GENEVA (Reuters) – Trials against a former Liberian commander accused of rape, looting, murder and acts of cannibalism opened in Switzerland this week.
Alieu Kosiah’s trial, which denies the allegations, is one of the few cases brought before an international court relating to the 1989-2003 West African state conflict, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people, often at the hands of child soldiers.
He was accused of war crimes listed as “the recruitment and use of child soldiers, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (in person or on order), desecration of corpses and rape”.
It is the first war crimes tribunal in Switzerland to be tried outside a military court.
“This is historic for Switzerland and Liberia,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer at the Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima who filed the complaint on behalf of the victims.
The NGO was researching war crimes with Liberian partners when they discovered a rebel commander living near Lake Geneva. Kosiah was arrested in 2014 and Switzerland filed charges against him in 2019.
The case involved dozens of witnesses, thousands of pages of testimony and was complicated, according to the Swiss Attorney General’s office, by Liberia’s lack of official cooperation. The trial will open Thursday at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona.
Kosiah, 45, said she wanted to clear her name. Several allegations were linked to the troops under his command.
“According to Mr Alieu Kosiah, one of the big problems with this case is that he has not arrived in Lofa (district) at the time of the crime he was supposed to commit there,” his lawyer Dimitri Gianoli told Reuters.
“The most important thing (he) can officially re-establish his honor by making himself heard openly and clearly,” he said. “(He) has always been very clear about his presence in Liberia and the court submissions including the testimony gathered in Switzerland that confirms him.”
‘VOICE TO THE DEAD’
Unlike neighboring Sierra Leone which had its own civil war in the 1990s, perpetrators in Liberia have never faced prosecution at home despite recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to establish war crimes tribunals.
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was convicted in 2012 of war crimes in Sierra Leone, but has never been convicted of Liberian acts.
Other people arrested in Europe have yet to appear in court.
Former warlords maintain positions of power in Liberia and witnesses are reluctant to step forward amid threats.
“This trial gives hope to victims, survivors and gives a voice to the dead,” said Hassan Bility, who gathered evidence for the case and himself was tortured in the conflict.
Elise Keppler of Human Rights Watch said she hoped the trial would be a “wake-up call” for Liberia.
The court will hear Kosiah next week.
Liberian plaintiffs cannot appear due to COVID-19 restrictions and will testify in 2021. Kosiah faces a possible maximum sentence of 20 years.
Additional reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; Edited by Giles Elgood