The trial of a suspected warlord accused of murder, aggravated war crimes and aggravated crimes against humanity during Liberia’s civil war has started in Finland.
Gibril Ealoghima Massaquoi, 51 years old from Sierra Leone, was commander and spokesperson for the notorious Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) that fought in Liberia from 1999 to 2003.
An estimated 250,000 people were killed in the Liberian conflict, which was intertwined with the war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.
The RUF was known for atrocities such as hacking off the limbs of civilians, as well as murder and rape.
Among the crimes Massaquoi is accused of are killing civilians and soldiers who had just been disarmed, rape and recruiting child soldiers.
He denied all the charges and said he was engaged in peace talks when the alleged crimes happened, giving evidence to the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone set up to investigate war crimes committed in that conflict.
He was relocated to Finland in 2008 as part of a witness protection programme, which provided immunity for crimes committed in Sierra Leone, but not Liberia.
In March, he was arrested in the Finish town of Tampere, where he is standing trial.
The AFP news agency reports it has seen court documents which contend he held an “extremely senior and influential position” in the RUF, one of the main militias fighting alongside President Charles Taylor’s NPFL forces in Liberia.
According to witnesses, he ordered civilians, including children, to be locked inside two buildings, which were then set on fire.
In another alleged atrocity, Prosecutor Tom Laitinen says, “Some of his victims’ bodies were cut up and made into food which Massaquoi also ate”.
Prosecutors have demanded a life sentence, which, in Finland tends to mean 14 years imprisonment, reports AFP.
The court will move to Liberia and neighbouring Sierra Leone in the next few weeks, to hear testimony from up to 80 witnesses and visit sites where the atrocities are alleged to have been carried out under Massaquoi’s orders.
This makes it the first such case to be partly held on Liberian soil, although Massaquoi will remain in Finland.
Former Liberian President Taylor was convicted by an international criminal court in 2012 of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but that was in connection with the conflict in Sierra Leone. He is serving his 50-year sentence in a prison in the UK.
His son “Chuckie” Taylor was sentenced to 97 years in prison in a US federal court in 2009 for torturing and killing people while he was the head of Liberia’s anti-terrorist services.
Ex-warlord Mohammed “Jungle Jabbah” Jabateh has been jailed for 30 years in the US for lying about his past as a leader of a force that carried out multiple murders and acts of cannibalism while Alieu Kosiah went on trial last year in Switzerland. (Source: BBC)