Is it necessary to deny everything if one is accused of international crimes?

OPINION. They are accused – and convicted – of war crimes and crimes against humanity in West Africa, but do not recognize them, even partially, explains lawyer Alain Werner. Unless their lawyer, like François Roux, accompanies them on the path of asking for forgiveness.

Today, the four-week long trial of Kunti K., accused of crimes of torture and crimes against humanity for his alleged role during the first civil war in Liberia (1989-1996), opens in a criminal court in Paris. This trial will be the first trial in France for extraterritorial international crimes not related to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Kunti K. fought for the armed group ULIMO, which was formed in response to the massacres perpetrated in Liberia against members of two ethnic groups – Mandingo and Krahn – by Charles Taylor and his rebels. It is alleged that the ULIMO group has himself systematically enslaved populations and perpetrated massacres against other ethnic groups.

This trial closely reminds the case of Alieu Kosiah, tried by the Federal Criminal Court in 2020-2021, and whose appeal will take place in January 2023 in Bellinzona. Alieu Kosiah, just as Kunti K., was an ULIMO commander and partly operated in the same place at the same time.

These trials in both France and Switzerland are part of an innovative and courageous quest for justice by Liberian victims –   forgotten by the international community – in collaboration with the organization I lead, Civitas Maxima, and our sister organization in Liberia. Within this context, other criminal proceedings are or have been conducted in the United States, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Finland and other countries.

Yet today, none of the people indicted in Europe or the United States for crimes committed during the civil war in Liberia have ever admitted to committing any crime.

This echoes my own experience in the prosecutor’s office of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) in Freetown and The Hague from 2003 to 2008: none of the nine people indicted and later convicted by this international tribunal, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor, has ever admitted to a single charge against them.

On February 25, 2021, Kunti K. appeared via video conference from Paris as a defense witness in the Kosiah trial – and followed the same line. In essence, he alleged that the people who claimed that ULIMO had committed crimes during the war were motivated by ethnic hatred. The next few days of hearings in Paris will tell us whether Kunti K. will adopt the same strategy in his own trial.

Yet these crimes have been documented by multiple different historical sources, even at the time of the alleged events. A report by Médecins sans frontières (MSF) from January 1995 entitled “Horror and Slavery in Liberia” states that, according to MSF’s employees, in 1993-1994, ULIMO soldiers carried buckets full of human organs and ate them as part of ritual purposes. A Reuters report from December 1993 stated that aid organizations withdrew from ULIMO-controlled areas after attacks and looting, while ULIMO commanders were terrorizing villagers with summary executions and forced labor, according to aid workers. AFP noted that ULIMO, at the same time, looted everything they could from an UNHCR base, where a Belgian employee got hit on the head for being too slow to hand over his equipment. These crimes committed by the ULIMO group were also highlighted by the report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2009.

But in the meantime, a question arises: is it necessary to deny everything if one is accused of international crimes?

Not necessarily.

The great French defense lawyer François Roux once wrote: “The work of the lawyer before international criminal tribunals is also a work in the service of justice, of truth, at least judicial truth, and of peace. And if the analysis of the adversarial process that the lawyer makes leads him to consider that the accused is not innocent of the crimes of which he is accused, or at least of some of them, his role does not end up being a challenge in a “game of liar’s poker” with the prosecutor, but can, on the contrary, through the trust that only he can establish with the accused, accompany the latter on a path of recognition of guilt, or even request for forgiveness.”

François Roux has thus pleaded three times for the acceptance of criminal responsibility for persons accused of international crimes, twice successfully: for Vincent Rutaganira and for Joseph Nzabirinda before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). He also did so for Kaing Guek Eav, alias Duch, before the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), against the advice of his Cambodian colleague also constituted for Duch.

Although other international lawyers have followed the same path in other trials, notably before the Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), this approach remains the exception, given that it will naturally always be up to the prosecutors to prove the guilt of any person accused of international crimes. And never the other way around.

Having worked for twenty years alongside the victims in these international crimes trials, I nevertheless believe that if more defense lawyers understood their role as actors of justice as François Roux did, then the idea that peace is the fruit of justice would be strengthened.

The article first appeared on Le Temps as part of a Civitas Maxima/Le Temps collaboration, on the 18th of October, 2022.
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