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Liberia: Milestone Swiss Trial for Wartime Atrocities

Switzerland Should Bolster Efforts in Cases of Serious International Crimes

Switzerland's national flag flies over the entrance of the Swiss Federal Criminal Court (Bundesstrafgericht) in Bellinzona, Switzerland March 5, 2020. © REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

(Geneva) – The trial of a former Liberian rebel leader arrested in Switzerland for alleged war crimes during Liberia’s first civil war is an important step forward for victims, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 3, 2020, a criminal court in the city of Bellinzona, Switzerland, will convene the trial of Alieu Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy armed group, known as ULIMO. Kosiah is the first person to be tried for war crimes in a non-military criminal court in Switzerland and is the first Liberian to be put on trial for alleged crimes committed during the first Liberian civil war, from 1989 to 1996.

“The rebel leader Alieu Kosiah’s trial for alleged war crimes committed decades ago, during Liberia’s first civil war, is a powerful message to would-be perpetrators that justice may be slow but it never forgets,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Swiss authorities should ramp up their efforts to pursue additional atrocity cases against other suspects in Switzerland where there is credible evidence.”

The authorities arrested Kosiah on November 10, 2014 in Switzerland, where he had been living since 1999, for his alleged role in war crimes committed between 1993 and 1995 in Lofa County, northwest Liberia. The arrest followed criminal complaints against him by seven Liberian victims who are now formal parties to the proceeding, called “private plaintiffs.” Two lawyers from the Swiss nongovernmental group Civitas Maxima, including its director Alain Werner, represent four of them. The organization has worked with the Global Justice and Research Project in Liberia since 2012 to document crimes committed during the country’s civil wars.

After a nearly five-year investigation, the Swiss attorney general’s office filed an indictment against Kosiah in March 2019. Swiss prosecutors accuse him of various crimes, including ordering the murder and cruel treatment of civilians, rape, and pillage.

Kosiah’s trial in Switzerland is possible because the country’s laws recognize universal jurisdiction over certain serious crimes under international law, allowing for the investigation and prosecution of these crimes no matter where they were committed and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims. Universal jurisdiction cases are increasingly important in international efforts to hold those responsible for atrocities accountable, provide justice to victims who have nowhere else to turn, deter future crimes, and help ensure that countries do not become safe havens for human rights abusers, Human Rights Watch said.

Since his arrest, Kosiah has been in Swiss custody. His trial was originally scheduled to begin in April but was postponed because the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible for the private plaintiffs and seven witnesses to travel from Liberia for the proceeding. The Swiss Federal Criminal Court said that efforts to arrange for their testimony via video link from Monrovia, Liberia’s capital, were unsuccessful.

Given the Covid-19 pandemic, ensuring the safety of witnesses, victims, and judicial staff is a major challenge, Human Rights Watch said. The court in Bellinzona will hear from the defendant during the first phase of the trial, which is scheduled to conclude on December 11. The trial will resume in 2021, though no dates are yet set. The court said it was continuing efforts to arrange for some participants to take part in the proceedings by video link.

The court in Bellinzona should make every effort to make information about the trial available to the public and communities affected by ULIMO’s many crimes. Inadequate outreach to affected communities can have a direct impact on the success of accountability efforts in relation to serious international crimes, Human Rights Watch said. 

During Liberia’s armed conflicts from 1989-96 and 1999-2003, Liberians suffered widespread violations of international human rights and humanitarian law such as mass killings, rape and other forms of sexual violence, summary executions, mutilation and torture, and use of child combatants.

Liberia has not prosecuted anyone for the grave crimes committed during its two armed conflicts. Judicial authorities in the United States, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom have pursued criminal cases related to Liberia in recent years, often spurred by civil society efforts.

However, these cases are not enough on their own and highlight the need for a more comprehensive justice effort to address the accountability gap in Liberia, Human Rights Watch said. The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which operated between 2006 and 2009, recommended creating a war crimes court staffed by international and Liberian practitioners – the Extraordinary Criminal Court for Liberia – to try those responsible for grave crimes. Despite intensified calls for accountability for the crimes, the recommendation for a war crimes court has never been carried out.

“Liberians have repeatedly called for justice for civil wars-era crimes, but the Liberian government has failed to deliver,” Jarrah said. “Kosiah’s case and other investigations in Europe show that prosecutions are possible and should be pursued in Liberia.”

Liberian and international human rights advocates have called for Liberian President George Weah to request United Nations assistance to create a war crimes court, and released a video appeal that showcases Liberians’ interest in such a court.

Over the past two decades, the national courts of an increasing number of countries have pursued cases involving war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions committed abroad. At the same time, Swiss nongovernmental organizations, former federal prosecutors, members of parliament, and others have criticized judicial officials in Switzerland for lagging behind despite having solid legislation to address serious crimes.

Criticism has revolved around a lack of capacity and political will, undue delays, and allegations of political interference. The supervisory authority that oversees the attorney general’s office has commented on a number of these issues in response to parliamentarians’ questions. .

In its 2019 annual activities report, the attorney general’s office reported 13 ongoing international criminal law investigations. In addition to Kosiah, three other people are known to be under investigation: Khaled Nezzar, former Algerian defense minister; Rifaat al-Assad, uncle of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and former commander of the Syrian Defense Brigades; and Ousman Sonko, Gambia’s former interior minister.

Human Rights Watch reporting in various countries shows that the fair and effective exercise of universal jurisdiction is achievable with the right combination of appropriate laws; adequate resources; institutional commitment, such as dedicated war crimes units; and political will. Political will in particular is necessary for pursuing war crimes cases, given the sensitivities and diplomatic tensions that often arise, especially if high-ranking foreign officials are the subject of investigations.

“Universal jurisdiction laws are a key backstop against impunity for heinous abuses, especially when no other viable forum for justice exists,” Jarrah said. “The start of the Kosiah trial moves victims closer to accountability in a credible process for the crimes committed against them during Liberia’s civil wars.”

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