FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – The hearings in the war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi got underway on Tuesday after a two week delay because of judges’ illness. The court, held at a secret location, as it had been in Monrovia, heard from three witnesses – a woman and two men. Defense and prosecution teams tried to establish whether Massaquoi could have been in Liberia to commit crimes in 2003 as many Liberian witnesses claimed but while Massaquoi was under witness protection in Freetown.
Report by Mae Azango, New Narratives Justice Correspondent
The second witness, codenamed “21”, to protect him from intimidation was called by the Defense team. A male he had been a close friend of Massaquoi whom he got to know him in 1999 after Massaquoi was freed from prison here. “21” said that Massaquoi told him he went to Liberia in 2001 for peace talks with President Charles Taylor to release some peacekeepers he adopted from Sierra Leone and that he stayed in Liberia for six months. He said he did not know whether Massaquoi went to fight in Liberia.
“When Massaquoi returned to Sierra Leone in 2001, he was contacted by the Sierra Leone Special Court to testify against former President Charles Taylor, so he could not go back to Liberia in 2002 because he was afraid for his life,” “21” told the court. “So he send me to get his woman and his daughter from Liberia in 2002 because he heard Taylor wanted him dead, just as he killed General Mosquito to stop him from testifying against him before the Special court. By then Gibril was under witness protection and the special court provided him security because he was giving them information, so they had to protect him.”
When asked to point out a traumatic event that made him believe that it was in 2002 he went to Liberia for Massaquoi’s family, he replied: “When I went for Massaquoi’s wife and child, I remembered it was 2002 because there was an attack at Clay Junction on that day between Charles Taylor’s forces and LURD forces, and I was caught up in between and I felt the fear, so I can remember that day very well.”
Defense lawyers are trying to establish that Massaquoi was in Sierra Leone in 2002 to 2003 under witness protection, and could not have been in Liberia that period to commit the atrocities alleged by over 60 witnesses in Liberia. Nineteen witnesses testifying before the Finnish Court in Freetown are all called by the defense lawyers defending Massaquoi in the ongoing trial in Finland.
The Finnish Court moved from Liberia to Sierra Leone after the hearings of over 60 witnesses there. Massaquoi is being prosecuted in Finland for war crimes and crimes against humanity 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, Massaquoi was granted immunity from prosecution for crimes in Sierra Leone in return for his testimony in the war crimes trials in Sierra Leone. Experts said he was instrumental in the convictions of several rebel leaders including former Liberian president Charles Taylor with whom he was close to during the civil conflicts in both countries.
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 arrested him in March 2020 for his role in that war.
Massaquoi’s trial began on February 1 in the city of Tampere, where he had been living. Rather than transport more than 50 witnesses set to testify to Finland in the midst of a pandemic, the Finnish court traveled to the witnesses.
The first witness, codenamed “18”, was a woman and a cousin to Masaquoi. She told the Finnish Court that she ran for office in 1999 and Massaquoi was a strategic family member on her campaign team along with family in their town called Blama Massaquoi in Sierra Leone’s Pujehun district.
She said Massaquoi was always in Freetown in 2002 and 2003 under witness protection.
“I met him in 2002 in Freetown, where he lived with his wife and children. I also met him in Freetown in 2003, but did not ask where he lived but we used to meet, at times we met at the center of the town, other times, in other parts of Sierra Leone when he used to call to meet me. But I cannot remember the time, in 2003 when I met him.”
But her testimony changed from one minute to the next. One minute she would say he was in Freetown in 2002 and 2003 and the next she would say he went to visit his mother in Sierra Leone bordering town Bo waterside.
“He was always in Freetown, but only used to go visit his mother in Bo waterside, bordering Liberia to spend a day of two with her and return to Freetown. He used to move around freely in Sierra Leone along with his friends,” she said.
As to if it was possible to for him to have crossed into Liberia, she said it was possible to cross in to Liberia but motor cars could not cross because ECOMOG was stationed there.
“If he had traveled to Liberia, I would have known because his wife or other close relative would have told me,” she said.
But “18” also helped the prosecution case with her clear understanding that Massaquoi faced no restrictions in his movement when he was under witness protection in 2002-2003. When she was asked if Massaquoi wanted to travel out of Freetown in 2003, and if anybody could stop him, she said nobody could stop him from traveling out of Freetown, because he was a free man.
As to whether she knew if he was under witness protection, she said he was a free man in Freetown who went out with friends.
“He never told me he was in a secure house, he only told me that they wanted him to testify against Charles Taylor, and he said some Liberian people were not satisfied about it, but did not say who wanted him to testify. I always thought of Massaquoi as a free man, because by then there was no war in Sierra Leone,” she said.
The third witness, codenamed “41” said he has known Massaquoi since 1991 when they joined the RUF together as junior commandos in Pujehun District. He said Massaquoi did not go to Liberia because he was afraid of General Mosquito.
“Massaquoi was in Freetown in 2002, but I was in prison by then, so I do not know if he took part in RUF activities outside of Freetown,” “41” told the court. “The Sierra Leone war was finished, in 2002 even the former President Kabba announced it in 2002, so how could RUF be present in Liberia or are you saying they were ex RUF rebels? Furthermore, Massaquoi took part in the 2002 general and Presidential elections, so how could he have been in Liberia?”
When the prosecution Lawyers started asking him more questions about the RUF leadership and ranks, he became impatient and blew up:
“Why are you asking me about RUF, I thought I was going to be asked about Massaquoi leading troops to Liberia to fight as the Finnish Police asked me two years ago? Why are you asking me about RUF activities and ranks, I am confused here because this was not what I was asked to speak about?” he said.
After the incident, the court adjoined without further comment. The trial continues on Wednesday.
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. The funder had no say in the story’s content.