Alieu Kosiah, sentenced last week to 20 years in prison for atrocities committed when he was a commander of the rebel group Ulimo during the Liberian civil war, has lashed out at the justice activists who helped bring the case against him.
In a WhatsApp message to New Narratives, Dimitri Gianoli, Mr Kosiah’s lawyer, said his client was “very disappointed by the decision of the Federal Criminal Court” in Switzerland where he was convicted of all but four of the 25 charges brought against him by seven Liberian victims.
The three-judge panel found the former rebel commander had ordered or committed 19 murders, organised several forced transfers of people, tortured seven people and committed one rape.
Mr Kosiah had denied all the charges claiming throughout the trial that he was not on the scene where the crimes took place. Despite those claims, his defence team was not able to offer alibis to establish that defence.
Mr Kosiah was cleared of attempted murder of a civilian, accessory to the murder of a civilian, an order to loot and recruitment of a child soldier. The court said that the 20-year sentence was the maximum it was allowed to give under Swiss law. It will be reduced in recognition of six and a half years Mr Kosiah has been in detention awaiting trial. He will be banned from Switzerland for 15 years after his release.
Defence lawyer Mr Gianoli claimed the court had “dismissed without reason the multiple demonstrations that were made during the debates on the inconsistencies of the prosecution’s case, on the lack of credibility of the complainants, on their multiple contradictions and even lies.”
Mr Gianoli repeated an assertion that Mr Kosiah has made since he was first arrested in 2014: that Global Justice Research project and Civitas Maxima, the two justice activist organisations that have helped investigators gather evidence in Liberia, have coerced victims into lying.
“Mr. Alieu Kosiah remains convinced that Civitas Maxima has distorted the events and history of the first civil war in Liberia in order to make a profit,” Mr Gianoli said.
Accusations of coercion and bribery of witness by Civitas Maxima and GJRP, headed by Liberian Hassan Billity, have featured in the defence case of every trial of former combatants in Liberia’s civil war since 2017. The two organisations have worked with investigators and prosecutors in many jurisdictions in the US and Europe to find witnesses and evidence to build cases against accused war criminals living in exile. In each case under resourced and overwhelmed defence teams have found themselves with little else to defend their clients from an onslaught of harrowing and emotive evidence from prosecution witnesses
Defence lawyers have hoped that by muddying the credibility of the witnesses they will establish the legal concept of “reasonable doubt” about the defendant’s guilt in the minds of judges and juries.
The role of the two organisations has featured heavily in the ongoing trial of Gibril Massaquoi, the former Revolutionary United Front commander from Sierra Leone charged with war crimes allegedly committed in Liberia. The court in Finland, where Mr Massaquoi was living when he was arrested in 2020, is in its final weeks of hearings in Finland after spending three months hearing witnesses in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Defence lawyers have claimed that dozens of Liberian witnesses were coerced into lying about Mr Massaquoi’s involvement in the alleged crimes by Civitas Maxima. The claims have led the court to add additional witnesses and consider a return to Liberia.
Former American chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Alan White, one of several former officials of the Special Court to oppose the prosecution of Mr Massaquoi in Finland, had also questioned the motives of the two groups.
Mr White said Mr Massaquoi should not have been prosecuted for his role in Liberia because he had been granted immunity from prosecution for crimes in Sierra Leone in return for his testimony against key figures including Charles Taylor.
Mr White speculated to justiceinfo.net last year that those behind Mr Massaquoi’s arrest may have had “possible political motivations,” “or the desire of some individuals to get publicity.”
But in every case so far – that of Thomas Woewiyu, Mohammed Jabbateh and Moses Thomas – judges and juries rejected defence claims of a conspiracy between the organisations and witnesses to lie. A criminal complaint along the same lines filed by Mr Kosiah against Alain Werner of Civitas Maxima was dismissed by the Geneva Public Prosecutor’s Office and then by the Federal Criminal Court.
As of writing, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court had not published its reasoning in Mr Kosiah’s conviction. New Narratives was not in the court but according to Werner and justiceinfo.net Court President Jean-Luc Bacher said the judges had found the victims trustworthy. Justiceinfo.net quoted the judge as saying they had “no reason to believe that there was collusion between lawyers and NGOs on the one hand and the plaintiffs on the other.”
Indeed, the judge found Mr Kosiah lacked credibility. Kosiah showed “cynicism and arrogance” during the trial and even sometimes “hostility” towards the witnesses,” justiceinfo.net quoted the judge as saying. “The court also reproached him for ‘adapting his story as the proceedings progressed’. The court said his claim that he was not at any of the crimes was “not very credible in the eyes of the court” which questioned the honesty of the defence witnesses and their “obviously prepared and oriented” accounts. Another element that the judges found unconvincing was Kosiah’s claim that he never witnessed any of the crimes committed by Ulimo, whose violence is well documented.”
In response to New Narratives requests for evidence of his clients’ claims against Civitas Maxima and Global Justice Research Project, Mr Gianoli provided nothing credible. New Narratives investigations have not found evidence to support the claims.
In response to New Narratives questions, Mr Werner again rejected the accusations.
“For years alleged war criminal commanders associated with ULIMO, NPFL and other factions have been united together in denying any crime, and also accusing Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project of committing themselves criminal acts to subvert the course of justice in its attempt to find justice for victims of war crimes committed in Liberia,” Mr Werner said by email.
“We have never answered any of these specific baseless accusations made over and over against us because we believe it should for judges to evaluate evidence, and any accusation against us should be made in court, not in newspapers.”
“We believe this historical verdict sentencing Alieu Kosiah for over 20 counts of war crimes and its oral summary answer all the libellous accusations made against us. We will not be intimidated and we will carry on our mission on behalf of the Liberian victims of war crimes.”
Mr Gianoli said his client, “will continue his fight so that the justice to which he is entitled can be done.”
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.