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

Massaquoi trial: Finnish court goes to deepest Liberia

Arriving in Liberia on February 15, Finnish judges, prosecutors, and lawyers spent their first week visiting sites where Gibril Massaquoi, a former rebel commander from Sierra Leone, allegedly committed crimes against humanity. They went through sometimes epic events in the heart of the Liberian forest before hearings start in Monrovia on Tuesday, February 23.

The Finnish court convoy on tracks ravaged by the last rainy season in the Voinjama region on 19 February 2021. © Thierry Cruvellier / JusticeInfo.net
8 min 3Approximate reading time

Muddy dirt tracks pitted by unseasonal rain, vehicles stuck in mud at night, clouds of laterite dust, blazing sun, mechanical breakdowns, invasions of carnivorous ants and winged termites, interminable journeys and learning about endless time, urban misery and tension: in just a few days the Finnish court, which has come to Liberia to hold a major part of Gibril Massaquoi’s trial, got a concentrated experience of what travelling and living can mean in this small West African country.

Of course the judges, prosecutors and lawyers did not have to endure all this on foot, by motorcycle or in a crowded collective cab with no air conditioning. Of course they did not have to sleep in a mud hut without water or electricity. Some experiences to understand the lives of others are probably more about ethnology than judicial work. But from February 17 to 21, the court trying Massaquoi - a former Sierra Leonean rebel commander arrested in Finland in March 2020 and charged with serious crimes committed in Liberia – certainly felt they had their "discovery of Africa," in the words of French writer and playwright Raymond Cousse, without the feeling of despair.

Ever since it was seized of this case, the Finnish judiciary has been convinced of the need to come here to better accomplish its task, to “show the court and see for myself the sites”, as prosecutor Tom Laitinen put it. “It’s difficult to imagine the circumstances and the environment where it took place. It helps to understand the case,” he added. "It's very helpful to get familiar with the case and to get a little idea of what we're talking about,” defence lawyer Kaarle Gunmerus agreed.

A concentrated African adventure

At 8 am on Wednesday February 17, the four judges, two prosecutors, one defence lawyer (the second has remained in Finland with the accused), chief of investigations, another police officer and a young multi-tasked jurist boarded four all-terrain vehicles and left their luxury seaside hotel near the Liberian capital Monrovia, bound for the Voinjama region in Lofa County, in the far northeast of the country. Three and a half hours of asphalt road and then seven hours of track await them, if all goes well. This is an unprecedented adventure for all except the two policemen including Thomas Elfgren, who led the Finnish investigation from October 2018 to December 2020 and has been instrumental in this African journey.

After the rubber plantations and the long plain in the centre of the country, the convoy arrives at the important town of Gbarnga, where the good road stops. The Finnish taste of adventure does not yet extend to the culinary domain and only the youngest member of the team dares to taste the local dishes - grilled fish, plantains and cassava leaves in palm oil. The others make do with small, fragrant bananas and have brought along preserves and cookies. But the hours of red dirt track that follow will raise their spirits.

The weather is clement until Voinjama, a crossroads city near the country’s borders where it has been raining heavily since 1 pm. When the convoy finally gets close, night has fallen and the track has become a nice quagmire. In a few hours of this off-season storm, the track looks like in a monsoon. And while there are only a few kilometres left before Voinjama, an overloaded cab has got stuck across the track in a tricky spot. The convoy is stopped. Its passengers are left watching the fantastic chaos of the vehicles jammed around the bush cab, accompanied by the crackling of forest insects, headlights shining on the brown slush of the track and the green of the dense vegetation.

Among the seven in the judicial party, only the court president ventures out of his vehicle. With his feet in the mud, he is obviously amazed to find himself in the middle of such an unreal scene, before getting back in his four-wheel drive vehicle. Thomas Elfgren is in his element, wading in with the convoy’s drivers, who confidently drive the mobiled caravane through the obstacle, boldly sinking into a crevasse filled with water then pulling the cab from its predicament. For Finnish visitors, this is the African adventure. In the evening, in a large, clean and comfortable hotel overlooking the town of Voinjama, a sudden invasion of vicious ants and crazed flying insects crowns the experience. It’s as if everything had to be offered to these impromptu guests, without any bad consequences and in record time, so that they could immerse themselves in the realities of the Liberian population.

A Finnish court's 4x4 convoy stucked on a muddy track in Liberia.
Shortly before arriving in Voinjama, in the far north-east of Liberia, the Finnish court convoy was stopped in the middle of the night by a taxi stuck across the road after heavy rains. © Thierry Cruvellier / JusticeInfo.net

Physical evidence vanished

Twenty years ago, the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil wars were ravaging the sub-region, its population in the hands of various armed groups inflicting unprecedented violence on them, trapped in a war waged by poor people against poor people, in the heart of these vast and sumptuous forests that ignore any border between Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Lofa County was the kingdom of the Vanguards, Liberian fighters of former President Charles Taylor and their Sierra Leonean allies of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), of which Massaquoi was a member. Evidence of all this now seems to have vanished like a childish demonstration of war’s absurd futility. 

Today, as before those bad times, one can freely access along broken tracks these attractive mountainous landscapes topped with tall palms and ancient cotton trees, without seeing any trace of yesterday's cruelties. The day after their epic arrival, members of the Finnish court visited three sites of the crimes alleged in the case. There is nothing left that can evoke them. It takes each person's imagination to reconstruct the facts reported by witnesses. The exercise is a bit confusing from a criminal justice point of view, but it has an obvious interest for these Finnish judges, prosecutors and lawyers: to have a sensory and physical experience, fleeting but direct, of the environment and life of the Liberians they will be hearing for weeks, telling them a story they may not be well equipped to understand.

Different worlds meet

The villages of Kiatahun, Kamatahun Hassala and Kortuhun, near the Sierra Leonean border, were selected by the prosecutor. In each of these places, Tom Laitinen and his deputy Matias Loden remind the judges of the charges. Crimes that Massaquoi is accused of committing here include executions, rapes, setting fire to houses with their inhabitants inside, and cannibalism. Gunmerus, the defendant's attorney, spoke often and the judges more rarely. Everything was said in Finnish. This is a Finnish procedure, so everything must be recorded in the national language. This adds to the incongruity of the event. These five 4x4s - a vehicle of journalists was with the convoy - appearing in these poor, isolated villages in the heart of the tropical forest and the swift nature of their visit cannot fail to make one think, without malice, of the long, equivocal and eternally replayed history of the white man in Africa.

Every moment of this journey seemed to illustrate this impossible encounter between two worlds as foreign as they are unequal, one of which is rich enough to come and judge the other, while the other puts up with it with perplexed benevolence. And there was little doubt if it was the villagers or our white-skinned group who would emerge the most transformed.

The village of Kamahatun gets a Finnish lesson

The defence lawyer (left) and prosecutor (white T-shirt and black cap) debate before judges in Finnish in the village of Kamatahun Hassala, on the northeastern edge of Liberia, on 18 February 2021. © Thierry Cruvellier / JusticeInfo.net

Bridge over misery

Back in Monrovia after 13 more hours of travel from Voinjama, the court moved on the morning of Sunday, February 21 to Water Street in the downtown area of the capital near the Old Bridge, which is now the New Bridge. There, on a controversial date, more executions and rapes were reportedly carried out. Sunday allowed the members of the court to avoid the bustle and insecurity of a neighbourhood that is crowded on workdays, when they were told that they would probably not have survived the thieves and other professional tricksters. Along the seafront covered with garbage they were able to glimpse another universe, the miserable souls who survive in slums on the garbage heaps left to them by the big city.

These are now the images and sensations that the representatives of the Finnish justice system will have in mind when they begin to hear, this Tuesday February 23 and for many weeks to come, the witnesses of this Liberian story who have come knocking at their door by chance. "Now it’s so much more concrete,” says the deputy prosecutor.

Justice under Monrovia’s sun

Prosecutor Tom Laitinen briefed the court at a crime scene where Gibril Massaquoi is alleged of having committed crimes, on Water Street in downtown Monrovia, the Liberian capital, on February 21, 2021. © Thierry Cruvellier / JusticeInfo.net

Is there a finnish model?

The "Finnish model" has already shaken the conservatism of international and transnational justice. And this is not the first time that Finnish justice has applied it. Several actors in the trial of Gibril Massaquoi, a former rebel leader from Sierra Leone accused of crimes against humanity, already tested it in 2009 in the trial of Rwandan François Bazaramba, which seems to have gone unnoticed by experts in international justice. The head of investigations was already Thomas Elfgren, a veteran police officer who previously served at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The prosecutor was Tom Laitinen, in charge of the prosecution in the Massaquoi case. Defense attorney Kaarle Gumnerus has already acted in a similar manner in a war crimes case involving Iraqi twins, one of whom was suspected of murder in the service of Islamic State.

For Belgian and Swiss justice, the Finnish example is humiliating. Both have had to deal with a Liberian case. The Belgians still have not started a trial, almost seven years after opening the investigation; the Swiss have finally organized it more than six years after the accused was detained. Neither the Belgians nor the Swiss have set foot in Liberia. Only the French, who are investigating a Liberian arrested in 2018 have also investigated on the ground. The Finns completed their investigation in just over two years and carried out four long missions to the scene, three of them between the opening of the investigation in October 2018 and the arrest of Massaquoi in March 2020, and one after that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thomas Elfgren in Kamatahun (Liberia)
Head of investigations Thomas Elfgren speaks to members of the court, while the population of the village of Kamatahun Hassala stands by, on 18 February. © Thierry Cruvellier / JusticeInfo.net

A court of volunteers

How do you convince an entire court to spend two months in Liberia and Sierra Leone for hearings? In fact, everyone volunteered from the start. Judges, prosecutors and lawyers were informed at the outset that their work might require such a commitment. Of the 50 judges at the Tempere district court in southern Finland, four responded. They were all taken, since four judges (three plus one substitute) were needed.

While many international and national courts seized of serious crime cases have been claiming for the past year that their inertia is a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic, the small Finnish team - 14 people, including four police officers and two interpreters - is braving this time of immobility with insolence, without fanfare and without a show of pride. Even the reappearance of the Ebola virus in Forest Guinea, near Lofa County which the court members visited from February 17 to 19, could not deter them.

A low profile, pragmatism and simplicity characterize their approach. There was no national police escort to accompany their convoy in Liberia, no clear signs of security concerns. Only one person was missing: the accused, who remained in his prison in Finland. The style of this itinerant Finnish court would make it seem almost bland if it were not for the more swashbuckling presence of its master builder, policeman Elfgren, who abhors bureaucracy. The logistics are precise, the organization fluid and totally devoid of the arrogance and invasive pomp of visits to the field by UN courts or the International Criminal Court on the rare occasions when they ventured to do so.

All our articles about: