By James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent
BELLINZONA, Switzerland – War crimes suspect Alieu Kosiah delivered a forceful rebuke to six plaintiffs who brought the war crimes case against him here in the Swiss Federal Criminal Court on Monday. He slammed the plaintiffs and their lawyers for “staging their testimonies” and “lying on him”.
“When there is war, the first victim is the truth. That is the only thing I can tell you,” he told the three-judge panel.
Kosiah’s anger at being on trial here was focused on the plaintiffs’ lawyers as they asked him to respond to chilling and detailed evidence the six men had given last week. The men had accused Kosiah of murdering civilians, forcing them to carry looted goods and eating human hearts among other atrocities.
“You were the one who asked Hassan Bility to find something on me,” Kosiah said directly to the plaintiffs’ lawyer Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima, the Swiss nongovernmental organization that represents four of Kosiah’s seven complainants. Bility is the head of Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), which documents cases related to the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003) and collaborates with Civitas.
“You are the chief manipulator of this whole thing,” Kosiah told Werner. “Keep your defense. You will have to defend yourself in the future.”
Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), is accused of 25 counts of war crimes, including 18 murders, cannibalism, rape, sexual enslavement, forced transportation, looting and recruitment of a child-soldier. The six Liberians, whose identities have been withheld by New Narratives because of their credible fear of retaliation, brought this case against him. Kosiah denies the charges.
Werner, Romain Wavre and Raphaël Jakob—two other plaintiff lawyers—spelled out for the court the horrors that ULIMO had inflicted on civilians in Lofa during their occupation of the area.
Werner cited the report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which found the group committed the fifth-most crimes during the country’s civil war. He also referenced a 1994 report by Amnesty International that recorded the killing of 14 men by ULIMO in Lofa.
Werner posed another question about a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International report that said another ULIMO commander was called “Pepper and Salt” because he liked “seasoned” human meat. Kosiah refuted the report saying the man got the name in Sierra Leone because he carried a mixture of pepper, salt and pounded, dried fish.
“You will hear different, different stories but that’s fake news,” said Kosiah, 45, who wore a black and royal blue winter suite. He said no one from his ethnic group, the Mandingo, would consider eating human flesh. “I can guarantee you that a typical Mandingo man cannot human being. We are the most disciplined tribe in Liberia when it comes to what we eat.”
“It is not MSF that will tell me about ‘Pepper and Salt.’ I will tell MSF about ‘Pepper and Salt,’” he added.
Werner asked Kosiah about another MSF report which mentioned the death of David Ndiminin, a schoolteacher whose murder was the focus of testimony by a witness last week. The witness, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said Kosiah ordered Ndiminin killed and his heart eaten in retaliation for telling a UN delegation that ULIMO looted a hospital in Foya. On Monday Kosiah accused Werner of failing to mention that the report said Ulimon killed Ndiminin because he was a Christian and carrying a bible. Kosiah said Werner was cherry picking the report for aspects that would make him look guilty.
“You can mislead the court but you cannot mislead me,” he said.
Werner raised aspects of Kosiah’s earlier testimony including a claim that Mohammed Jabbateh, a fellow ULIMO commander who was convicted in 2017 of lying to US immigration authorities about his role in the war, was a good man.
Werner reminded Kosiah at the court that Jabbateh, alias “Jungle Jabbah”, was convicted in connection to some of the crimes Kosiah is accused of, including murder, rape, cannibalism.
Wavre, another plaintiff lawyer, questioned Kosiah’s claims about the TRC. Kosiah had suggested to the court last year that he could not be guilty of the crimes he’s accused of because the TRC Report did not list him about the 98 alleged perpetrators who should be tried for war crimes. Kosiah was among more than 100 whom it was recommended be barred from public office. (Former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is also on this list.)
Wavre countered that Kosiah’s omission from the 98 recommended for prosecution did not mean he had not committed war crimes. Wavre cited the TRC Report which said Kosiah and others to be barred from public office also committed “gross human rights violations…war crimes.. and domestic law violations.”
Kosiah challenged the credibility of another witness. The second of the six plaintiffs to testify so far accused Kosiah of ordering the murder of his cousin during the killings and terror of the “Black Monday” rituals that he said Kosiah had instituted in the area.
Kosiah said the witness had lied that Musa Daykue Donso, ULIMO’s commander in Foya was Kosiah’s subordinate. Kosiah showed the court a document in which Alhaji Kromah, the co-founder of ULIMO, ranked Donso a major general and Kosiah, a colonel, below Donso in Ulimo’s hierachy.
Kosiah was angry and aggressive towards the lawyers throughout the day.
“I think you want me to speak Chinese to you,” he told Werner over a question involving Kunti Kamara, another ex-ULIMO commander charged with war crimes in France. “You are a lawyer, man. Think twice.”
“You guys say you are lawyers but you don’t understand your job,” he told Wavre on another occasion. “It is so good that I am not a lawyer.”
But Kosiah made some admissions during the proceedings. He conceded that ULIMO rebels looted goods and sold them to the Guinea border, an allegation made by all the plaintiffs to testify so far. Kosiah said he heard of the looting of a generator in Pasolahun, Kolahun District but did not take part. He said he and other ULIMO rebels often took money from traders in Sorlumba at the Guinea border. And he admitted ULIMO sang a song his accusers spoke of, which goes “In 1990 we were running away. Now we return as lions.”
Seven Liberians filed the case against Kosiah in Switzerland, where he was living, in November 2014. He has been in custody ever since, an unusually long prison wait for a trial, a point Kosiah himself raised in earlier outbursts. The seven are called “private plaintiffs” under Swiss law.
Kosiah is the first Liberian to face trial for crimes allegedly committed in the Liberian Civil War (1989-2003), which killed an estimated 250,000 and displaced a million. It is also historic in Switzerland, the first of such case in a civilian court. Switzerland’s only other war crimes case was held in 2001 when a military court found Fulgence Niyonteze, a former mayor of an Rwandan town, guilty for his role in the country’s 1994 genocide and sentenced him to 14 years.
The trial continues Tuesday with the last of all seven plaintiffs who filed the case against Kosiah expected to appear before the court via videolink from an undisclosed location.
This report was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.