A Liberian man convicted of 22 counts of war crimes including rape, murder and an act of cannibalism is seeking to overturn the judgement at an appeal trial in Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court, where he also faces new charges of crimes against humanity.
Former strongman Alieu Kosiah’s appeal opened on Wednesday in the Bellinzona municipality and is expected to last until early February.
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Kosiah was found guilty by the Federal Criminal Court of “violating the laws of war” in June 2021, in Switzerland’s first-ever war crimes trial. The indictment has since been expanded to include crimes against humanity – the first time these charges are being brought in a Swiss trial.
Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer and director at Civitas Maxima who is representing the victims, told Reuters he was “confident” but noted “it’s a challenging case”.
“Sometimes it’s just their word against his and these are things that happened 30 years ago,” he said.
A woman who gave her name only as Mama was present at the trial. Kosiah was convicted of raping her when she was 14.
“I wanted to come here because of what he did to me,” she said. “I want him in jail.”
Six other plaintiffs were present on Wednesday, including a man who alleged that he witnessed the defendant eat slices of a man’s heart.
Kosiah, who settled in Switzerland in 1998, was arrested in 2014. A 2011 Swiss law allows prosecution for serious crimes committed anywhere, under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
During Liberia’s back-to-back wars in 1989-2003, thousands of people were mutilated and raped in clashes that involved drugged fighters and marauding child soldiers conscripted by strongmen.
Unlike Sierra Leone, which had its own civil war at the same time and later held war crimes trials, Liberia has not seen prosecutions for such crimes. The victims testifying in the Kosiah trial have all asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals as some strongmen still hold influential positions in the country.
Like “war crimes”, the term “crimes against humanity” refers to atrocities, including murder, torture and rape. But instead of being isolated or sporadic events, crimes against humanity are linked to incidents carried out in a widespread or systematic way.
The additional charge is “important for the victims”, Raphael Jakob, a lawyer representing one of seven plaintiffs, said.
If the court rules that crimes against humanity were committed, Kosiah’s 20-year sentence could be increased to life imprisonment.
In the lower court, Kosiah was found guilty of a slew of war crimes committed while commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) armed group.
He ordered or participated in the murder and killing of 17 civilians and two unarmed soldiers, as well as rape, and deploying a child soldier, the court ruled.
He had also ordered lootings and had repeatedly ordered, or himself inflicted, cruel and humiliating treatment on civilians, and mishandled corpses, according to that verdict. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence possible in Switzerland when the crimes were committed.
Kosiah appealed the verdict, maintaining his innocence and requesting an acquittal.
But the fresh trial has provided an opportunity for the plaintiffs to push for the prosecutor to add crimes against humanity to the charges.
So far, only a handful of people have been convicted in Liberia itself for their part in the brutal wars, and efforts to establish a war crimes court in the country have stalled.
But momentum is growing at the international level for justice for war-time atrocities.
Another suspected strongman, Gibril Massaquoi, appeared in a Finnish appeals court on Tuesday for his role in Liberia’s civil war following his acquittal last year by a lower court.
Massaquoi, who moved to Finland in 2008, is accused of murder, rape and war crimes.
In November 2022, a former Liberian rebel commander was also sentenced to life in prison by a French court.