GENEVA – A former Liberian warlord was convicted of war crimes, including murder, cannibalism and the use of child soldiers in a Swiss criminal court on Friday – the first conviction specifically for atrocities in Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003. A quarter of a million people have died.
The court found the former warlord, Alieu KosiahD., 46, is guilty of 21 of the 25 counts against him, including ordering the killing of 13 civilians and two unarmed soldiers, and the murder of four other civilians, as well as rape, cruel treatment of civilians, and the use of child soldiers in armed hostilities. Mr Kosiah, a former leader of the United Movement for the Liberation of Liberia for Democracy, or Limo, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed under Swiss law.
“This is a landmark ruling, not only because it is the first war crimes conviction against a Liberian commander, but because it shows that it is possible to persuade a court with the testimony of victims, even nearly 30 years after the facts,” said Alan Werner. , director of the Geneva-based legal organization Civitas Maxima, which was instrumental in the arrest of Mr. Kosiah and which represented some of the plaintiffs.
Switzerland recognizes universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of serious crimes committed in other countries. The trial, in the Alpine town of Bellinzona, was the first time that Swiss federal courts have prosecuted war crimes in nearly a decade since they took over jurisdiction from military courts.
For the victims who waited seven years for the case to reach court and traveled to Switzerland to testify, Mr Werner said, the judges’ ruling was “a beautiful victory for their courage, resilience and pursuit of justice”.
Human rights groups also considered the trial a landmark event for both Liberia and Switzerland. None of the perpetrators of Liberian atrocities faced trial in Liberia despite President George Weah’s repeated vague expressions of his willingness to establish a war crimes tribunal for this purpose.
In a trial that lasted more than a month, the court heard harrowing testimony about the summary executions and torture of civilians during Liberia’s first civil war and how Mr. Kosiah forced Liberians to make arduous journeys as porters, carrying the looted goods from their farms and villages.
A woman testified via videotape from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, that Mr. Kosiah repeatedly raped her. Witnesses also described how an aide to Mr. Kosiah, known as the Ugly Boy, opened a teacher’s chest in the church and tore and cut his heart out, which he, Mr. Kosiah and their associates then ate.
Mr Kosiah was living in Switzerland when he was arrested in November 2014 and has already spent six years in pretrial detention, which will be deducted from his sentence. Upon his eventual release, he would be expelled from Switzerland for 15 years.
Lawyers and human rights groups hope this conviction will revitalize international investigations and prosecutions for other war crimes, likely even within Liberia.
Mr. Kosiah’s trial is one of several cases to pass through European courts on the basis of universal jurisdiction. A Finnish court is trying another case involving judges’ travel to remote villages in Liberia and to Sierra Leone to hear testimony in the trial of Gabriel Masakwe, a former prominent member of the Sierra Leone rebel group that fought in Liberia.
France announced in April Next year, Kunti Kumara, another former ULIMO commander, who is also accused of murder, torture, rape and other atrocities, will go on trial.
Philip Grant, director of TRIAL International, another Swiss-based legal group that seeks internationally, said the discrepancy between prosecuting war crimes perpetrators outside Liberia and the lack of justice within the country has put increasing pressure on the Liberian leadership to do more to hold perpetrators accountable. crimes.
Legal organizations hope the outcome of this case will also spur change in Switzerland, where lawyers say the image of a country where the Geneva Conventions were established contrasts with a poor record in prosecuting international crimes.
Switzerland was an early actor in international justice issues. It prosecuted a Rwandan war crime suspect in 1999, the first case of its kind outside of Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and in 2011 it adopted a law allowing universal jurisdiction cases to be pursued.
But federal authorities have provided only scant manpower and funding for what are usually long, complex and costly investigations, and lawyers say Switzerland has fallen far behind in recent years from other European countries.
“If you have to rely only on government authorities, very little will happen,” said Mr. Grant. “Without NGOs and civil society organizations, these cases would not be anywhere.”