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(New York) - The Liberian government should investigate and prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during Liberia's brutal armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch said today. Key international partners - including the United Nations, European Union, and United States - should support efforts to ensure accountability, the organization said.

Liberia's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which released its final edited report on December 1, 2009, recommends prosecutions for serious crimes in violation of international law committed in Liberia.  Human Rights Watch released a briefing paper today on this recommendation.

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission took an important step in acknowledging that Liberia's countless victims deserve justice," said Elise Keppler, senior counsel for the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch. "The government and Liberia's international partners alike should pursue these prosecutions without delay."

Between 1989 and 2003, horrific abuses were committed against civilians in Liberia, including summary executions and numerous large-scale massacres; widespread and systematic rape; mutilation and torture; and large-scale forced conscription and use of child combatants. The commission's report describes the root causes of the armed conflict, concludes that all warring factions were implicated in serious abuses, and makes recommendations about how to bring accountability for these crimes.

The commission recommends a hybrid international-national tribunal to try individuals for serious crimes that violate international law as well as several domestic crimes, including economic crimes. The tribunal would have both Liberian and foreign judges appointed by the Liberian government and international actors, including the UN secretary-general. The court would have a majority of internationally appointed judges in each chamber, and the international and Liberian judges would work together to try cases.

In its briefing paper, Human Rights Watch expressed support for a hybrid tribunal for Liberia with a majority of internationally appointed judges. The paper nevertheless highlights Human Rights Watch concerns about the proposal that should be addressed to ensure prosecutions in accordance with international standards.

"The commission's proposal for prosecutions is very positive, although it would need to be substantially bolstered to ensure fair, credible trials," Keppler said. "Trials in accordance with international standards can make a vital contribution to rebuilding respect for rule of law in Liberia, which in turn can help promote a sustainable peace."

Human Rights Watch said that the proposed court does not clearly focus on bringing to justice those most responsible for serious crimes and that it lacks explicit provisions for a number of crucial fair trial protections. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern that under the proposal, the prosecutor would not be appointed by international actors and that the death penalty would be available as a punishment for some crimes.

In addition, the commission recommends that nearly 40 individuals who cooperated with it should not be prosecuted, which is inconsistent with its recommendation, as required by international law, that nobody alleged to be responsible for committing serious crimes in violation of international law should benefit from an amnesty for those crimes.

The commission's report names and recommends over 120 individuals for prosecution by the tribunal, including persons associated with all the major warring factions. It also makes a series of recommendations to ensure wider accountability, including domestic prosecutions of certain "lesser" crimes, reparations, public sanctions, and the use of traditional conflict resolution mechanisms.

Liberia's legislature is expected to consider the commission's recommendations early in 2010. Human Rights Watch urged the legislature to back prosecutions for serious crimes during the conflict era in accordance with international standards and for key international partners to provide relevant support, including technical and financial assistance.

"Armed conflict in Liberia blighted the lives of tens of thousands of civilians, displaced almost half the population, and virtually destroyed the country's infrastructure," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The victims of these crimes deserve to see justice done."

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