by Nina LARSON
A former Liberian warlord was jailed for 20 years in Switzerland on Friday, becoming the first person from the country to be convicted of war crimes committed during the bloody conflict there a generation ago.
In a ruling hailed as “historic”, Alieu Kosiah, 46, was found guilty of multiple atrocities committed during the first of Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars, in which about 250,000 people died between 1989 and 2003.
Switzerland’s Federal Criminal Court in the southern city of Bellinzona said in a statement it had found Kosiah “guilty of violating the laws of war”.
The verdict marks the first time a Liberian has been convicted — either in the west African country or anywhere else — of war crimes committed during the conflict.
“This is completely historic,” human rights lawyer Alain Werner, who represented four of the seven plaintiffs in the case, told AFP.
He said the verdict, and especially the fact that the judges had so clearly stated they believed the accounts of the victims who have been fighting for years for justice was “an enormous relief”.
Human Rights Watch also hailed the “landmark” conviction.
“The verdict is a breakthrough for Liberian victims and the Swiss justice system in cracking the wall of impunity,” Balkees Jarrah, HRW’s associate international justice director, said in a statement.
Adama Dempster of Civil Society, a human rights group seeking justice for victims of civil war, said it was “a victory for war victims. It sends a clear message to would-be perpetrators… they will have their days in court”.
– Murder, rape –
Kosiah was found guilty of 21 out of the 25 charges against him for war crimes committed while commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) armed group.
He was found guilty of ordering or participating in the murder and killing of 17 civilians and two unarmed soldiers, as well as rape, and having deployed a child soldier.
He was also found to have ordered lootings, cruel and humiliating treatment of civilians and had repeatedly himself inflicted cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment on civilians and mishandled corpses, the court found.
He was sentenced to 20 years in prison — which was the maximum sentence possible in Switzerland at the time the crimes were committed, the court said.
The more than six-and-a-half years Kosiah had spent in detention would be deducted from the sentence, it added.
After serving his sentence, he would be expelled from Swiss territory for 15 years, the court ruled.
He was also ordered to pay a total of 51,100 Swiss francs ($55,450, 46,720 euros) in compensation to the seven plaintiffs in the case.
– Swiss first –
When the proceedings opened last December, Kosiah was the first Liberian to face trial over alleged war crimes committed during the country’s first civil war, from 1989 to 1996.
Liberia’s former warlord-turned-president Charles Taylor was convicted in 2012 of war crimes and crimes against humanity — but that was over atrocities committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, not in his own country.
The ULIMO armed group was created to fight Taylor’s rebel force.
Switzerland recognises the principle of universal justice, allowing it to try people suspected of committing the most heinous international crimes regardless of where they were committed.
But Kosiah, who settled in Switzerland in 1998 and was arrested there in 2014, is the first person tried in the country’s civilian court system over international war crimes case.
“This verdict is historic on two levels, both for Switzerland and for Liberia,” Werner said.
Liberia’s two civil wars were marked by numerous massacres committed by often drugged-up fighters, mutilations, and sexual violence used as a weapon of war.
Most of the commanders of the different groups fled the country after the wars ended in 2003.
But more than 15 years on, many of those in charge back then still hold positions of political and economic influence in the country.
The underlying causes of the conflict — including ethnic divisions and economic disparities — remain strongly felt in Liberian society.