[10/12/2022] Day 3: the context

The President submitted a document prepared by the Crimes Against Humanity Unit, which presents Liberia in a synthetic manner. This document contains a glossary of abbreviations and various topographical maps. 

The counsel for the civil party, as well as the public prosecutor, asked the President to add new documents to the file. The documents submitted by the plaintiff’s lawyer concern the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), while those submitted by the Public Prosecutor’s Office concern the trial of Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland, the proceedings initiated by the Rouen prosecutor’s office for threats against HB, and the main weapons used during the civil war in Liberia.

Hearing of Patrick Robert, reporter-photographer, heard as a background witness summoned at the request of the Public Prosecutor

Before hearing Patrick Robert, the President recalled that he had already been heard by the investigating judge on October 19, 2018 and again on January 29, 2019.

The President asked Patrick Robert to give a general presentation of Liberia and the civil war, before giving details of his experience as a reporter during this conflict, and to comment on the photographs he had taken.

Patrick Robert said that to understand the course of the civil war, one had to go back to the founding of Liberia by freed slaves in 1818. He said that Liberia’s independence was declared in 1823. As the first independent country in Africa, Liberia escaped European colonization, which explains the absence of a culture of administration. Patrick Robert added that the country was administered solely by African-American descendants until 1980 and that this political monopoly created great frustration among the indigenous populations. He said Liberians saw the 1980 coup d’état by Samuel Doe as a break from an unjust situation. In 1985, Thomas Quiwonkpa’s coup attempt to end Samuel Doe’s bloody regime failed and Thomas Quiwonkpa was executed. Charles Taylor participated in this failed coup even though he was a former minister of Doe, forcing him to flee to the United States. Taylor then returned to Africa, specifically to Burkina Faso where he became close to Gaddafi. Patrick Robert said that Charles Taylor did an internship in Libya – which made the Americans suspicious – after which he founded the NPFL with about 40 fellow soldiers. Charles Taylor returned to Liberia via the Ivory Coast and the NPFL began to recruit heavily from the Liberian population, who saw Taylor as a liberator. Patrick Robert said he arrived in Liberia in May 1990, a few months after the arrival of the NPFL, which he dates to Christmas 1989. According to him, the war in Liberia took a back seat to the global political context (fall of the Berlin Wall, dissolution of the USSR, Romanian revolution, etc.).

He indicated that the NPFL advanced rapidly to Monrovia where dissension arose due to the defection of Prince Johnson, who was the main military organizer in the NPFL. He then founded the INPFL. Patrick Robert added that an international African coalition called ECOMOG was created at the initiative of Nigeria, whose president was close to Samuel Doe, to calm the situation. However, ECOMOG was unable to protect Samuel Doe, who was killed along with all the members of his government. The situation then stalled for several years until elections were held, allowing Charles Taylor to take power.

Patrick Robert said that the embargo on the country was nevertheless maintained and that the situation degenerated with the proliferation of armed groups created to weaken the NPFL. Patrick Robert cited the ULIMO and the LPC in particular. He said that ULIMO-J (Johnson) was composed mainly of krahns and ULIMO-K (Kromah) of mandingos. Both branches were in direct opposition to the NPFL, which had become a government militia. Patrick Robert spoke of an excess of incompetence and armed movements. He ended his statement by saying that the philosophy that characterized the armed groups was “Help yourself,” which he translated as “Survive on your own,” since fighters were not paid.

Court questions Patrick Robert :

Patrick Robert was first questioned about the details of his missions in Liberia. Regarding his presence on Liberian territory, he indicated that he had been there a dozen times for stays ranging from three weeks to two months. He emphasized the ease of travel for journalists in Liberia, as they had a pass provided by the NPFL that allowed them to move around the country. His work mainly took him to the capital Monrovia, where ULIMO-J was active.

When asked about Kunti Kamara’s statement that Charles Taylor wanted to recruit members of ULIMO after disarmament to supply his troops and intervene in Guinea, Patrick Robert said he was not aware of any details.

Asked about Charles Taylor’s actions and conviction in Sierra Leone, Patrick Robert said Taylor was convicted in Sierra Leone for acts committed there, not in Liberia, and that Liberian authorities did not want to reopen memories of the civil war. He added that some warlords are now in power, such as Prince Johnson, who is a senator and has threatened to start a new conflict if legal proceedings are initiated against him. He also spoke about Charles Taylor’s role in spreading the war in Sierra Leone, and the similarities and differences between the atrocities committed in Liberia and Sierra Leone. In particular, he said that some of the atrocities in Sierra Leone were not committed in Liberia and that the difference in the level of horror was due to the particularly cruel personality of Foday Sankoh.

When asked about the attitude of the fighters towards him, Patrick Robert said that they were proud to show that they were committing crimes. In particular, he described seeing a man kill a woman with a baby in her arms. When the man noticed the presence of journalists, he smiled broadly and was about to shoot the bodies again “just for the picture”.

When asked about the victims of the crimes committed, Patrick Robert said that no distinction was made between combatants and civilians. Everyone was targeted. He added that he saw child soldiers everywhere and that children who were old enough to carry a weapon were considered good soldiers because they were disciplined and not afraid to die if they were not aware of what was going on. He also said that armed groups were always formed on an ethnic basis, as each ethnic group felt they were in self-defense.

When asked about photos of a ripped-out heart, Patrick Robert described a scene in which he saw men stab another man in the chest and hide the wound when journalists arrived. He also recounted another episode in which one of his colleagues photographed men with a human heart in their hands, pretending to eat it.

When asked about the significance of these acts, Patrick Robert said it was difficult to know because Africans are very private about their spirituality and practices. According to him, it would be a kind of ritual protection or talisman from elements taken from the body of the enemy.

When asked about the role of the United States during the conflict, Patrick Robert emphasized their absence on the ground to the despair of the Liberians. He indicated that the Americans were reluctant to intervene following their intervention in Somalia at the end of the first Gulf War, in which they lost many men, and that they did not know how to do so in a proportional and measured way.

Questioned by the court, Patrick Robert recounted the particularly sordid murder of Samuel Doe, filmed on the orders of Prince Johnson.

When asked about the Mandingo ethnic group and its demographic representativeness, Patrick Robert explained that he did not believe that a census had been taken and that it was a minority ethnic group. He said that the Mandingo had no chance of being elected, but were “already there” and were useful as traders. According to Patrick Robert, most members of the state council were not interested in holding elections because they represented ethnic minorities. Their strategy was to maintain the status quo regardless of ECOMOG’s attempts to resolve the conflict, in order to retain power. 

The civil party questions Patrick Robert:

The civil party returned to the meaning of certain practices, such as organ harvesting and cannibalism, which Patrick Robert preferred to describe as ritual practices. When asked whether these practices were intended to terrorize the population, Patrick Robert indicated that he did not know.

When asked by the civil party, Patrick Robert confirmed that the armed groups stole weapons from each other. He also indicated that he had not heard of either Pepper & Salt or Ugly Boy.

The Public Ministry questions Patrick Robert:

Patrick Robert was questioned about the age of the child soldiers. Patrick Robert made a distinction between child soldiers present on the front lines, who were 16 years old for the youngest, and child soldiers present in the villages and at checkpoints, who could be between 8 and 10 years old.

Regarding the militia’s takeover of conflict zones, Patrick Robert explained that the soldiers’ priority was to eat and then gradually occupy the area controlled by checkpoints.

When asked about the distinction between civilians and combatants during the clashes, Patrick Robert replied that the combatants were overwhelmingly civilians who had taken up arms, not professional soldiers. He said that civilians were not singled out, but that those who were part of the enemy were sought out. Civilians could also be hit when fleeing an area.

Finally, Patrick Robert was asked about the particularity of the first Liberian civil war compared to other conflicts. He emphasized the ease of access to the territory for the press – which he said is rare – and regretted the inaction of the international community, which allowed the conflict to degenerate “to this point.

The defense questions Patrick Robert:

When asked about Charles Taylor’s election, Patrick Robert said that it was difficult to hold democratic elections in such a context, but that to his knowledge, Charles Taylor’s election had not been contested.

Upon questioning, Patrick Robert indicated that he was unable to provide details on Johnson (ULIMO-J) and Kromah (ULIMO-K). He said he photographed various armed groups, including the NPFL, ULIMO and AFL. He also confirmed that ECOMOG was also committing abuses and that the organ harvesting he witnessed was done only on corpses, not on people specifically killed for that purpose.

* * *

The President then projected a number of photographs taken by Patrick Robert, which he asked him to comment on.

These included photographs of decapitated heads in an area controlled by ULIMO in Monrovia, bodies with their elbows tied behind their backs, public executions, a woman murdered with her baby, and the portrait of a child soldier. The public prosecutor and the lawyer for the civil party questioned Patrick Robert about certain photographs. On the photograph that depicted two corpses with elbows tied behind their backs, Patrick Robert indicated that this was a practice that allowed the rib cage to be drawn out. When asked why the bodies were not buried, Patrick Robert indicated that it probably had to do with superstition stories.

* * *

Screening of the documentary entitled “Liberia” directed by Christophe Naigeon in 1996

The documentary was added to the proceedings and its viewing provided additional contextual elements relating to the first civil war.

Hearing of Thierry Paulais, urban planner and economist who has worked extensively in the Mano River region and in West Africa, heard as a background witness by the prosecution

Before giving the floor to Thierry Paulais, the President specified that the latter was heard by the examining magistrate on February 10, 2020 and that he wrote a book on Liberia entitled “A singular history”.

Thierry Paulais specified that his book retraced the complete history of Liberia and was not specifically devoted to the civil wars. He indicated to have written this book because he was challenged by the coup of Samuel Doe and by the extreme violence which struck Liberia. He sought to understand the roots of this and listed several possible explanations in his book. He mentioned economic reasons (each group seeks to get its hands on a type of resource, such as diamonds or drugs) and cultural reasons (the existence of ancient secret societies, such as the Poro, which practice rites based on human sacrifice, mutilation and cannibalism). Thierry Paulais also evoked the growing frustration of the youth towards the African traditional societies as well as the influence of the evangelical Church in the culture of the impunity which still reigns today in the country. Thierry Paulais indicated that the fact of belonging to the Church constituted a kind of escape. The authors of the crimes went to Ghana or Nigeria where they became pastors. On their return to Liberia, they would appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), recount their crimes and say, “It’s not me, it’s Satan who was inside me“. Thierry Paulais quoted the documentary entitled “The Redemption of General Butt-Naked” which illustrates this theme.

The Court questions Thierry Paulais:

When asked about the reasons for Charles Taylor’s intervention, Thierry Paulais said that the facts were not entirely established and were the subject of controversy. He said that Charles Taylor’s intervention stemmed from the “plunge into hell” of the country led by Samuel Doe and his mafia regime, which was a source of concern for the United States. Thierry Paulais said that one could wonder if Charles Taylor had not been instrumentalized by the CIA, which had facilitated his escape while he was incarcerated in the United States for embezzlement. He said he was convinced that Charles Taylor’s invasion was fomented by the United States, unlike Samuel Doe’s coup. Charles Taylor was an educated Americo-Liberian and the United States saw him as “a good horse” to restore order. However, Charles Taylor’s relationship with the United States deteriorated very quickly after his rapprochement with Gaddafi and because of the abuses committed by his troops.

When asked about ethnicities and possible opposition between them, Thierry Paulais said that the Liberian civil wars were not ethnic wars, although ethnicity did play a role in that factions grouped themselves by ethnicity. He indicated that it was possible to have an ethnic versus ethnic grid, but that it was not the crux of the war. Confronted with the statements of the accused, who explained that his integration into ULIMO was to defend his Mandingo ethnic group, which was a victim of the massacres committed by Charles Taylor, Thierry Paulais specified that, according to him, Charles Taylor’s main motivation was not to attack the Mandingos, but rather to get his hands on the diamond mines in this part of the territory.

On questioning, Thierry Paulais stated that he did not have precise information on ULIMO.

He went on to say that there is a long tradition of forced labor in Liberia and that the Congos and Americo-Liberians have used it against indigenous peoples.  He referred to a League of Nations investigation of Liberia for slavery and said that Liberians were rounding up people in their country and selling labor to the Portuguese in Sao Tome. The forced labor had thus entered the mentalities. Thierry Paulais moreover indicated that the women became domestic or sexual slaves. On the other hand, he affirmed not to have knowledge of practices related to forced marches of the civilian population. 

When asked about the TRC’s influence on Liberian society, Paulais said that many people have fallen through the cracks, leaving a lot of bitterness and pain in Liberian society.

When asked about the possibility of holding a trial in Liberia, he suggested that it would be extremely dangerous. In his opinion, some of the potential defendants would not have allowed it. In this regard, he referred to Prince Johnson who threatened to take up arms if he was attacked.

Asked about the influence of the United States on Liberia, Thierry Paulais indicated that it was still considerable today, above all on the economic level.

On the subject of Christianization, he confirmed that it occurred at the time of the arrival of freed slaves on the Liberian coast. The objective of the creation of a colony in Liberia was double: to evacuate the freed slaves, who represented a threat for their owners in the United States and to promote the Christian faith in Africa.

Thierry Paulais confirmed that the religions and the traditional practices coexisted.

On questioning, he indicated that about 100,000 Liberians had fled the war to neighboring countries, depending on their ethnicity.

The civil party questions Thierry Paulais:

Thierry Paulais confirmed that cannibalism was a deviated practice of ancient cultural practices and that he had collected several direct testimonies going in the direction of the acts that he described in his book (i.e. combatants ate the heart of living people before going into combat).

Asked about the expression “Pay yourself” mentioned in his book, Thierry Paulais confirmed that it meant “Take what there is to take“. He specified that the fighters of the factions did not receive wages and fed themselves by robbing the villagers.

When questioned about his statements before the investigating judge, Thierry Paulais confirmed that he had referred to a dam near the capital whose turbines had been dismantled piece by piece. He also confirmed that when an armed group took control of a territory, it engaged in various exactions.

On question, Thierry Paulais moreover specified that the food aid rarely arrived to its recipients because of regular plunderings. He added that only the organization Médecins Sans Frontières had remained almost all the time in Monrovia, while the other organizations had taken refuge outside the country.

The Public Ministry questions Thierry Paulais:

Upon questioning, Thierry Paulais confirmed that ULIMO was created to oppose Charles Taylor’s NPFL.

Questioned about the “Tabé” method, he indicated that this method consisted of tying people behind their backs. He said he had heard of it, but indicated that it was one method among others, citing disembowelment, evisceration, or amputation according to the famous question “short sleeves or long sleeves?” Thierry Paulais told of having seen hundreds of teenagers with amputated arms in a refugee camp in Guinea.

Questioned about the victims of the conflict, he explained that the civilians were not the only victims and that the combatants also died. He indicated that there had been an overlap of status between soldiers and civilians with the “sobel” (i.e. soldier-rebel, or soldier by day, rebel by night). Thierry Paulais confirmed that everyone had been a victim of everyone else.

On question, he maintained what he wrote in his book, namely that few conflicts in modern history have marked the spirits by such a level of violence. Thierry Paulais specified that the case of Liberia was quite specific and that it was very difficult to understand the ins and outs of it.

Questioned on the ethnic component of the conflict, he confirmed his impression according to which it was more the leaders of the armed groups who instrumentalized the ethnic question to their profit.

The defense questions Thierry Paulais:

When asked about Alhaji Kromah, the leader of ULIMO-K, Thierry Paulais said he did not have any specific information about him, other than the fact that he had played an important role in what has been called the Monrovia War.

Thierry Paulais confirmed that at the time of his hearing by the examining magistrate, he expressed himself on Liberia in a general way, and that he did not know particularly the case of Lofa.

When asked about his statement that he was afraid to have a negative opinion about the TRC, he said that Liberia was a “boiling pot” and that the TRC had been prevented from prosecuting. He said that many people have slipped through the cracks, including through the role of the church, and that this has led to a sense of injustice among the victims.

When confronted with his statement that there have been no judicial investigations, Thierry Paulais said he was surprised to have said this and pointed out that the VCR has done a lot of work and produced a substantial report.

Asked about the links between France and Liberia, he said they were relatively tenuous.

On questioning, Thierry Paulais assured that he had never heard of the accused in the context of his work as a historian. He specified that he did not work specifically on the civil war, so that the names that appeared in his research were rather those of the faction leaders or inspirers, but not those of the subordinates.

When asked about the high-level protagonists of the conflict, Thierry Paulais confirmed that some of them were now deputies. The defense lawyer drew the conclusion that it was easy to get away with it depending on the power one had at the time, which Thierry Paulais confirmed, adding that it also depended on the interpersonal skills of those involved.

Hearing of John Steewart, journalist, human rights defender and former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Liberia, heard as a background witness called by the prosecution

Before giving the floor to John Steewart, the President pointed out that he had not been heard by either the Liberian police investigators or the French investigating judges in this case.

John Steewart recalled that a peace conference was held in Accra, Ghana, at the end of the second civil war in 2003. At this conference, it was decided to bring to justice the factions involved in the war in order to fight against the persistent impunity. The factions agreed to the creation of the TRC. John Steewart reported that he was voted in as a member of the TRC along with eight others. He has taken on the role of TRC chair and report editor.

Over the course of three years, the TRC collected 22,000 witness and victim statements from each of the country’s 15 districts. This work identified 23 types of violations, including forced displacement, killings, attacks, torture, rape and amputations. John Steewart said the hearings constitute overwhelming evidence beyond any doubt. He said a report was issued in 2010 and since then no action has been taken. In its report, the TRC recommended the prosecution of 5,000 perpetrators of the above violations, disqualification from holding political office, including Ellen Johnson, and institutional, judicial and police reforms. John Steewart added that the statements collected by the TRC did not represent all the victims and perpetrators involved. He explained that the final report was presented to the Liberian government and that under the Accra Accords, the president of Liberia was required to report on the implementation of the TRC’s recommendations. However, no action has been taken on these recommendations.

Court questions John Steewart:

Upon questioning, John Steewart confirmed that Massa Washington was one of the members of the TRC.

When asked about his work with the TRC, he said that it was a daily job and that people had been trained to take statements from witnesses and victims. He said that a section of the report is dedicated to statistics and that violations have been categorized by location, type, gender, age and faction. John Steewart confirmed that the violations identified included offences related to ritual organ harvesting.

When confronted with statements by some background witnesses that some perpetrators of atrocities had been cleared by the TRC after declaring that they were possessed by Satan, Steewart said that the TRC was not a court of law. Some perpetrators would come forward and if their statements were credible, the TRC might consider that they should not be prosecuted. John Steewart said that TRC members were able to detect the state of mind of the perpetrators. Many of them came to the TRC on their own and were from different factions, such as ULIMO-K, ULIMO-J, NPFL, INPFL, LPC and other smaller factions.

Asked about the lack of prosecutions despite the TRC’s recommendations, he said the TRC had recommended all kinds of accountability mechanisms, including traditional ones. John Steewart said that because the Liberian judicial system was deficient and the crimes and perpetrators were so numerous, the TRC relied on the tribal “Pavala Hut” system, which presupposes an admission of guilt by the perpetrators. The villagers could then decide on the punishment and the perpetrators had the option of appeal. John Steewart compared this system to the Rwandan Gacaca courts. He said that the most serious crimes were not within the jurisdiction of the Pavala Hut.

John Steewart regretted the absence of a Special Court for Liberia due to the lack of political will, as well as the culture of impunity and the climate of terror that persists in the country. He added that journalists were muzzled and that the Liberian people had no guarantee that the crimes committed would not be repeated if nothing was done to punish them. On questioning, he confirmed that the culture of impunity and the climate of terror created by politicians, some of whom are warlords, are the reasons why Liberian criminals have been prosecuted in other countries. He added that the concept of crimes against humanity has no borders.

John Steewart recalled with horror the horror of the crimes committed, which no one can forget and which, according to him, remains anchored in the collective memory. On the question, he said that the Liberian people were only made aware of the concept of human rights in 2003 and that this was the first time that civil society was involved in the peace process, especially women.

When asked about the media coverage of the Kunti Kamara trial, John Steewart said that there was a lot of media coverage in Liberia.

Asked about the profile of the TRC members, John Steewart said the TRC was composed of five men and four women nominated by civil society: two lawyers, a nurse, an imam, a bishop, an engineer, a businesswoman, a journalist and himself.

When asked about the challenges and resources available to the TRC, Steewart said the TRC has investigators on the ground and is funded by the European Union, the United States, the African Union and others. He added that the core of the problem was the culture of impunity and the threat to the commissioners, some of whom were forced to leave the country.

Civil party questions John Steewart:

John Steewart confirmed that the Kunti Kamara trial was viewed positively in Liberia (“We welcome that“) and that only 30% of the perpetrators had been prosecuted.

He spoke of the great willingness of Liberian women to speak out about the atrocities they have suffered and the support they have received from their husbands. He pointed out that ULIMO had operated in several Liberian counties (Cape Mount, Lofa, Bome) and committed atrocities against people of all ethnicities and religions.

On his career as a journalist, he stated that he had been a journalist since 1993 and had participated in the creation of the daily newspaper “New Democrat” to cover the war. He said he was familiar with The Inquirer and The Eye newspapers. He was also a member of the Commission of Inquiry established by the Government of National Unity to investigate crimes committed during the conflict. He said that he documented cannibalism committed by ULIMO and referred to “Saah Chuey”.

Prosecutor questions John Steewart:

When asked about the number of deaths following the conflict, John Steewart said the TRC requested such a census, but did not get the support of the government. The TRC tried to collect scientific evidence and photograph the sites of the massacres, but the government refused to take possession of these documents. The TRC then signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Georgia Tech University to archive the documents.

When asked about the crimes committed against women, John Steewart confirmed that, to some extent, women were specifically targeted. However, he said that women were not considered direct targets, despite the large number of sexual offenses. He explained that they were targeted because of their high vulnerability and because they were forced to go out to get food. Upon questioning, he confirmed that women were taken as wives by combatants.

When asked about the TRC’s findings, Steewart said that more than 100 mass graves were found throughout Liberia and that massacres took place everywhere, including Lofa, the third most affected county. He said that when there were no graves, the bodies were thrown into the rivers.

On questioning, he confirmed that he had seen atrocities committed in a systematic and widespread manner against the civilian population, citing examples of massacres he had witnessed in Monrovia. He also confirmed that he still agreed with the TRC report’s conclusion that “the list of violations listed … demonstrates the distinct nature of the human rights violations that characterized the Liberian conflict. [… the type of crimes committed during the Liberian civil war – in particular cannibalism (human consumption of human flesh) and the disemboweling of pregnant women, undeniably gives new meaning to the term war crime/crime against humanity and further pushes back the threshold of what humanity can tolerate …].

Defense questions John Steewart:

When asked about the list of individuals against whom the TRC recommended prosecution, John Steewart admitted that he could not remember whether Kunti Kamara’s name was on the list. He said there were hundreds of names on the list and, as mentioned earlier, the TRC report did not list all victims and perpetrators.

He noted that some of the perpetrators mentioned in the 22,000 statements collected may not appear in the list, but only in the TRC database.  Upon questioning, John Steewart confirmed that the information contained in the database allowed the NPFL to be credited with the largest number of atrocities committed. He also confirmed that the French authorities had not asked him to visit the mass graves and take samples of the human remains.

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