Alieu Kosiah let out a surprise outburst on his first day in court Thursday, proclaiming his innocence as his trial for war crimes got underway.
Dressed in a black jacket, jeans, a white shirt and winter boots, Mr Kosiah was actively involved in his defence, passing notes to his lawyers as prosecutors made their case that he had committed war crimes.
Mr Kosiah, 45, appearing anxious and jittery, interrupted the proceedings to proclaim his innocence. “I was targeted!” he told the three presiding judges. There is no jury in the trial.
“I have never harm nobody! I have been six years in prison pre-trial,” said Mr Kosiah referring to the six years since he was arrested and detained because authorities believed he would flee Switzerland while awaiting trial. Mr Kosiah apologised to the court for his outburst.
According to the indictment, Mr Kosiah is accused of “recruitment and use of a child soldiers, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (directly or by order), desecration of a corpse and rape” while he was a commander of a faction of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO).
Between 1993 and 1995, ULIMO operated in northern Liberia in a fierce battle against Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front at the height of the Liberian civil war. The group managed to gain control over certain areas in the region, including Lofa county.
The indictment accuses Mr Kosiah of killing or participating in the killing of 18 civilians, forced displacement of a woman to be his “wife”, raping her repeatedly, and the recruitment of a 12-year-old boy as his personal bodyguard.
In one alleged incident, dubbed Black Monday, Mr Kosiah allegedly joined fellow ULIMO fighters in eating slices of an assassinated man’s heart off a metal plate. Acts of cannibalism were not uncommon in the conflict. Mr Kosiah’s lawyers contend that he had not yet arrived in Lofa county at the time he is alleged to have committed the crimes.
Mr Kosiah will likely testify Friday or latest Monday.
There is still a chance the trial will be delayed again. The case against Mr Kosiah will hang heavily on the testimony of witnesses.
Due to travel restrictions caused by COVID-19, none of the seven witnesses on whose testimony the charges were brought, are in Bellinzona for the trial. They will testify at a second phase of the trial tentatively set for February.
The case was brought on behalf of the victims, known in court as the plaintiffs, by Civitas Maxima, working with the Liberia-based Global Justice Research Project.
Alain Werner, the head of Civitas Maxima, is one of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the court. The lawyers argued it was critical to have the witnesses and victims in the court for Mr Kosiah’s testimony and called on the judges to postpone the proceedings so the whole trial can proceed at the same time.
Victims’ lawyers maintained that “it is very important for the plaintiffs to hear Kosiah because they will have spontaneous reactions that will allow the judges to see the truth.”
Prosecutors argued that it is also the right of witnesses – “in fact, one of the only rights they could exercise in this case.” If the trial was not delayed they called for a live video feed of the proceedings to be made available to the witnesses.
Mr Kosiah’s lawyer countered that having the plaintiffs in Switzerland would not bring new information, especially since Mr Kosiah also speaks French.
The court will make a ruling on that request Friday.
Key Point of Contention
Another point of contention between lawyers is the appearance of Col. Eric Emeraux, head of France’s Central Office to Fight Crimes Against Humanity. (Emeraux also played a key role in the arrest of another ULIMO figure Kunti K in France in July this year.) Lawyers for the plaintiffs want him to appear as a witness against Mr Kosiah but Mr Kosiah’s lawyers are against it.
Mr Kosiah’s lawyers told the court Mr Emeraux will not bring any relevant information to the case given that the case is against Mr Kosiah himself and not ULIMO or the Liberian civil war in which Mr Emeraux has expertise.
Plaintiff’s lawyers argued that Mr Emeraux’s testimony is key because no Swiss authorities have been to Liberia and it would be important for the judges to hear the information about Mr Kosiah’s alleged atrocities from an expert who has been to the scenes of the alleged crimes and heard from many witnesses. Mr Emeraux has investigated scenes of alleged war crimes that are also in the indictment against Mr Kosiah.
Ten years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission made its recommendation for the establishment of a War Crimes Court, Liberia is yet to prosecute any alleged war criminals. Today, accused warlords retain positions of power. That has made witnesses afraid to come forward to testify for fear of retribution from the accused.
While Mr Kosiah served as commander of the ULIMO, mass atrocities were committed by the ULIMO fighters. Mr Kosiah allegedly directed and participated in the commission of systematic killings, rapes and forced labour of civilians in the Lofa county.
Mr Kosiah is most famously remembered for his alleged role in the June 28, 2003 massacre in Foya, Lofa County in northern Liberia. The Truth Finding Commission, which dealt with the civil war more badly than fairly, concluded that ULIMO committed thousands of atrocities.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project.