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Liberian rebel leader to face war crimes trial in Switzerland

A FORMER Liberian rebel leader is expected to appear in the Swiss Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona on December 3 to face charges of war crimes during the country’s first civil war.

Alieu Kosiah, who was a commander with the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) between 1993 and 1995, will be the first Liberian to face trial anywhere for crimes committed during the country’s civil conflict.

It will also be the first war crimes trial in a non-military court in Switzerland.

The court will hear from the defendant during the first phase of the trial, which is scheduled to end on December 11.

The trial will resume in 2021, though no dates have yet been fixed.

At the end of the civil war in 1997, Kosiah moved to Switzerland where he obtained permanent resident status.

ULIMO, which began operating in Western Liberia in 1991, was pitted against the National Patriotic Front led by Charles Taylor, who is serving a 50-year jail term for war crimes committed not in Liberia but in Sierra Leone during its civil war.

‘The rebel leader Alieu Kosiah’s trial for alleged war crimes committed decades ago, during Liberia’s first civil war, is a powerful message to would-be perpetrators that justice may be slow but it never forgets,’ said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch.

‘Swiss authorities should ramp up their efforts to pursue additional atrocity cases against other suspects in Switzerland where there is credible evidence,’ she added.

So far, there has been no domestic criminal accountability for war crimes committed during Liberia’s armed conflicts from 1989-96 and 1999-2003.

Victims have increasingly looked for justice through European courts using the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows authorities to investigate and prosecute certain international crimes committed outside a country’s borders because of the seriousness of the crimes.

‘Universal jurisdiction laws are a key backstop against impunity for heinous abuses, especially when no other viable forum for justice exists,’ Jarrah said.

‘The start of the Kosiah trial moves victims closer to accountability in a credible process for the crimes committed against them during Liberia’s civil wars.’

Liberian and international human rights advocates have called on Liberian President George Weah to request UN assistance to create a war crimes court, and released a video appeal that showcases Liberians’ interest in such a court.

‘Liberians have repeatedly called for justice for civil wars-era crimes, but the Liberian government has failed to deliver,’ said Jarrah.

‘Kosiah’s case and other investigations in Europe show that prosecutions are possible and should be pursued in Liberia.’

Judicial officials in Belgium, France, and the UK have pursued cases related to Liberia using the principle of universal jurisdiction.

The Kosiah trial comes after Swiss human rights NGOs, former federal prosecutors and parliamentarians criticised judicial officials in Switzerland of lagging behind other countries despite having solid legislation to address serious crimes committed abroad.

While Kosiah served as a ULIMO commander, mass atrocities were committed by its fighters and he was accused of having systematically targeted attacks against civilians.

In 2014, concerned Liberians alerted the Swiss Attorney General of Kosiah’s alleged crimes and filed a complaint against him.

In August 2014, the Swiss Attorney General decided to open an investigation against Kosiah, who was arrested in Bern in November of that year.

A local judge ordered that the accused be placed in custody where he has remained since.

Switzerland has jurisdiction over the alleged crimes on the basis of universal jurisdiction, which is a fundamental principle of international law, enshrined in the relevant 2011 Swiss law.

In March 2019, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland presented an indictment against Kosiah to the Federal Criminal Court.

The suspect is accused of violations of the laws of war as a member of a military faction in the 1989-1996 Liberian war.

In October 2019, the Swiss Federal Criminal Court set Kosiah’s trial for April 2020 in Bellinzona.

But in November 2019, the Federal Criminal Court dismissed the complaint accusing Kosiah of participation in a massacre committed by ULIMO.

However, he is still detained awaiting trial for other war crimes.

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