By Joaquin M. Sendolo with New Narratives
Monrovia– The war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi that began in Tempere, Finland, continued in Liberia Tuesday with the first prosecution witness taking the stand.
In the first testimony, the witness said she saw Massaquoi near the Waterside Bridge in Monrovia one morning introducing himself as “Angel Gariel” to the multitude of people crossing the bridge from Bushrod Island to find food in central Monrovia.
“When we crossed the bridge, we got to a checkpoint and they told us ‘single file’” she told the four-judge panel. “When we got in the line, a man in a white T-shirt and camouflage trousers was walking introducing himself as ‘Angel Gabriel Massaquoi’. ‘I can send you to God’” the witness quoted Massaquoi as saying.
According to the witness, Massaquoi, now 51, warned that he would take anyone who resisted his commands under the bridge to kill or rape them.
“He held my friend Felecia George by the hand and carried her,” the witness told the court. “My friend resisted and in that process, he fired up and carried her under the bridge. While carrying her, shooting began and we all ‘Chakala’ (dispersed, ran helter-skelter), and that’s how I ran and entered one woman’s house in West Point. The next day the woman told me that the road was opened and I should find my way, and when I went, the sister of my friend, Mecky George, told me that her sister Felecia was killed.”
Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean and former commander with the Revolutionary United Front, is charged with rape, torture and crimes against humanity committed during the last phase of the Liberian civil war between 2000 and 2003.
The witness testimonies have more weight in this trial than most. The alleged crimes were committed more than 17 years ago and the prosecution has no physical evidence to use to make their case. The judges in the case will reach their verdict based largely on the strength of the witness statements, which are from memories that in some cases are more than 20 years old.
The court is also concerned that witnesses will be targeted for intimidation to deter them from testifying or persuade them to change their testimony. This risk is particularly strong given that the case is playing out on Liberian soil, unlike previous trials in Philadelphia and the ongoing trial of Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland, where witnesses were moved to the country of the court and away from potential intimidation.
Journalists covering the trial are under strict rules not to identify the witnesses or the location of the court. Journalists will not even be allowed in the courtroom for most of the witness testimonies, but are observing the proceedings by videolink from a separate location, which must also be concealed.
Tuesday’s witness did waver from some of her previous testimony to investigators. She was calm as she answered questions in Liberian English that were then translated into English for the court. (A second translator translated the English into Finnish for the court.)
During cross-examination by Massaquoi’s defense lawyer, the witness conceded that she could not remember the exact year, month and day she had the encounter with the accused but said she remembered seeing Massaquoi and understood from his accent that he was Sierra Leonean.
The prosecution and judges asked several questions hoping to enable the witness to connect her encounter with the three different periods of war known in Liberia as “World War I, II, III,” but she failed to make the connections in a convincing way. However, in audio played to the court from an interview with the investigators before the trial, the witness said that she was two months pregnant at the time of the encounter and miscarried as a result of the treatment she received from the fighters.
Despite these memory lapses her testimony in court about the incident near the Waterside Bridge matched that she gave to investigators before the trial.
There are four judges hearing the Massaquoi’s case in Liberia with two prosecutors, investigators and other courtroom staff. The defendant is witnessing the activities virtually from Finland. He is not visible to reporters.
The trial is to last for the next few weeks with dozens of witnesses expected to testify before the court here and in Sierra Leone.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.