Recent arrests of two Liberian war crimes suspects in Belgium and Switzerland are historic, says a lawyer defending victims. They have also reignited debate in Liberia over justice for the victims of that country’s civil war.
“These arrests are historic for several reasons,” says Alain Werner, who represents victims in the Swiss case of former militia leader Alieu Kosiah and is also head of the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima, which helped get National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) ex-commander Martina Johnson arrested in Belgium. “There have never before been any arrests in Europe for suspected war crimes committed during the Liberian civil war by Liberians. There was one prosecution in The Netherlands for war crimes during the Liberian war but it was not against a Liberian citizen. In Liberia, there has been nothing at all. Before the efforts we made with our Liberian colleagues, there was almost total impunity. There was just one successful conviction in the US in 2008 of Chuckie Taylor (son of ex-president Charles Taylor) for torture committed in the Liberian war.”
Werner says it will also be historic in Switzerland if Kosiah’s case is brought to trial, since Swiss courts have not tried any war crimes cases since Rwandan Fulgence Niyonteze, who was sentenced in 2000 by a Swiss military court to 14 years in jail. Kosiah would be tried under a new Swiss law, entailing trial before a non-military court (the Federal Criminal Tribunal of Bellinzona).
Swiss legal advocacy group Civitas Maxima helped bring the cases against both suspects, working with the Liberia-based Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP). The GJRP was founded by ex-journalist Hassan Bility, who was tortured under the regime of former Liberian president Charles Taylor.
Bility says the European arrests got very wide coverage in the Liberian media. “It re-ignited the debate on justice for victims who suffered at the hands of warring factions during the Liberian civil war,” he told JusticeInfo. “As for the Government, it was mute. No comments at all, which is understandable. Having trashed the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) report, which recommended war crimes trials, and being heavily supported by the international community, especially the US and Western European countries, it could not risk making comments that would be deemed anti-justice in the eyes of its patrons in the West.”
He says the two suspects are well-known in Liberia “because of their activities during the civil war. Martina Johnson, infamously for a botched 1992 attack on Monrovia called Operation Octopus. This operation was intended to seize Monrovia by force. And Alieu Kosiah, for the suffering - allegedly murder, torture, forced labor- he inflicted on the people of Lofa County, in northern Liberia”.
Johnson is said to be a former close aide of Liberian ex-president Taylor, who is currently serving a 50-year sentence in the UK for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Taylor was convicted by the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, which was set up to deal with the aftermath of that country’s civil war. He was tried in Europe, at the premises of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, after current Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf asked for the trial to be moved from the region for security reasons.
Liberia’s civil war lasted over a decade, from 1989 to 2003, with a brief respite in fighting when Taylor was elected president in 1997. But by 1999, factionalism had ended the short peace period. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), 250,000 people were killed and one-third of the country’s population was displaced during the civil war. The war began when an armed rebel group led by Charles Taylor took much of the countryside by force, and tried in 1992 to seize the capital Monrovia.
The war had a strong ethnic component and was characterized by gruesome violence. Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) intentionally targeted Liberian civilians of certain ethnic groups, and many of his fighters were children. Taylor’s government and the rebel groups fighting the government were responsible for human rights abuses like forced recruitment of children, forced labour, summary executions, assault and sexual violence against civilians, according to Human Rights Watch. Civil society actors and journalists were frequently imprisoned and tortured.
Martina Johnson was arrested in Belgium in September 2014 and charged with crimes against humanity. She was a commander in Taylor’s NPFL, and is suspected in particular of participating in “Operation Octopus”, an infamous 1992 NPFL attack on the Liberian capital Monrovia which left scores of civilians dead. She is said to be sick, and to have a sick child. In October 2014, Johnson was released from jail and put under house arrest, but is still under investigation in Belgium. She must wear an electronic bracelet and is consigned to her home, although she may be authorized to leave for medical appointments.
Alieu Kosiah, a former commander in the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO), was arrested in November 2014 in Switzerland, suspected of crimes committed in Liberia between 1993 and 1995, especially killings targeting civilians in the Lofa district of northwest Liberia. He is in provisional detention.
Impunity in Liberia
Although there was heated debate in Liberia after the civil war about the possibility of setting up a war crimes court, there have so far been no national trials. Suspects deported from the US have not been prosecuted in Liberia, and human rights defenders say some of their witnesses have been intimidated.
Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) operated between 2006 and 2009. It was tasked with investigating gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law as well as other abuses, including economic crimes, committed between January 1979 and October 14, 2003. The Commission also had the power to investigate crimes committed prior to 1979 upon applications from individuals or groups.
The Commission’s final report is perhaps best known for recommending that 49 people, including the current President, be banned from political office for their role in the conflict. It included the names of over 100 people recommended for prosecution for international crimes. The report also recommended the establishment of an extraordinary tribunal and a domestic criminal court to prosecute those responsible for atrocities and crimes during the war, the creation of a Reparations Trust Fund, and the promotion of women’s and children’s rights in response to the widespread use of sexual violence and child soldiers.
“The Truth Commission recommended, among other things, that people named in the report as key perpetrators of the bloodletting should be barred from political activities for 30 years,” says Monrovia-based journalist Wellington Geevon Smith. “At the time the report was finalized and submitted to the President, several major actors in the war had already found their way into government as elected officials.”
One example, he says, is “Prince” Johnson, whose forces captured and slaughtered ex-president Samuel Doe. General Johnson was voted Senator in the 2005 election and was re-elected in December 2014 for another nine years.
Abdullai Kamara, head of the Press Union of Liberia, says one of the reasons Liberians, including victims, still elect former warlords to power is fear. "There are many reasons including fear, because the perpetrators are still masquerading around here," he told JusticeInfo. “It will take some time for our people to understand."
While Kamara said there seemed to be a “real lack of commitment from the government to bring to book perpetrators”, he expressed some concern about international trials. "When violators are tried outside the country, they are given too much opportunities and benefits," he said. “For example, Mr. Taylor was watching the World Cup freely while his victims back home were paying money to see the play".
So what happens now?
Bility thinks most people in Liberia would like to see Johnson and Kosiah tried in Europe. “An overwhelming majority of the people would welcome the trials in Europe because of their lack of confidence in the Liberian judicial system,” he says. “People think the judiciary is under serious political pressure.”
Nervertheless, he says Kosiah’s arrest is controversial among the suspect’s Mandingo ethnic group. “The Mandingo people see themselves as victims,” he told JusticeInfo, “and therefore find it difficult to conceive the thought that one of them might have committed war crimes.”
Civitas Maxima director Werner thinks Liberian extradition requests for the two suspects are “highly unlikely” and in any case would be unlikely to succeed, given the known constraints of the Liberian justice system and the fact that no war crimes cases have yet been brought to trial in that country. Given the procedures, he hopes that Johnson and Kosiah can be brought to trial in Belgium and Switzerland respectively, probably in 2016.
A major question is whether Liberian authorities are willing to cooperate with Swiss and Belgian investigations on their territory. If trials take place, there will also be the issue of bringing witnesses from Liberia and providing them with adequate protection measures where necessary.