Today April 29th, 2022 the Pirkanmaa District Court in Tampere, Finland, issued its judgement in the trial of Gibril Massaquoi. Mr Massaquoi, former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) commander and spokesman, was charged with murder, aggravated rape, aggravated war crimes and violation of human rights in exceptional circumstances in Liberia between 1999-2003, during the country’s second civil war.
The District Court dismissed all charges, and found that there was reasonable doubt that the defendant committed the offences he was charged with.
Mr Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean national, had been in detention since March 10, 2020. He was released from custody on February 16, 2022.
Irrespective of this verdict, the trial of Gibril Massaquoi by the Finnish judicial authorities is, in itself, an historic milestone for international criminal justice.
The trial, which initially started on February 2021, has lasted almost a year. In an unprecedented first, the Finnish Court travelled twice to Liberia and once to Sierra Leone in order to facilitate the hearing of the over 100 witnesses.
The collaboration between Liberia and the Finnish authorities allowed for the first war crimes trial’s hearings to be set on Liberian soil; this was a major step towards the country’s dealing with its past.
Any acquittal is also the reflection of a fair and functional criminal justice system that ensures that everyone may defend themselves in a court of law, through impartial, objective, and transparent proceedings. For this trial, the judges deemed that the evidence was insufficient to condemn Mr Massaquoi and that the defense presented a plausible scenario of Mr Massaquoi being not guilty.
The case against Gibril Massaquoi was challenging. Aside from the passage of time – 20 years – the proceedings themselves were impacted by the earlier mandate of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL), the UN war crimes tribunal that was set up to address the conflict in Sierra Leone. M. Massaquoi had been a witness in proceedings at the Special Court. He indeed testified against members of Sierra Leone’s former Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) – a rebel group that allied itself with the RUF rebels in the late 1990s.
Whilst the SCSL grated him relocation in 2008, Mr Massaquoi did not enjoy immunity for the crimes allegedly committed both in Sierra Leone and in Liberia.
Two decades later, Liberia is still grappling with impunity. Former warlords still hold powerful positions in the country. Some witnesses still fear testifying. When the trial traveled to Liberia, concerns about witness protection required that hearings take place in an undisclosed location, with only handful of local and international journalists in attendance. It is remarkable that, despite concerns for their own safety, so many witnesses had the courage to recount what they lived and saw.
Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP) believe the testimonies of the victims.
This has been a peculiar trial for both organisations: Hassan Bility, director of GJRP, had already given evidence during the Charles Taylor trial in January 2009 implicating Gibril Massaquoi in the acts of torture he suffered in 2002. He testified again about those events at the Gibril Massaquoi trial. Both Civitas Maxima and the GJRP firmly support Hassan Bility, who for years has tirelessly worked towards justice and accountability.
Today, the world watches with horror as atrocities are committed in Ukraine and as international and national entities are grappling with the challenges of bringing to accountability those responsible for grievous crimes. The Gibril Massaquoi trial reminds us that national jurisdictions play a critical role in ensuring that war crimes and crimes against humanity are prosecuted, regardless of the nationality of the victims, and the time since these were allegedly committed.
A complex case of intertwined conflicts with a former insider witness of an international court, the Massaquoi trial will surely become an important reference on the concrete challenges of universal jurisdiction. And the Finnish experience will be an important case study for other countries who are committed to the principle.