This article first appeared on LeTemps on the 8th of February 2021.
How far should suspected war criminals who denounce others be protected? Finland has decided
Gibril Massaquoi, who the press has dubbed “the Judas of Sierra Leone”, did not see his own arrest coming, having so masterfully caused the arrest of his former brothers in arms in the RUF, one of the bloodiest rebel groups in West Africa. His incarceration in March 2020 by the Finnish authorities, where he had resided legally for more than a decade, sent shockwaves and controversy through the microcosm of international criminal justice.
For Gibril Massaquoi is an insider, the equivalent of the pentiti of the Italian mafia trials, those known to have been part of the criminal system. They have participated in atrocities, but the authorities protect them in exchange for their testimony to bring heads down. For example, Massaquoi provided the International Criminal Court for Crimes of the Civil War in Sierra Leone with information to bring down some of the leaders of his own rebel group, but also gave controversial testimony in court. In exchange for his alleged services, he was given a chance at a new life by the prosecutor in the form of immunity for crimes committed in Sierra Leone and relocation to Finland.
Two different civil wars
However, Civitas Maxima, the organisation I founded in 2012 to serve victims of war crimes and crimes against humanity, was able to gather evidence that Mr. Massaquoi committed atrocities in his neighbouring Liberia, where another bloody civil war was raging. It became clear to the entire team of lawyers, advocates and experts at Civitas Maxima that any alleged war crimes that Mr. Massaquoi may have committed against Liberian civilians in Liberia could not be covered, morally or legally, by his agreement with an international tribunal for trials of crimes committed in another country, Sierra Leone. Two different territories, two different civil wars.
To return to the parallel with the Sicilian mafia, it is as if it had been discovered that Tommaso Buscetta, the most famous pentito, relocated to the United States after cosmetic surgery, had committed multiple murders in France or Switzerland, in cases unrelated to the mafia. The agreed immunity would obviously not have been extended to these other crimes.
However, and strange as it may seem, I myself am today under fire from some critics for the first incriminating testimony provided by Civitas Maxima to the Finnish authorities on Gibril Massaquoi.
The trial of Charles Taylor
The accusations against Civitas Maxima of wanting to “break the system” by discouraging insiders from testifying in future international trials are symptomatic of a malaise. Of course, insiders can sometimes be decisive in gathering sufficient evidence against the highest leaders, the very ones who ordered mass crimes. I experienced this myself in court in the trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor. It took us more than 30 insiders to establish the links necessary to convict Charles Taylor for the crimes committed in Sierra Leone, where he did not even physically attend. But it was not without difficult compromises. I remember Zig Zag Marzah, the former contract killer, coming candidly to explain to us in court how newborn babies were killed with a stone and how human hearts were eaten.
All these controversies raise fundamental questions: “What should be the criteria used by international prosecutors to obtain such testimony in exchange for protection, and what are the exact limits of such protection? What degree of due diligence should these same prosecutors exercise over the past conduct of the insidious candidates before an agreement is reached? These questions now need to move beyond the opacity and discretionary prerogatives of some to be regulated. This, I hope, is what the “Massaquoi controversy” will serve.
But the most interesting thing about all this is that the Finnish investigators and prosecutors, seemingly undisturbed by all this noise, have shown, since Mr Massaquoi’s arrest in March 2020, an unprecedented efficiency. In full covid, they have multiplied investigations in Liberia and Sierra Leone, completing their investigation in record time.
Thus, ten months after his arrest and twenty-seven months after the start of the investigations, the trial of Mr Massaquoi started on Monday 1st February in Finland, with the announcement of an incredible decision which led the specialised press to speak of a “Finnish revolution”. On the strength of a precedent in a Rwandan case, the Finnish judges decided to relocate the entire trial. Thus, four judges, two prosecutors and a defence lawyer, all Finnish, will go to Liberia and then Sierra Leone for several weeks to hear most of the dozens of witnesses expected, before returning to Finland to conclude the trial.
This model is fascinating and holds out hope for extraterritorial justice that understands the importance of delivering justice as close as possible to where the crimes were committed. This model also carries its challenges, as Roland Adjovi, the leading Beninese human rights lawyer, points out, particularly with regard to the key issue of witness protection. But it certainly deserves our full attention. This is why, in collaboration with lawyers and academics in Helsinki, The Hague, Saint-Louis, Monrovia and Freetown, Civitas Maxima makes it possible for the greatest number of people to follow this new way of delivering international justice on its website.