By Mae Azango, New Narratives Justice Correspondent
Monrovia – A former soldier of the Armed Forces of Liberia has told the Finnish court hearing the ongoing war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi in Monrovia that the ex-Sierra Leonean rebel commander killed nearly an entire town in Lofa County.
“Angel Gabriel killed the town chief and his family along with half of the town including men, women, children and the elderly, after he had told them not to leave the town and later noticed they were attempting to leave,” he told the court of the incident he said took place in Kamatahun, Kalahun District, Lofa County in the early 2000s. “[Massaquoi] cut off their throats with a knife.”
The ex-soldier also accused Massaquoi of butchering civilians he accused of looting in Monrovia, removing their hearts and intestines. The government forces then headed by Charles Taylor was fighting rebels of Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) at the time. Fighters of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone—the group Massaquoi fought for—had begun collaborating with Taylor when he headed the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) in the early 1990s.
“Angel Gabriel opened fire on the people because he said the people were looting,” he said about the Waterside incident, which previous witnesses have spoken of earlier. “I saw over 15 bodies of civilians who came to look for food, because whenever they caught them in any store, they killed them.”
The ex-soldier told Finnish judges hearing Massaquoi’s case that he and other soldiers wanted to kill Massaquoi, but another soldier, “General Sweet Candy,” stopped them. He alleged Massaquoi later killed a pro-government militiaman who confronted him over the killings.
His testimony lasted for over three hours beforeMassaquoi’s defense team could cross-examine him.
Massaquoi’s lawyer, Kaarle Gummerus, dug out inconsistencies in the witness’ testimony and pretrial statement. He had told the Finnish police that he first met Massaquoi in 2003 but on Friday, he said 2001. Gummerus repeatedly pressed the witness on that inconsistency, but he skipped the pressure from the defense by saying that he could not remember after nearly 20 years since the incident happened.
Massaquoi, who watched the proceedings from Finland, assisted his lawyers to draw the questions.
The witness, known to the court as “Soldier 17,” expressed fear for his safety, but the court assured him that he would be safe.
Massaquoi’s trial is held in the District Court of Tampere in Finland where he was relocated in exchange for his testimony against Charles Taylor and others in the war crimes prosecutions. The hearings in Liberia is held in a secret location to allow the court to hear directly from more than 80 Liberian witnesses. The court has ordered journalists to conceal the witnesses’ identities for fear of intimidation or retribution.
The second and third witnesses on Friday, April 1, also told the court that Massaquoi killed civilians.
The second witness, known to the court as “Soldier 50,” told the four-panel judges that Massaquoi burnt villagers alive in Kamatahun. The victims were men and boys accused of being LURD rebels, according to the former soldier.
“Even though I was a soldier, I was not happy when the people were killed because they were my people from the same county,” he said. “So when I returned, and saw the fire burning, I felt bad.”
Gummerus also picked inconsistencies in the second witness’s testimony during cross-examination. “Soldier 50” had told Finnish police during pretrial that he was on the scene when the alleged killings took place, but in court, he said he was not present.
The third witness known as “Soldier 37” accused Massaquoi of ordering the killing of the town’s people in Kamatahun whom he accused on being LURD informants.
“I was not on the spot when Angel Gabriel gave the order to arrest and kill the people, but when I heard the noise and arrived on the scene, I learned that Angel Gabriel ordered the killing of the people,” the third witness said. “Some people were burned, women were raped and killed,” he added. He said Benjamin Yeatan, who headed the Special Security Service (now Executive Protection Service), wanted to kill Massaquoi but reconsidered the decision.
Massaquoi, 51, is on trial for war crimes allegedly committed in Liberia between 2001 and 2003. His charges, which he denies, include war crimes and crimes against humanity. He is accused of committing and commanding the murder and raping of civilians. The charges also include several allegations of cannibalism. He may face a lifetime sentence if found guilty, which under Finnish law is 15 years.
So far, 48 witnesses who have testified and three more are expected to testify this week. Thereafter, the court will move to Sierra Leone on April 28.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project