/ 1 June 2023

Liberian warlord awaits appeals verdict in war crimes trial

Alieukosiah 2
Alieu Kosiah. File photo

A Swiss appeals court will on Thursday hand down its verdict in the case of a Liberian warlord accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Alieu Kosiah was found guilty in June 2021 of multiple atrocities committed during the first of Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars, in which about 250 000 people died between 1989 and 2003.

Switzerland’s federal criminal court found him “guilty of violating the laws of war”.

The verdict marked the first time a Liberian was convicted — either in the west African nation or anywhere else — of war crimes committed during the conflict. Kosiah, who settled in Switzerland in 1998 and was arrested in the country in 2014, appealed the verdict.

The 48-year-old maintains he is innocent and has requested a full acquittal.

“He has always contested the facts,” said his lawyer, Dimitri Gianoli. “He is confident he will be acquitted.”

But the proceedings held earlier this year at the court’s appeals chamber provided an opportunity for the prosecutor to add crimes against humanity to the charges.

It marked the first time that the most serious charge has been tried in Switzerland, made possible by a 2011 law change. 

Murder, rape 

Like war crimes, crimes against humanity refer to atrocities, including murder, torture and rape. Instead of isolated or sporadic events, it is for incidents carried out in a widespread or systematic way.

In the 2021 verdict, Kosiah was found guilty of a slew of war crimes committed as commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy rebel group.

He ordered or participated in the killing of 17 civilians and two unarmed soldiers, as well as rape, and deploying a child soldier, the court ruled.

He had also ordered lootings and repeatedly ordered, or had himself inflicted, cruel and humiliating treatment of civilians, and mishandled corpses, according to that verdict.

He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence possible in Switzerland at the time the crimes were committed.

If the appeals court finds him guilty of crimes against humanity, he could face a life sentence.

The revised charges presented during the appeal emphasised that most of the crimes were part of a “generalised and systematic attack” on civilians, justifying the crimes against humanity charge.

‘Not isolated crimes’ 

“We are hoping that the appeals court accepts to extend the conviction to crimes against humanity,” said Raphael Jakob, a lawyer representing one of seven plaintiffs.

“I think it would be an important recognition that these are not isolated crimes, but are part of a pattern of systematic criminality,” he said, adding that his client was “among tens of thousands of victims who suffered similar atrocities”.

Human rights lawyer Alain Werner, who heads Civitas Maxima and represents four of the plaintiffs, agreed.

“If they go for crimes against humanity, that would be completely historic,” he said.

He and others said they believe the facts clearly show Kosiah’s actions were part of systematic and widespread attacks and amounted to crimes against humanity.

But it remains unclear if the appeals court judges will rule that way on crimes committed prior to the 2011 Swiss law change. 

So far, only a handful of people have been convicted in Liberia for their part in the brutal wars and efforts to establish a war crimes court in the country have stalled.

But a Paris court last November found another Liberian rebel commander, Kunti Kamara, guilty of crimes against humanity.

And earlier this year, Gibril Massaquoi, appeared in a Finnish appeals court accused of atrocities in Liberia’s civil war following his acquittal last year by a lower court.

Liberian warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was convicted in 2012 by an international United Nations-backed court in The Hague of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but that was over atrocities committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, not in his own country. — AFP