case. “France should not be the last hiding place for war criminals. So, I am asking you to sentence Mr. Kunti Kamara to life imprisonment,”.
Although Kamara initially admitted in the trial that he had 80 men under his command, he claimed last week that he was a “floating officer”. But Belloit said she finds his argument to be inaccurate, because he also told the court last week that he held the ranks of colonel and captain in Ulimo. Belliot insists Kamara was aware of the alleged crimes by his men, including rapes of women by one of his dreadful soldiers, “Babylon”.
“This constitutes aiding and abetting this crime,” she said. As a superior he should have stopped this crime, but never did. Kunti Kamara is still telling the court that he’s the only one that never saw anything. The fact that he’s saying he never saw anything, does not give credibility to his defense,”.
Kamara is being prosecuted under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of individuals accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of where they took place. It’s the same legal doctrine Swiss authorities successfully used to prosecute Alieu Kosiah, another former Ulimo commander for war crimes in June 2021.
But appeal proceedings against his 20-year sentence are set for January 2023. But critics have criticized Kamara’s prosecution in France, arguing that the jury has never been to Liberia and does not understand the context of the Liberian civil wars. But justice advocates, including Massa Washington, an ex-commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission backed the trial.
The prosecutors used a large part of their argument to also defend the trial and the legal principle.
“You should take into consideration the suffering of the Liberian people. Every person in Liberia is saying that this hearing is a light of hope,” said Claire Thouault, the other prosecutor in the case.
Just like in other war crimes trials that we’ve covered, inconsistences of witness testimonies have dogged this trial—a major line of argument by the defense. Kamara himself has accused the witnesses of lying about him.
But Thouault defends the witnesses.
“The issue that civil parties could not remember dates was not a memory issues, but a cultural issue,” she said. “During the civil war, there were no death certificates. There was no one to establish the cause of death. It was devastating! Testimonies are the central evidence. Many trials like Rdanwa and other places, many testimonies were about the victims. Testimonies were about events,”.
But Kamara’s lawyers disagree.
“Maybe the people are speaking together. Maybe these are the plot theories he’s talking about,” said Marilyne Secci, lead defense lawyer. “They didn’t recognize him. The first time they recognized him was only in court. A witness who claimed to have been on the scene cannot call the names of two of three people there,”.
Secci also challenged the credibility and reliability of the evidence of the prosecution and civil parties.
“No picture about the facts. No picture about Mr. Kamara at the time. No bodies. You cannot provide evidence or claim with no body,” she said. “I cannot accept those accusations. The crimes are serious. Mr. Kamara runs the risk to spend his whole life in prison,”.
Seccis also claimed that her client has been unjustly treated.
Kunti Kamara in a conversation with his lead lawyer, Marilyne Secci. Credit: Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives
“My client didn’t have a fair hearing in this case,” she said. “Because the French justice that wants to carry out fair justice but didn’t have the means. This criminal case was just carried out like an ordinary case. My colleague and had to share the legal wages. The defense didn’t have a means in this trial to present a proper defense,”.
Tarek Koraitem, the other defense lawyer pleaded with the jury to acquit his client.
“Your decision is very vital. You have to do it with justice,” said Koraitem. And you have to do in in line with the French penal code. You are not Liberians to carry vengeance against a Liberian,” he said.
The jury will hand down its verdict on Wednesday, but Kamara will make his final defense before they retire to their deliberation room and then emerge to announce their much-anticipated ruling. Court’s President, Thierry Fusina told Kamara about the importance of his statement.
“By law, you are the last person to think well, said Fusina. “So, take time to think well. You are going to have a day to be able to think and to be able to tell the court what you want,”.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.