Liberian warlord on trial in Switzerland

Liberians calling for the establishment of a War and Economic Crimes Court during a peaceful protest in front of the US Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, in 2018. Credit: EPA/Ahmed Jallanzo

A former Liberian warlord became the first person to be tried in a Swiss civilian court for war crimes last week.

Alieu Kosiah, who is the first Liberian to face trial for war crimes committed during the country’s first civil war between 1989 and 1996, according to Human Rights Watch, is accused of atrocities including the killing of civilians, rape and the recruitment of child soldiers.

What is Kosiah accused of? Appearing in court on Friday, Kosiah testified to being commander of the rebel faction ULIMO, which notoriously recruited child soldiers and inflicted heinous crimes on rural populations throughout Lofa County in northwest Liberia.

A teenager himself when the conflict began, Kosiah is alleged to have killed or been involved in the killing of 18 civilians, desecrating a corpse and rape, among other crimes. In a particularly gruesome allegation, he has also been charged with acts of cannibalism, including eating parts of a victim’s heart. Kosiah denies all the charges.

Why is he on trial in Switzerland? The rebel commander was put on trial at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona on Thursday after six years of detention and multiple postponements due to Covid-19, which also prevented any of his alleged victims from attending the trial.

Kosiah fled to Switzerland in 1984, where he married a Swiss woman and lived as a resident for 20 years before he was arrested in 2014. His arrest came after the Swiss civil rights group Civitas Maxima, based in Geneva, presented the Swiss attorney general with evidence of his involvement in war crimes. The organisation has worked with the Global Justice and Research Project in Liberia since 2012 to document crimes committed during the country’s civil wars.

Switzerland recognises the principle of universal jurisdiction, which means that people suspected of committing high-profile crimes against international law elsewhere can be tried in its courts, regardless of the accused’s nationality. It is based on the principle that serious crimes such as war crimes, genocide and torture harm the international community or international order itself, which individual States may act to protect.

Changes in Swiss law in 2011 meant that responsibility for such international crimes was transferred from the military to the civil justice authorities, namely the office of the attorney general of Switzerland, which set up a war crimes unit.

Kosiah’s case is the first to be brought to trial since the change of law. Swiss NGOs, former federal prosecutors and members of parliament have criticised judicial officials in Switzerland for lagging behind other countries in addressing serious crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, citing a lack of political will and undue delays.

The current proceedings are due to end on December 11, with the court having decided to only proceed with the preliminary questions and hearing of the defendant. The rest of the trial has been postponed to February 2021.

Why is his trial important? A handful of other cases have been brought to international courts, but no Liberian has ever been convicted of crimes committed in Liberia during the country's consecutive civil wars from 1989-96 and 1999-2003, during which an estimated 250,000 people were killed. Liberians were also notoriously subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence, mutilation and torture.

Liberia has never prosecuted anyone for war crimes committed during the two wars. However, authorities in the United States, Belgium, France and the United Kingdom have pursued criminal cases related to Liberia in recent years.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was tried and convicted in April 2012 of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, committed from 1996 to 2002 during the course of the civil war in Sierra Leone, Liberia's neighbour. He was sentenced to 50 years in jail by the Special Court of Sierra Leone at the Hague in 2006.

Why haven't more Liberians been tried for war crimes? In 2008, Liberia held a post-war truth and reconciliation commission which recommended amnesty for a number of people connected to the civil war for admitting their crimes and expressing remorse. Many more, however, were recommended for prosecution.

Among those are leaders who still hold positions of power, meaning victims are afraid to come forward. For example, Prince Johnson, whose rebels captured and brutally killed President Samuel Doe in September 1990, has been a senator for Nimba County since the first post-war election of 2005.

Current President George Weah, who is not believed to have taken part in the war, has shown no interest in a war crimes court, despite calls from Liberian and international human rights advocates to request United Nations assistance to create one.

What could the implications be? The case will be watched closely by human rights groups both in Liberia and around the world, who argue that crimes committed during the civil war must be tried. The outcome will likely set a precedent for future cases. For example, former Liberian president Taylor, who is currently imprisoned in the UK, could also be tried for atrocities committed in his home country.

“Universal jurisdiction laws are a key backstop against impunity for heinous abuses, especially when no other viable forum for justice exists,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch in a statement. “The start of the Kosiah trial moves victims closer to accountability in a credible process for the crimes committed against them during Liberia’s civil wars.”