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Finnish court upholds acquittal of Sierra Leonean warlord charged with war crimes

By admin Jan 31, 2024
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Finland’s Court of Appeal has affirmed a lower court’s acquittal of Gibril Massaquoi, an ex-commander of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), who was prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Liberia’s second civil war between 1999-2003, ending a marathon judicial process that began in 2021.

The court said it agreed with the judgment of the District Court of Pirkanma more than a year ago, that prosecutors did not prove that is was Mr Massaquoi who committed the crimes in the indictment, including murders, rape, torture, and recruitment of child soldiers “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“The Court of Appeal, like the District Court, found that it was not proven that Mr. Massaquoi was guilty of any of the offences he was charged with,” said the Court of Appeal in a release on Wednesday. “The Court of Appeal, on the grounds specified in the judgment, considered the identifications of Mr. Massaquoi as the perpetrator of the offences to be unreliable.”

Mr Massaquoi now stands to receive possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation for the nearly two years he spent in jail. The four-year judicial process cost the Finnish taxpayer between $US2-3 million.

Kaarle Gummerus, M Massaquoi’s lead lawyer says his client is happy with the ruling.

“Gibril Massaquoi is very satisfied with the court’s decision,” said Mr Gummerus by WhatsApp. “Throughout the trial, he has been confident that he would be found not guilty.”

Tom Laitinen, chief prosecutor in the trial, said the state was disappointed in the verdict.

“Yes, we are disappointed that we couldn’t convince the court of appeal to overturn the judgement by the district court,” said Mr Laitinen by WhatsApp. “We feel, however, that we did everything we could and that we had a fair trial. I can’t name anything specific that went wrong. The evidence we produced just wasn’t strong enough.”

Massaquoi with his lawyer joined the Liberian hearings through a video link
Massaquoi with his lawyer joined the Liberian hearings through a video link

Mr Massaquoi with his lawyer joined the Liberian hearings through a video link.

As with the original case, the question at the heart of the appeal was whether Mr Massaquoi had escaped the safehouse in Sierra Leone where he was in UN-backed witness protection as part of his deal with prosecutors to testify against Liberian President Charles Taylor and other RUF leaders in the trials of perpetrators of Sierra Leone’s civil war.

The prosecution claimed that he had escaped the safehouse and traveled back into Liberia to perpetrate atrocities in Monrovia and Lofa in July and August in 2003.

There were also inconsistencies in the names allegedly used for Mr Massaquoi during the wars. More than 80 Liberian witnesses who appeared in months-long hearings held in Monrovia claimed he was “Angel Gabriel” who had committed the atrocities. But a Human Rights Watch researcher said survivors of the alleged atrocities interviewed later had not mentioned an “Angel Gabriel”.

“The evidence, evaluated as a whole, suggests rather convincingly that Mr. Massaquoi had not been in Liberia when the offences in Monrovia referred to in the charges had been committed (ie. between the 1st of May and the 18th of August 2003),” the court said. “The Court of Appeal has also, inter alia on the basis of the evidence presented about his stay in Freetown in July and August 2002, considered it to be fairly unlikely that Mr. Massaquoi had been involved in the above-mentioned acts of torture in Klay.”

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The court also rejects prosecutors’ argument that Mr Massaquoi was in Liberia’s northern county of Lofa and committed or ordered his troops to commit atrocities, including torture particularly against civilians and burning them alive in buildings.

“The evidence presented in the case suggests that Mr. Massaquoi had not at all been in Lofa County at the time (between August and December 2001) of the offences referred to in the charges,” the release said. “It was proven that he had resided in a safe house of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, from March 2003 until and beyond the 18th of August 2003. According to the evidence presented in the case there had not been any periods of several days during which his presence in the safe house would not have been controlled in a reliable manner.”

Mr Massaquoi is the first of six alleged perpetrators to face trial in Liberia’s civil wars to be acquitted. Cases are pending against at least six more alleged perpetrators in Europe and the United States.

Civitas Maxima, a Swiss-based justice NGO and the Liberia-based Global Justice Research Project, who were instrumental in gathering evidence in all the cases, including this one, released a statement expressing disappointment in the judgment.

“This acquittal decision will surely come as a disappointment to the many who had the courage to testify,” said Civitas Maxima and the GJRP. “The Finnish prosecutors – who strongly argued for their case during the appeal phase – believe the account of the victims but nevertheless we respect today’s decision.”

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Civitas and GJRP pointed specifically to testimony by GJRP’s director Hassan Bility who testified during the trial that he had been tortured by Mr Massaquoi.

“The court of appeal does not dispute that Mr. [Hassan] Bility had been tortured during the war, but the judges did not consider his testimony was enough to establish that the defendant was involved in the torture,” the statement said.

Civitas said it would “publish an in-depth analysis of the judgement, and provide additional information, count by count, as to how the court reached its decision.”

The court said the full judgment “will be available at a later date.”

This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.


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