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Sierra Leonean man's war crimes, murder trial begins in Finland

The prosecution presented details about his suspected crimes on Monday.

Sierra Leonean national Gibril Massaquoi (covering face) at Tampere District Court in March 2020. Image: Antti Palomaa / Yle

The trial of a man accused of committing serious war crimes during Liberia's second civil war two decades ago began at Tampere District Court on Monday.

The defendant, Sierra Leonean national Gibril Massaquoi, faces several serious charges including dozens of murders, eight rapes as well as aggravated war crimes and aggravated human rights violations during the years 1999-2003.

The criminal indictment said Massaquoi ordered the murder, torture and mutilation of civilians as well as participating in their cannibalisation.

The victims of the alleged crimes were civilians and unarmed soldiers, including men, women and children, according to the indictment, which was based on an extensive investigation by the National Bureau of Investigation which began in 2018.

Massaquoi was detained by Finnish police in March 2020 and ordered by the court to be held in remand custody.

Massaquoi has lived in the Tampere area for the past 10 years and Yle made the decision to identify him by name due to the fact that he held a high-ranking position in the rebel group Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and because the charges are unusually serious.

Child soldiers, bloody history

RUF forces took part in both the Sierra Leonean and Liberian civil wars. The group received support from Liberia's former president and convicted war criminal Charles Taylor, who is currently in prison after he was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a UN-backed court set up to deal with serious crimes against civilians during the country's civil war.

The RUF is notorious for its brutal methods of warfare and known for mutilating and torturing its victims. The group also commonly enlisted child soldiers in their activities. Massaquoi is said to have had major influence within the RUF, serving as an assistant to the organisation's leader Foday Sankoh and was also chair of the rebel group in the spring of 2002.

According to the indictment filed by prosecutor Tom Laitinen, Massaquoi stands accused of dozens of murders that were allegedly carried out between 7 January, 1999 and 9 March, 2003. The killings were suspected to have been carried out in different locations in Liberia.

The indictment states that Massaquoi ordered subordinates to murder dozens of civilians and also stands accused of having murdered people himself. The RUF forces actively sought out individuals who were fleeing the war-torn region.

Charges spelled out in detail

According to the prosecutor, Massaquoi considered the victims to be traitors. The civilians were then allegedly taken to the village of Kamatahu Hassala where they were locked in a house and then burned alive. Ten children were also thought to have been locked in a kitchen facility and also burned alive.

Several civilians who were looking for food, according to the indictment, were shot to death after breaking into a grocery store.

The prosecutor said Massaquoi ordered his rebel group to butcher their victims' bodies and cannibalised them. The defendant also took part in eating the victims, according to the indictment.

The defendant is also suspected of having violently raped at least eight victims in Kamatahu Hassala and Foya in 2002.

Massaquoi has denied all of the charges and according to his lawyer Kaarle Gummerus, the defendant hadn't even been in Liberia since June 2001.

According to investigations by the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Massaquoi was responsible for very serious crimes during the civil war. Due to his role as a witness before the Special Court for Sierra Leone, he was transferred to Finland as part of a witness protection effort.

Life in Tampere

The now-roughly 51-year-old Massaquoi moved to Finland in 2007 or 2008 and settled in Tampere shortly thereafter. He arrived with his family, but he divorced from his wife soon after arriving. The divorce was followed by disputes over child maintenance payments and recognition of paternity.

Massaquoi was ordered to pay child support but his income was insufficient. According to Tampere District Court, the defendant's financial situation continued to be poor and he also had numerous unpaid debts.

Over the years, Massaquoi was a legal resident with a Finnish personal ID number and was registered with authorities at an address in Tampere. He had previously unsuccessfully requested that his name be removed from official registers.

Massaquoi has no criminal record in Finland, but was the victim of a crime in 2012, when he was assaulted while at a terrace in downtown Tampere.

EDIT 2.2.2020 Corrected spelling of Foday Sankoh, added detail about the Special Court for Sierra Leone.