By Joaquin M. Sendolo of New Narratives
Monrovia– The prosecution case in the Finnish war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi, holding sessions in Liberia this month, has struggled with inconsistencies in the testimonies of witnesses to events that happened as long as 20 years ago.
None of the witnesses who testified this week has been able to establish the exact year the events they described took place.
Massaquoi became a part of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) from 1999 to 2003 after serving with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that waged war on Sierra Leone in 1991. He is accused murder of civillians and other war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The inconsistencies in testimonies are a challenge for the prosecution team because there is no physical evidence and witness testimonies form the key part of the case. But state prosecutor Tom Laitinen said he was confident that the consistency of the stories will override any inconsistencies in memories of dates and which faction Massaquoi was representing.
“There is no question that their testimonies are genuine and they are telling us the best that they know,” said Laitinen. But he conceded their memories of some aspects have been understandably faulty. “I cannot remember fully what happened to me ten years ago, and the time of the witnesses’ experience has taken long.”
But in an interview defense lawyer, Kaarle Gummerus, said the inconsistencies undermined the case against his client. He also pointed to the witness’s repeated references to Massaquoi as “Angel Gabriel” which prosecutors allege was one of Massaquoi’s aliases during the war. Gummerus said that mistaken identification could be because his client is not the person who committed the crimes.
The prosecution has not asked the witnesses to identify the Gibril Massaquoi who is on trial as the Angel Gabriel that they say committed the crimes.
In Thursday’s proceedings a fourth prosecution witness corroborated the testimony of previous witnesses that “Angel Gabriel” had committed chilling crimes.
“He was introducing himself always as, ‘Angel Gabriel Massaquoi who can send people to God’, and I remember him so well because he was the cause of my sister’s death and myself was raped that I have scars on me today,” said the witness, a woman, who was 16 at the time of the alleged crimes. The court has ordered journalists to conceal the identities of all witnesses in the trial to protect them from retaliation or intimidation.
The witness was composed as she told the court that she and her sister were looking for food in a store near Waterside when they were captured by rebels and taken to the old bridge where the fighters had their base.
“They were carrying people under the bridge and doing wicked things to them, and what got my sister to be shot dead by Angel Gibril Massaquoi was because she refused to go under the bridge. That’s how he shot her and she died,” the witness told the court.
The fifth witness in the trial also recalled how he and his brother had gone to Waterside to find food in a store where they had heard that people were looting. “We remained there and a group of soldiers came and started to beat us, and in the process they captured and took all of us to their base near the Waterside Old Bridge. When they carried us, we saw a man who was calling his own name ‘Angel Gabriel Massaquoi’, and he took my brother and some others out of the line and carried them under the bridge where he shot them dead on a claim that they were rebels,” said the witness.
According to the witness, he escaped with others when Massaquoi allegedly ordered his men to shoot, killing several people.
“I saw Massaquoi killing my brother and two other men, and he ordered his men to shoot. That’s how when they began shooting we ran away,” he said.
Defense lawyer, Kaarle Gummerus, asked what period of the Liberian war years the witness was accounting for, but like other witnesses, he could not remember when the events took place. “It was from 2000 and 2003,” he said.
A sixth prosecution witness said that he and his brother had also gone to Waterside where they heard people were looting food from a store. He said Massaquoi and his rebels appeared in an agitated state.
“We were arrested and I was tied. Two of my brothers, Romeo and Peter Johnson, were taken out and killed, but as Massaquoi’s order reached me, I saw a friend from Nimba whom I knew and he begged for me. This is how I got free and was not killed,” the witness said.
About 70 witnesses are expected to testify in coming weeks.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.