Witnesses have come forward in the first war-crimes trial held in Liberia, against former rebel Gibril Massaquoi, to testify about alleged rape and ritual murder during the country’s brutal civil war.
Around a quarter of a million people were killed between 1989 to 2003 in a conflict marked by merciless violence and rape, often carried out by drugged-up child soldiers.
A Sierra Leone national, Massaquoi was a senior commander of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a Sierra Leone rebel group that also fought in Liberia.
The 51-year-old was arrested in Finland last March, where he had been living since 2008, after a rights group investigated his war record.
But in an unprecedented move, the Finnish court decamped to Liberia’s capital Monrovia on February 23 to hear witness testimony in the case.
Very few people have faced trial for war crimes committed in Liberia, and none inside the country itself: the Massaquoi war-crimes case is the first held on Liberian soil.
Witnesses in recent hearings have alleged that Massaquoi – whose nom de guerre was ‘Angel Gabriel’ – was implicated in murder, rape and burnings.
One 34-year-old witness told the court on March 9, for example, that the RUF commander drank a victim’s blood during unrest in Monrovia in the early 2000s.
RUF fighters captured him and several others in a central city market, said the witness, who is not named for security reasons.
Massaquoi then appeared and the fighters saluted him and hailed him as ‘Angel.’
“He asked them to bring his eating plate,” the witness said, referring to Massaquoi.
“He took the person who was sitting by me, put his neck on the plate, I was very afraid so I closed my eyes. His neck was cut off.”
Massaquoi allegedly drank the victim’s blood, and also poured some of it on a shrine as a ritual offering.
Hearings in the case are set to continue in Liberia for about another three weeks, said Tom Laitinen, a Finnish state prosecutor involved with the case.
The court will then move to neighboring Sierra Leone.
Massaquoi denies any wrongdoing.