FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – The Finnish court trying Sierra Leonean Gibril Massaquoi for war crimes allegedly committed in Liberia has delayed hearings by nearly two weeks because of acute illness of two of the four judges, including Presiding Judge Juhani Paiho.
By Mae Azango, with New Narratives
The Freetown hearings of the trial which began in Finland in February were to begin on April 28 but they have been pushed back each day since then as the judges recovered. The latest start date is now set for May 11.
“The head judge is presently hospitalized due to typhoid fever and last week, one of our female judges was also in the hospital for the same ailment,” said Thomas Elfgren, Detective Chief Superintendent of the Finland National Bureau of Investigations. “We would have started on time had it not been for this unforeseen situation.”
Elfgren rejected speculation that the delay was because of witnesses’ reluctance to appear. It is “not because witnesses are afraid to testify,” he said.
Elfgren was also keen to deflect any blame from the Sierra Leone government. “I want to thank both the Liberian and Sierra Leone government for not interfering in the process and allowing us to carry on an independent process. Because hearings in Liberia, could not have been done without the full support from the governments.”
The Finnish Court moved from Liberia to Sierra Leone after hearing from more than 60 witnesses who testified that they saw a combatant with the alias “Angel Gabriel” commit atrocities in Waterside Market area of Monrovia and in villages in Lofa County in Liberia’s north.
In Freetown the Finnish Court seeks to probe questions about Massaquoi’s whereabouts during the last period of Liberia’s civil conflict from 2001-2003. Many witnesses have claimed Massaquoi committed crimes in Waterside in 2003. The trouble for the prosecution case is that Massaquoi was supposedly under house arrest in Freetown in 2003 as a key informant in the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court convicted multiple perpetrators including former Liberian President Charles Taylor with whom Massaquoi was close during the civil conflicts in both countries.
Sources have told New Narratives that Massaquoi’s detention in Freetown at the time was not tightly secured. They believe it was very possible that Massaquoi could have moved between the two countries without trouble. This may be one of the avenues prosecutors seek to explore during the Freetown hearings.
Massaquoi is being prosecuted in Finland for war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Liberia. Massaquoi was a Lieutenant-Colonel of the RUF and an assistant to the rebel group’s founder, Foday Sankoh, during the Sierra Leonean Civil War. In 2005, he was granted immunity from prosecution for crimes in Sierra Leone in return for his testimony in the war crimes trials in Sierra Leone.
Finland granted Massaquoi residency for his role in the Sierra Leone Special Court. But when Civitas Maxima, of Switzerland and Liberia-based Global Justice Research Project, presented Finnish investigators with evidence of Massaquoi’s war crimes in Liberia, they charged him in March 2020 for his role in that war.
The court in Sierra Leone has been set up in a similar way to that in Monrovia but will see a traditional style of African fabric spread on the tables. Detective Elfgren disclosed that the Finnish Justice Ministry requested his team to set up both courts the same way. Elfgren said that in order to make up for the time lost to illness, the court intends to interview 19 witnesses over a week and a half.
Elfgren said he was pleased to see Liberian reporters had traveled to Sierra Leone to cover the trial and hoped that they would stay for the duration.
“We very much understand that the delay of the proceedings has caused embarrassment to the media in arranging their work, but it is my appeal that the Liberia Media remain here until the end of the hearings because it is extremely important to know that whatever happens in this courtroom, will be taken to Finland for the judgment of Massaquoi.”
Elfgren also answered concerns that the trial could be interrupted by Ramadan and prevent some Muslim witnesses from testifying.
“Some of the witnesses are Muslims, and we are going to respect their religion and the rights to partake but we will have some witnesses who are Christian and are testifying so there would be no interfering with the hearings,” he said.
Massaquoi’s trial began on February 1 in the city of Tampere, where he had been living. Rather than transport dozens of witnesses set to testify to Finland in the midst of a pandemic, the Finnish court traveled to the witnesses.
As in Monrovia, the hearings in Freetown are being undertaken in a secret location to protect the witnesses from intimidation. Witnesses’ identities will also be withheld.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
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