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Civitas Maxima puts students in the hot seat in mock war crimes trial

Students at Ecolint performing a war crime mock trail via zoom with Alain Werner from Civitas Maxima.a

Civitas Maxima, the Swiss NGO fighting for international justice, organised its first mock trial event on Zoom on Wednesday in partnership with Philanthropic Adventures, an educational platform, and the International School of Geneva. The trial took place in a fake country called Ulumalu and was carried out by a group of convinced and convincing students.

“This is Tobias Harris reporting for the Dailynews. I am outside the supreme court of Ulamalu. Today is a great day for justice as infamous Eagle Eyes, nom de guerre of Thomas Wolf Smith, will be tried for war crimes allegedly committed during the civil war that tore our country apart for 20 years.”

This was the kick off sentence of the first mock trial performed by 13 Ecolint students under the enthusiastic gaze of Alain Werner, a Swiss human rights lawyer and founder of Civitas Maxima, the Geneva-based NGO pursuing justice on behalf of victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, playing un unusual clerk.

The original idea came from Paola Genovese, founder of Philanthropic Adventures, an educational platform for young people to learn and find inspiration about social and environmental issues.

“We need to give a voice to our kids. They have a level of maturity that each time amazes me. They can really be part of the solutions that are available out there.”

Paola Genovese has already had such experiences with Voices of the Children and B8 of Hope: a win-win approach for the children who better understand the work of these NGOs and for the organisers who appreciate that the children become ambassadors for their cause.

“You did fantastically: we could feel the tempo, the tension, the drama, and the intensity that we feel as lawyers when we are in court,” said Werner to the students from the age of 15 to 17.

He started the hour-long zoom session by giving some context about his organisation’s work as lawyers and investigators and their involvement in the first-ever war crimes trial held in front of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona three weeks ago against Alieu Kosiah.

Read also: Liberian warlord on trial in Switzerland

The former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy rebel group is accused of rape, executions, cannibalism, and a host of other alleged crimes committed during the country’s long-running civil war in the 1990s.

“This is what we do for the victims and I can tell you the incredible impact of such a trial because I was with them in court to judge Alieu Kosiah’s terrible crimes. We are talking about murders, cannibalism, rape, recruitment of child soldiers.”

A mock trial based on real facts The Year 12 and 13 students, most of whom will be using this experience for the compulsory CAS (Creativity, Activity & Service) element of their International Baccalaureate, got hooked. When the six sessions scheduled for a March 2020 mock trial had to be stopped due to Covid, they insisted on starting again. Some of them, like India Tamari, playing the judge, dreamed of having such an experience once in their lives:

"I am passionate about law and social justice and as I want to become a judge, this was a perfect opportunity to take on this role and see the structure of a trial. Moreover, I was impressed by the reality of the facts, it was quite shocking. Alain Werner explained to us that each of them was real, that he had collected them through the testimonies. We were also very lucky that our sessions took place during the trial in Bellinzona. It felt like we were doing what was actually happening; it made the experience even more real.”

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Unfortunatly due to Covid-19's restrictions, the performance had to take place on zoom. (Credit: Philanthropic Adventure)

The fictional trial is indeed based on real facts that Alain Werner and his team witnessed in the field and that were scripted by members of the team.

“This is not exaggerated by any means”, said Werner. “This is just what we are experiencing with victims who we represent in all the proceedings all over the world.”

Civitas Maxima has used mock trials as a tool to raise awareness twice in Philadelphia in 2017 and 2018 related to war crimes in Liberia, and another with a theatre company in Liberia in 2019 to reach out to provinces and tell people, many who don’t even have cell phones, about their efforts to bring justice. A 30-minute long documentary on this effort, “Beyond Impunity”, was shown to the students to explain to them the importance of the process they were about to experience. Margaux Francioli, who played the prosecutor, said:

“The workshop really enlightened us on other countries that we aren't necessarily aware of like Liberia; we never really talk about smaller African countries that have suffered immensely… We heard some testimonies and people were talking about their own experiences which, for us, is impossible to even begin to understand and imagine what actually happened.”

The difference with reality This mock trial in a fake country like Ulumalu was portraying a winning scenario that Civitas Maxima is trying to achieve: a trial in the country where the crimes took place. In reality, Liberia has yet to prosecute anyone for the grave crimes committed during its armed conflicts.

Civitas Maxima, although happy with the trial in Bellinzona, which it described as “great for the victims and a first in Switzerland for international law”, would like to see justice in the concerned country for the sake of sound law and sound legal reasoning.

Another aspect missing was the fear experienced by the witness, who often take great risks in testifying and going back to their community. Werner said:

“This is common law, victims in a civil law system, hence the incredible courage. This is why it is our pride at Civitas Maxima to never let down our victims and even many years later we still look for their psychological and physical safety.”

An experience to move on Addressing the students, the lawyer reminded them of the importance of being ambassadors and the incredible impact of the media to raise awareness. He mentioned Liberian journalists and rising star Anthony Stevens, who was allowed in court despite Covid and was able to report back to Liberia from Bellinzona’s federal court. Werner said he is now considering replicating the experience in other schools:

“For three weeks, day in day out, they were in court reporting what was happening in Switzerland, the fact that there was a fair trial with a defense lawyer in due process, about those crimes, about their country… These students are probably the future elite in many sectors in the years to come. And this awareness, to understand that at their age is really valuable for them as citizens and for society.”

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Commenting on his experience at the end of the trial, Henri Demole, a student who played one of the witnesses, said:

“It always relates to kids and how other kids live in different conditions. Of course, we can look at it on the aspect of war crimes but the way I looked at it is that we live in a life where we go to school, wake up every morning, go in a car, have lunch and go on to some homework whereas some families in different countries -like the three witnesses of which I was one - were taken out of their homes, fed drugs and put out in the field to kill people. This raised awareness for all of us and I am sure some of us did not know that this really happens. We started to see things in a different perspective and we realised how lucky we are to live in an environment where we can reflect on how we can help.”

“This is the future,” Werner said. “That’s real education,” one of the parents added.