By James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent
BELLINZONA, Switzerland – The first victim in the war crimes trial of Alieu Kosiah testified on Monday, as the court resumed after an 8-week break, telling the court harrowing details of the day, he said, the former rebel commander ordered the killing of seven people in Zorzor, Lofa County, including the witness’s brother.
The witness, whose lawyers requested not be identified for fear of retaliation, described the killings at a gas station in Zorzor.
“He (Kosiah) was giving the command and the command was executed,” the witness told the panel of three judges of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court prosecuting Kosiah. “No one gave him command. He was very fearful,” the victim said. The victim described other rebel commanders at the scene of the killings whose aliases he remembers as: “Mammie Wata,” “War Bus,” “Small Donso” and “Big Donso.”
Kosiah, 45, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), is accused of ordering the murder of civilians, recruitment of a child soldier, ordering pillages and ordering and/or participating in forced transport of goods and ammunition by civilians among other charges. Kosiah is the first Liberian to be prosecuted for war crimes connected to the country’s 1989-2003 civil war, which killed an estimated 250,000 people and displaced one million. He denies the charges with his lawyer Dmitri Gianoli saying he was not in Lofa when the alleged offenses were committed.
Kosiah faces a life sentence if convicted.
The witness is the first of seven victims who filed the complaint against Kosiah in 2014 that led to his arrest that November. He has been detained since. All seven witnesses have flown in from Liberia to testify at the trial. Today’s witness, who was composed throughout his testimony, told the court that Kosiah had accused his brother and the other men of being fighters of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), ULIMO’s rival faction led by then-future president Charles Taylor.
“He (Kosiah) even screamed at his soldiers to execute the order,” the witness told the panel. He said his brother’s body was disposed like a “dead rat,” and his family left “miserable and now there is no one to help us.”
“My brother was not an NPFL soldier. He would have served as a guardian that could make me be somebody today,” he said.
The witness is the first Liberian to testify in a war crimes trial connected with the country’s civil war. Earlier trials of Mohammed Jabbateh and the late Thomas Woewiyu in the U.S. were brought on grounds of immigration fraud. Charles Taylor is serving a 50-year sentence for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. His son Chuckie, an American, is serving a 97-year sentence for torture.
The victim accused Kosiah of forcing him to carry ammunitions from Zorzor to Salayea, a 50-kilometer distance. He said Kosiah also ordered men to push a car with deflated tires from Zorzor to Yeala, on the Guinea border.
“We were a transport instrument for the warring factions,” he said, adding he carried the load on is head for a day. “Civilians were transport material for the rebels.”
Angry Kosiah Outburst Disrupts Proceedings
Kosiah, who flipped through a pile of documents as the victim testified, became emotional at one point, voicing his anger at the long period he has been held in jail while waiting for trial.
“It has been six years!” he yelled, disrupting the court. “It has been six years!”
The outburst unnerved the witness who told the judges it had brought back his terror of the fearsome commander who had ordered the killings. The judges granted the witness’s request to move seats so that he was no longer looking at Kosiah during his testimony.
On cross examination Kosiah’s lawyer Gianoli challenged the victim on a number of issues in his testimony. He pointed to an inconsistency in the witness’s testimony where he confused the name of the man who first alerted him to Kosiah’s arrest, saying it was Hassan Bility, the executive director of Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), when in fact it was an employee of the group named Keita. GJRP helped the seven victims file the complaint.
“It was based on stress,” he told the court. “I thought it was Hassan Bility.”
The trial, the first war crimes trial outside of a non-military court in Switzerland, began in December after being postponed four times over the coronavirus pandemic. It is divided into two phases. The first phase in December featured Kosiah’s testimony and the second the defense and victims.
Eighteen more witnesses, including six victims, eight prosecution witnesses and four defense witnesses, are expected to testify during the remaining weeks of the trial.
The proceedings continue tomorrow here in this alpine region of Switzerland near the Italian border.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.