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First war crime trial in Switzerland postponed; Civitas Maxima determined to obtain justice

In April 2019, Alain Werner, Director of Civitas Maxima, was honoured as the recipient of “Bâtonnier Michel Halpérin prize for Excellence” Photo: Nicolas Braguinsky Cascini

Since 2012, Alain Werner, founder of Civitas Maxima, the Geneva-based Independent Legal Representation of Victims of War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity, has been relentlessly working for justice on behalf of the thousands of  Liberian victims of war crimes committed during the civil wars of 1989 and 1996 . With the arrival of Covid-19, there have been more unexpected twists and turns. Those included yesterday’s surprise decision by a Swiss Federal Court in Bellinzona to postone the first war crimes trial ever to be held in Switzerland - that of the Liberian rebel leader Alieu Kosiah. Werner describes it as a setback in “a journey that requires us to be ever ready to overcome challenges”.

Why was the trial of Alieu Kosiah postponed again?

Alieu Kosiah, leader of the rebel group ULIMO, is accused of war crimes ranging from slavery to murder, sexual violence and pillage. He arrived in Switzerland in early 2000. We filed a complaint in 2014 and he has been jailed in Bern since his arrest in November 2014. His trial was supposed to start this April in Bellinzona; it was postponed tentatively to August, and we indeed just learned that it will now possibly only take place at the end of the year. Obviously, we cannot say the victims we represent are happy about that as they have been waiting for years to obtain justice. But the court has to get about 15 Liberian victims and witnesses to testify somehow in Switzerland and with the current [Covid-19] situation it is obviously very complicated.

Why is this trial so important? First, this is historical for Switzerland as it will be the first ever war crime trial in front of the Swiss Criminal Federal Court (Tribunal Penal Federal). Secondly, for Liberia it will be the first time that one of their citizens is tried in a court of law for war crimes committed in Liberia, almost twenty years after the end of the civil war. So, this trial goes definitely in the right direction but it also shows that much more should be done when you think about the number of victims of the two Liberian civil wars.

This is a direct consequence of the lockdown on the course of justice, what other setbacks did you experience?

As for so many, Covid-19 had many concrete consequences for us. Our work is about going out, talking to witnesses, doing investigations, working with national authorities. The lockdown had an immediate effect: everything came to a halt on the ground. Then Thomas Woewiyu, a top lieutenant of [former Liberian president and convicted war criminal] Charles Taylor who had been found guilty in 2018 by a jury in Philadelphia for crimes related to the Liberian civil war, died from Covid-19. We had worked with the US prosecutors on that case and the victims  were waiting for the judge to decide for how many years he was going to be sentenced.

What have you learnt from this pandemic?

The more complicated things are, the more absolutely convinced I am that getting justice for victims of international crimes in our world today is fundamentally necessary.

Accountability matters more than ever?

In 2014, when Ebola struck in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, we witnessed a fundamental distrust of the people against the authorities. After more than a decade of civil war, some of the same politicians who had committed many crimes a few years back were telling people to ensure safe burial of corpses and other public health measures. If the government is never held accountable and therefore does not have the trust of the people, it becomes a very concrete problem when the same government needs people to follow tough health measures, unless of course you live under an authoritarian regime. International and humanitarian law are under attack like never before, as is the notion of international justice itself. But we believe that victims of international crimes are entitled to pursue justice and hold people accountable for what they did. And we will stand with the victims in their quest for justice, today more than ever before.

Your are releasing your Annual Report this week. What was the highlight of this past year?

Possibly the investigative mission the French judicial authorities managed to carry out in Liberia last year. Around 200,000 to 300 000 people died in the civil war in Liberia and almost 20 years after the end of the war there has been no justice for victims in Liberian courts. With our local Liberian partners we managed to bring cases to courts outside Liberia - in Europe and the US. But the crimes happened in Liberia and we believe that justice needs first to happen where the crimes were committed. For the first time after seven years of effort,the Liberian authorities finally allowed the French authorities in 2019 to investigate on their soil and talk to victims of war crimes in their country. It is a fundamental shift in Liberia, and proof that by bringing litigation outside, you can actually bring change in the way in which authorities of the country where the crimes were committed considerissues of justice and accountability for war crimes.

Why this turnaround?

Surely one important factor as we explain in our Annual Report is the rise of the voice of the people in Liberia. This is not an international court or the Western public telling them what to do but civil society rising up and influencing the government to act, after they saw that justice could be served for crimes that occurred in Liberia, by courts in Europe and the United States.

What keeps you going every morning?

This idea that accountability for mass crimes does actually matter. Launching Civitas Maxima back in 2012 was a gamble based on this very simple idea about accountability. We don’t do any advocacy, lobbying or reports. We are the only ones in the world focused solely on building criminal cases on behalf of victims of international crimes. We are not taking a single franc from governments and therefore we are entirely independent. In 2012, many in my field discouraged me to start this endeavour. But we grew from less than CHF 300 000 and two staff in 2012 to CHF 1.2 million and near 15 people, plus our 17 partners in Libera today. Our work contributed to seven arrests of alleged perpetrators in six different countries (Switzerland, Belgium, US, UK, France and Finland). We are investigating crimes committed in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast, on the ground, and we follow the evidence to pursue justice wherever and whenever possible, without geographical limits. This is our trademark, we work from the bottom up, and the achievements have been beyond expectations so far. I also believe our work is creating a very interesting blueprint, which can be replicated elsewhere.

The most important or moving moment of your career?

In Freetown, where I was working from 2003 to 2008 as a junior prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The civil war was of such unprecedented cruelty against the civilians. I interviewed many so-called “bush wives” (victims of very long sexual slavery), child soldiers and double amputees. The resilience and simplicity of those testimonies struck me with their great dignity. What they went through was difficult to comprehend, even for them, as they often experienced multiple waves of attack with extremely vicious crimes committed each time. Many were dignified but resolute; they wanted justice. It was simple but it was very strong. It resonated very deeply within me and formed an allegiance. Even if I had nothing in common with them, I then knew I would fight and dedicate my life to try to find justice for the victims of international crimes who want justice.