GENEVA (Reuters) - The trial of a former Liberian commander accused of rape, pillage, assassinations, and an act of cannibalism opens in Switzerland this week.
The trial of Alieu Kosiah, who denies the charges, is one of just a handful of cases brought before international courts in relation to the West African country’s 1989-2003 conflict, which killed nearly a quarter of a million people, often at the hands of child soldiers.
He is accused of war crimes listed as “recruitment and use of a child soldier, forced transportation, looting, cruel treatment of civilians, attempted murder, murder (directly or by order), desecration of a corpse and rape”.
It is Switzerland’s first war crimes trial to be heard outside a military court.
“This is historic for Switzerland and Liberia,” said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer at Geneva-based NGO Civitas Maxima which filed the complaint on behalf of victims.
The NGO was researching war crimes with a Liberian partner when they discovered a rebel commander was living near Lake Geneva. Kosiah was arrested in 2014 and Switzerland filed an indictment against him in 2019.
The case involves dozens of witnesses, thousands of pages of testimony and has been complicated, according to the Swiss Attorney general’s office, by a lack of official Liberian cooperation. The trial is set to open on Thursday at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona.
Kosiah, 45, says he wants to clear his name. Some of the charges are attributed to troops under his command.
“According to Mr. Alieu Kosiah, one of the big problems with this case is he had not yet arrived in Lofa (county) at the time of the crimes he supposedly committed there,” his lawyer Dimitri Gianoli told Reuters.
“What counts for (him) is to be able to officially re-establish his honour by making himself heard openly and clearly,” he said. “(He) has always been very clear on his whereabouts in Liberia and the court filings include testimonies collected in Switzerland that confirm it.”
‘VOICE TO THE DEAD’
Unlike neighbour Sierra Leone which had its own civil war in the 1990s, Liberian perpetrators have never faced prosecution at home despite a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a war crimes court.
Liberia’s former President Charles Taylor was sentenced in 2012 for war crimes in Sierra Leone, but was never convicted for Liberian acts.
Others arrested in Europe have yet to appear in court.
Former warlords retain positions of power in Liberia and witnesses have been reluctant to come forward amid threats.
“This trial gives hope to victims, to the survivors, and gives voice to the dead,” said Hassan Bility who collected evidence for the case and was himself tortured in the conflict.
Human Rights Watch’s Elise Keppler said she hoped the trial would serve as a “wake-up call” for Liberia.
The court will hear Kosiah next week.
Liberian plaintiffs cannot attend due to COVID restrictions and will instead testify in 2021. Kosiah faces a maximum possible sentence of 20 years.
Additional reporting by Brenna Hughes Neghaiwi in Zurich; Editing by Giles Elgood
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