Special focus « The Massaquoi Affair: the Finnish model put to the test »

Massaquoi case: Finnish court of appeal arrives in Liberia

Finnish judges, prosecutors and lawyers are expected to arrive in the Liberian capital on 31 January. They are to stay for two months for the appeal trial of the former Sierra Leonean rebel commander, Gibril Massaquoi. Massaquoi was acquitted of all charges in the first instance trial in April 2022. This new trial is likely to be a carbon copy of the first.

Gibril Massaquoi: Finnish trial on appeal in Liberia
Two years after a first trip to Liberia, the Finnish justice system is preparing to return there to try Gibril Massaquoi again, who was acquitted at first instance in April 2022. © Thierry Cruvellier / Justice Info
3 min 33Approximate reading time

Two years almost to the day after a full Finnish court set foot in Liberia to try a former Sierra Leonean rebel for crimes against humanity and war crimes, Finnish judges, prosecutors and defence lawyers are back in the Liberian capital Monrovia. After the trial court acquitted Massaquoi, an appeal panel is due to land there on 31 January. For some of them, such as prosecutors Tom Laitinen and Matias Londen or defence lawyer Kaarle Gummerus, the place is familiar: they already spent many months there in 2021. For the new panel of judges, however, it is an unusual judicial adventure.

This appeal trial, which began in early January in Turku, on the southwest coast of Finland, is expected to be very similar to the one in 2021. Upon arrival, the entire court will travel to the northern part of the country, to the province of Lofa, where several scenes of the alleged crimes are located. It will then visit the scene of the alleged crimes in Monrovia, in the Waterside area of the city centre. On 6 February, the hearings will open in the same hotel in the suburbs of Monrovia as two years ago. The court plans to stay there for about two months, before returning to Turku in April, and leaving for a fortnight in Sierra Leone in May. That is if the timetable does not change between now and then, and if the Sierra Leonean authorities agree to the Finnish court's visit as part of a bilateral judicial assistance agreement.

No new evidence

Between these two trials, there has been no new investigation. According to prosecutor Laitinen, interviewed by Justice Info, exactly the same prosecution witnesses are expected to testify in Monrovia. There is no new evidence. Some witnesses, however, are no more. The 2021 statements of two of them, who have since died, were heard in Turku before the court left for West Africa. Others have not yet confirmed their agreement to testify again. The only new testimony requested by the prosecution will be that of a criminology expert, whose testimony is scheduled for 14 April in Turku.

The defence, for its part, is announcing some new witnesses, including former guards at the safe house of a UN tribunal where Massaquoi was officially staying in 2003, in the Sierra Leonean capital Freetown. The former head of witness protection of that UN court that sat in Sierra Leone between 2002 and 2013, Saleem Vahidy, whose testimony could not be heard at the first trial, is again on the list of witnesses scheduled for April.

Paula Sallinen, Massaquoi's second lawyer, cautiously announced that they would attack the case "bit by bit". "We are confident," she told Justice Info. "The trial court verdict is very meticulous, it is a bit easier to prepare because last time we had only police summaries" of witness statements.

Inevitably, there is the feeling that 2023 will be a repeat of 2021. However, there are some notable differences. The first, of course, is that this trial opens against the backdrop of a unanimous acquittal of the accused in the first instance. So Massaquoi will attend this second trial as a free man. This allows his two lawyers to be present in Monrovia while the accused will follow the hearings alone from a courtroom in Turku, in electronic contact with his counsels. There is also an important absence: Thomas Elfgren, the police officer who led all the investigations in this case and who, in 2021, acted as an omnipresent taskmaster for the logistical organisation of the hearings, access to witnesses and relations with the media, is now retired. This intriguing figure, an outspoken advocate of Massaquoi's guilt, used all his charisma to influence the interpretation of the testimonies given in court.

Prosecution theory

The style of Finnish justice is always marked by moderation and avoidance of dramatic statements. So prosecutor Laitinen weighs each word carefully: "We believe the events probably took place in Monrovia in the summer of 2003. We believe the events in Lofa probably took place in July-August 2001.” But the court can choose another date, he says. "We can't say we are going to win. We just disagreed on the findings of the trial court. It's more a question of how you should interpret the witness statements. The trial court said all witnesses were reliable, they didn't lie, but that the evidence was not sufficient. That's what we disagree on. That's why we have a new expert witness. How much can you demand from a witness, taking into account what they have experienced? That's the main reason why we have taken the case to appeal.”

The fact remains that the prosecution comes back to court with a historical and logistical theory that is considered far-fetched - at least for the crimes in Monrovia - by experts on the Sierra Leonean and Liberian conflicts of 20 years ago, as well as its theory on the singular path of Massaquoi, a former rebel commander who became a protected informant of the UN tribunal (which led to his being granted asylum in Finland and a complaint lodged by NGOs led to his arrest in 2020). But the prosecutor can still hope for judges who are less alert to certain historical realities or who are more sensitive to the relationship he wants to establish between trauma and the credibility of testimony.