Emotions Halt Hearing in Massaquoi War Crimes Trial

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Gibril Massaquoi talks with his lawyer in Tampere, Finland from where he is listening to the hearing in his war crimes trial in Liberia via videolink. (Leslie Lumeh/New Narratives)

By Joaquin Sendolo with New Narratives

MONROVIA, Liberia – For the second day in a row emotions dominated proceedings in the war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi in Liberia. The trial conducted by judges from the European country of Finland, where Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean, was living when he was charged, has moved its focus to the northern county of Lofa where victims said Massaquoi and his Revolutionary United Front rebels terrorized civilians during the dry season in 2001.

A witness, codenamed Civilian 27, told the court her son was tied up and killed by men under Massaquoi’s command.

“They entered our town and called all of us to gather at the center of the town. They went into the houses and took all of those valuable things and put the loads on our heads to take for them to Foya, and when we reach Kwendu Koindu Junction, it was when they fired at my son who was already tied and he fell dead,” she said through loud sobs.

The proceedings were paused to allow the woman to regain her composure. The court has ordered the identities of the witnesses be kept secret because of a credible fear of retaliation or intimidation.

Civilian 27 echoed previous witnesses who said the soldiers were speaking Creole and Mende, two languages common in Sierra Leone and not Liberia.  She also claimed to have seen and heard “Angel Gabriel,” a name all witnesses have said was used as an alias by Gibril Massaquoi during the war in Liberia.

Civilian 27, now in her late 50s, said one of the soldiers cut a piece off one of her ears. She claimed she still carried a scar though the court did not ask to see it.

“We were in Babarhun when the soldiers told us that they were acting on orders and their commander was coming,” she told the court. “He came on a jeep, and when he got down, he said he did not want to see a living thing.  We were all afraid, and in my presence, they killed two persons. The commander called his name as “Angel Gabriel”, and that was Gabriel Massaquoi. He called his name to us and said he was next to God.”

Quizzed by the defense to establish whether she truly knew Massaquoi, Civilian 27 said, “This man was Gibril Massaquoi. I knew him because he called his name to us.”

Massaquoi, 51, a former commander with the RUF, was a key witness in Special Court of Sierra Leone prosecutions of top rebel leaders including former Liberian President Charles Taylor. The RUF and Taylor’s National Patriotic Front for Liberia had been close throughout the conflict in both countries with Taylor financing RUF activities in return for diamonds from Sierra Leone mines.

Massaquoi had been granted residency in Finland and immunity from prosecution for crimes in Sierra Leone in exchange for his testimony. Victims’ advocates Civitas Maxima and Global Justice Research Project presented Finnish police with evidence of his crimes in Liberia leading him to be charged with those crimes and arrested in March 2020. The Finnish court has moved to Liberia to hear from witnesses rather than transporting them to Finland to testify. The court will move on to Sierra Leone next month. Massaquoi has remained in Finland where he is monitoring proceedings through a videolink.

On Thursday another witness, codenamed Civilian 18, recalled 2001 as a year he experienced one of the worst parts of the war when his wife Sangay, and sister Ganbo, were both shot dead while distilling palm oil on their farm in Kortonhum.

“They enter my village in the morning and put all of us under gunpoint,” she told the four-judge panel. “Some of them went in the bush, saw my wife and my sister fixing palm oil, and shot them dead. They looted things and put the loads on our heads to carry for them. When we went far from the town, I managed to escape and I returned to the place where my family members were fixing the oil. I saw their dead bodies lying and getting spoiled. People who remained around the area came and we brushed the area and buried them because their bodies could not be taken to the town,” he said then bowed his head in tears.

A third witness, codenamed Civilian 18, told the court that the rebels, who were mostly Sierra Leoneans, set houses ablaze including his. 

“After taking us to Foya, they brought us to the center of the town and a tall light skinned man stood and called us saying, ‘I am Angel Gabriel, next to God,’ and this is how I got to know his name. He was the commander who ordered the soldiers to burn the town and killed people, and his soldiers were always saying that they were acting on his orders.”

A third witness, codenamed Civilian 45, said government forces with inscriptions WO2, entered his village and collected children, locked them up in a kitchen and set the kitchen ablaze. All were burned alive.  

“They brought the children and put them in the veranda. They later put them inside and said ‘we need light,’ and that’s how they set the house on fire after putting the children inside,” he said.

Responding to the Defense lawyer, Civilian 45 said “Gabriel Massaquoi” ordered his men to burn houses. “They burned five houses in my presence,” he said.

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

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