Finnish judges are in Liberia for Gibril Massaquoi's landmark war crimes trial

"My father was shot dead before my eyes, right in front of this building. I can never forgive my dad's killer".

Sierra Leonean national Gibril Massaquoi at the first day of his trial at the Pirkanmaa District Court in Tampere, Finland, on 3 February 2021. Picture: Kalle Parkkinen / AFP

KAMATAHUN - Finnish judges began touring northern Liberia on Thursday as part of a first-of-a-kind trial of a warlord accused of committing atrocities during the country's civil war.

They are in the West African state to gather witness testimonies for a case against Gibril Massaquoi, a former senior member of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a Sierra Leone rebel group that also fought in Liberia.

Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean national, has lived in Finland since 2008, but was arrested there in March last year after a rights NGO investigated his war record.

A case against the 51-year-old began on February 3 in the northern European country, where he is accused of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1999 and 2003.

But in a historic move, the Finnish judges are also hearing evidence on Liberian soil -- the first time war-crime proceedings have taken place in the country.

Around a quarter of a million people were killed between 1989 to 2003 in a conflict marked by brutal violence and rape, often carried out by child soldiers.

Judges visited the northern village of Kamatahun on Thursday, an AFP journalist saw, and were due to continue on to the nearby village of Yandohun.

Fighters under Massaquoi's command are accused of committing atrocities in both places.

In Yandohun, people told AFP that they welcomed the trial. Fighters torched the village in the 1990s, they said, and took away residents for forced labour in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Decades later, a dilapidated youth centre in the village still bears bullet holes.

"My father was shot dead before my eyes, right in front of this building," said Kerfah Kamara, 27. "I can never forgive my dad's killer".

Daouda Moimina, another villager, said he had been was kidnapped but survived the ordeal. He said many captives died.

Moimina also pointed to the one house in the village he said the fighters spared. It was scrawled with the warlike slogan "no die, no rest" -- meaning that only death brings respite.

"The killers were living in this house. That's why they didn't burn it," he said.

Murder and torture

Finnish court documents consulted by AFP detail a litany of accusations of abuse committed or ordered by Massaquoi, including murder, rape, torture, enslavement and using child soldiers.

Atrocities against civilians were common during the war, with drugged-up fighters chopping off people's limbs.

The judges will gather testimonies in the capital Monrovia next week.

In Kamatahun, according to the court documents, witnesses said fighters raped at least seven women in a raid, and killed and dismembered some other villagers, whom they ate.

Massaquoi insists he was involved in peace negotiations elsewhere in the region at the time.

Judges, and lawyers for the defence and the prosecution, inspected Kamatahun and took photos, accompanied by local officials, according to an AFP journalist.

"The purpose of us being here is to show the court places where witnesses say things happened," Finnish state prosecutor Tom Laitenen told journalists.

'Monumental precedent'

Very few people have faced trial for war crimes committed in Liberia, and none inside the country itself.

There are regular appeals to establish a war-crimes tribunal in the poor nation of 5 million people, where some ex-warlords remain powerful figures. President George Weah has resisted the calls, however.

A handful of Liberians, including former warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor, have nonetheless been tried and convicted outside the country.

Massoqui himself provided evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2003, for the separate civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

The former RUF member received legal immunity for his role in Sierra Leone's conflict in exchange for his evidence, and subsequently moved to Finland.

But he did not receive immunity for his alleged actions in Liberia, and Finnish police opened investigations in 2018 after a probe by rights group Civitas Maxima.

The group said in a statement this month that prosecuting Massoqui is a "groundbreaking step towards justice for the many victims of Liberia’s civil wars".

Crucially, Finnish law allows the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad by a citizen or resident.

Civitas Maxima added that the judges travelling to Liberia could set a "monumental precedent in the ongoing struggle for accountability for the world’s worst atrocities crimes".

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