New row arises over fledgling Liberian war crimes courtSun, 30 Jun 2024 01:49:58 GMT

Liberia’s president may be moving to get a long-awaited war crimes court up and running but he already faces criticism over his choice for a key post at the tribunal.The row is a fresh reminder that justice for victims of the country’s civil wars remains still a long way off.President Joseph Boakai signed a decree on May 2 creating an office responsible for setting up the court to judge war crimes, after years of international and domestic pressure.But in late June, he appointed lawyer Jonathan Massaquoi to head up the process. It was Massaquoi who represented former president Charles Taylor’s ex-wife against war crimes accusations. And when Agnes Reeves Taylor sued defenders of the victims of war crimes for defamation, he was also her lawyer in that case.Massaquoi also defended former rebel commander Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean with no relation jailed by a Swiss court for 20 years in 2023 for a string of murders, rapes and acts of torture that he or rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) carried out in Liberia between 1999 and 2003.- Charged, then released -The West African nation’s two civil wars left an estimated 250,000 people dead between 1989 and 2003 and resulted in massacres, mutilation, rape and cannibalism.Reeves Taylor was arrested in Britain, where she was living, in 2017.She was charged there with torture for her alleged participation in atrocities committed by Charles Taylor’s group, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), during the first civil war.But she was released in 2019 after a court decided to dismiss the charges against her.Among the rights activists Reeves Taylor targeted in her defamation action was Hassan Bility, director of the NGO Global Justice and Research. He told AFP the case had yet to be resolved. Asked about Massaquoi’s appointment to the tribunal, he said: “We do not think that the pains of the victims should be commercialised in any way or form.”Peterson Sonyah, head of the Liberian Massacre Survivors Association, was also unhappy.”It hurts me to see those who fought against us war victims in court going to spearhead a position at the war crimes special court of Liberia,” he said. “We feel hurt.”It showed a complete lack of respect for the activists who had pushed so hard over the years to get the tribunal set up.Massaquoi did not respond to requests for comment from AFP.- Convictions abroad -President Boakai has said the process would bring “justice and closure to the scars and memories” from the “senseless” conflicts.But rights groups, while welcoming recent moves to get the tribunal off the ground, have stressed in a report to the UN that much remains to be done.They have pointed out, for example, that Boakai has so far made no provision for the awarding of reparations to victims.While no trials have taken place within Liberia, a number of convictions have been secured abroad. Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, and is serving his sentence in the United Kingdom.But he has not been prosecuted for his actions in Liberia.A number of accused warlords remain influential in their communities.One of the most prominent of these is the senator Prince Johnson, once filmed in a video sipping beer while his men tortured then-president Samuel Doe to death in 1990.The country’s Vice-President Jeremiah Koung is a known ally of Prince Johnson.Johnson in April endorsed a parliamentary resolution in favour of a court, which he had previously opposed.But he quickly backtracked, warning that enforcing the establishment of such a court was “looking for trouble in the country”.