War crimes round-up: Liberian civil war rebels on trial again, survivor testifies against Gambian ‘death squad’
Geneva Solutions’s monthly “war criminal hunt”, in collaboration with the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima.
The first month of 2023 has been an indicator of how universal jurisdiction is gaining ground globally with every passing year. In Switzerland, the appeal proceedings against Liberian former rebel commander Alieu Kosiah began in a case that has represented many firsts. It was the first time ever that a Liberian national was tried for war crimes connected to the country’s civil wars and that the Swiss Federal Criminal Court held a war crimes trial. The appeal trial also brings new milestones as it considers crimes against humanity for the first time in a Swiss court. Lawyer Romain Wavre and I are representing four of the seven plaintiffs in the case.
- Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima
Cases against Liberian civil war crimes continue
The atrocities of the Liberian civil wars that cost roughly 250,000 lives between 1989 and 2003 were back in the spotlight this month. Two former rebels appeared in court in Finland and Switzerland under the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes against humanity regardless of when, where and by whom they were committed.
The appeal trial against former lieutenant-colonel and spokesperson Gibril Massaquoi of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) - a Sierra Leonean group that had close ties with Charles Taylor - began on 10 January in Turku, Finland. In April 2022, a lower court had dismissed charges against Massaquoi for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including homicide, sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers, arguing “reasonable doubt” that he took part in those acts.
The appeal trial is set to continue in Liberia on 6 February and will probably go until June. Civitas Maxima and its Liberian sister NGO, the Global Justice and Research Project, had submitted the initial information about Massaquoi’s alleged involvement to the Finnish authorities.
Meanwhile, a Liberian former rebel commander is seeking to overturn Switzerland’s first-ever war crimes ruling. Alieu Kosiah, former United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) commander was convicted to twenty years in prison in June 2021 by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court for war crimes, which included, ordering and committing the murder of civilians, rape and cannibalism, during the first Liberian civil war that ran between 1989 and 1997. Kosiah is the first Liberian to be tried for war crimes perpetrated during the conflict. Another Liberian rebel leader was found guilty of crimes against humanity and torture by a court in Paris in November 2022.
Kosiah’s appeal trial opened in Bellinzona on 11 January and is expected to end on 3 February. Alain Werner, director of Civitas Maxima, is representing four of the plaintiffs who came to Switzerland to testify.
Massacre survivor testifies against Gambian death squad member
Martin Kyere, a Ghanaian who escaped from the killing of an estimated 59 fellow African migrants in Gambia in 2005, testified before a German criminal court on 19 January. The court in the city of Celle is currently trying the suspected driver of the “Junglers” death squad, Bai L., for complicity in crimes against humanity relating to murder, under the principle of universal jurisdiction. Kyere has been rallying victims' families across Ghana to seek justice.
The trial, in which Geneva-based Trial International is one of the human rights groups involved in the case, is the first ever to prosecute crimes committed in the Gambia during the 20-year rule of former President Yahya Jammeh.
The witness’s lawyer, Peer Stolle, said Kyere’s testimony would again “illustrate the widespread nature of the attack against the civilian population as ordered by President Jammeh, and executed by the Junglers”.
The death squad, known as the “Junglers” allegedly worked under the orders of Jammeh, who has been living in exile in Equatorial Guinea since 2017. International rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have launched the campaign “Jammeh2Justice” calling for the end of impunity for the former president’s actions.
Progress in France in Rwandan genocide cases
A Rwandan doctor employed in a French hospital will be tried before a court in Paris between 13 November and 22 December 2023, the Collectif des Parties Civiles pour le Rwanda (CPCR) confirmed. The physician, Sosthène Munyemana, is charged with allegedly committing genocide during the Rwandan civil war in 1994, when roughly 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority, were killed. It has been 28 years since the initial complaint was filed against him, on 18 October 1995.
A second trial against a Rwandan doctor, who was also practicing in France, will go ahead before a French court, after his appeal was rejected by the highest criminal court . Eugène Rwamucyo, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia by a Rwandan court in 2007 but whose extradition was rejected by a French court in 2010, will be tried for crimes against humanity and genocide.
Two further cases, against Rwandans Claude Muhayimana and Laurent Bucyibaruta, are also expected to be heard by a Paris court in 2023, but the trials have not been scheduled yet.
What else happened in January?
Biden signs war crimes act. Greenlighted by Congress in December, the so-called Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act allows US courts to prosecute war crimes regardless of when and where the crimes were committed. The new act represents a major step against the impunity of international law criminals, for whom the United States might have served as a safe haven in the past.
Ukraine convicts Russian soldiers. Four members of Russia’s special forces pleaded guilty to committing torture in the Ukrainian region of Kharkiv before a Ukrainian criminal court on 23 January. The soldiers, convicted to 11 years of prison in December 2022, may benefit from a prisoner exchange.
Appeals trial against Iranian ex-official opens in Sweden. Hamid Nouri, who had received a life sentence for war crimes and murder by a Swedish criminal court in July 2022, appeared in court again on 11 January. Nouri allegedly took part in mass killings of political prisoners in 1988 that were allegedly overseen by secret tribunals that included Iran’s current president Ebrahim Raisi, at the time one of four of their judges. Tehran has labeled the trial a “sham” as it comes amid renewed international outcry for violently quashing dissent and executing protesters.
German foreign minister calls for ‘aggression’ tribunal. Speaking before the Hague Academy on 16 January, Annalena Baerbock called for a strengthening of international law and the International Criminal Court, amidRussia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Because Russia is not a state party to the ICC, the court currently does not have jurisdiction to try its leadership for the crime of aggression. Baerbock called for the creation of a special tribunal that would derive its jurisdiction from Ukrainian law but would receive international financial and personal aid at a location outside of Ukraine.
Civitas Maxima is a Geneva-based NGO that facilitates the documentation of international crimes, and pursues the redress of such crimes on behalf of victims who do not have access to justice. Founded in 2012 by human rights lawyer Alain Werner, it most notably represented victims in landmark cases for atrocities committed during the Liberian civil wars.