(Bloomberg) -- A rebel commander accused of atrocities including cannibalism during Liberia’s civil war a quarter century ago is set to stand trial in Switzerland in a landmark case over the bloody conflict that killed 250,000 people.
The trial of Alieu Kosiah -- delayed amid the Covid-19 pandemic -- opens Monday in Bellinzona, Switzerland, bringing together the 45-year-old defendant and six alleged victims for the first time in a courtroom.
“This trial should be a wake-up call to Liberian authorities that these cases can be done and should be done,” said Elise Keppler, associate director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “It’s a vital way to ensure that the worst crimes don’t go unpunished and that there is justice for crimes that domestic or international courts aren’t able to pursue.”
Liberia descended into civil war in 1989 after rebels led by Charles Taylor invaded the country from neighboring Ivory Coast to oust dictator Samuel Doe. The conflict abated after Taylor was elected president, only to flare up again in 2002 and 2003. The conflict became notorious for its widespread use of child soldiers and made a pariah of the West African country that now has a population of about 5 million people.
Kosiah was a rebel leader with the ULIMO movement which from 1991 fought against Taylor’s control of the country. Kosiah is charged with ordering the pillaging of villages, killings of civilians and taking part in the killing himself, rape, and the desecration of a corpse including the eating of a human heart.
He is also accused of recruiting a 12-year-old boy to become a soldier, grooming him to fight, while making him his personal bodyguard and food taster.
Dimitri Gianoli, Kosiah’s lawyer, didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
The case is being heard in Switzerland both as Kosiah was living there at the time of his arrest in 2014 and because under the concept of universal jurisdiction, a person can be tried for war crimes anywhere. Switzerland’s top criminal court took over responsibility from its military tribunals for trying war crimes a decade ago and this is the first such case.
“It’s good news that this case is finally being heard here, for the victims, but also for Switzerland, which is growing in importance in international criminal justice,” said Alain Werner, a human-rights lawyer representing four plaintiffs in the case.
While Taylor is serving a 50-year prison sentence in a U.K. prison for atrocities committed in neighboring Sierra Leone, no one has ever been tried for war crimes in Liberia, despite repeated calls by local activists, lawyers and traditional chiefs for the establishment of a war crimes court. Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which operated until 2009, also recommended the establishment of a special tribunal.
After Liberian lawmakers introduced a resolution in 2019 calling for the legislature to establish a court with help from international donors, President George Weah said he supported the measure. However, the resolution has since been blocked from consideration by the legislature’s speaker.
Several people who rose to prominence during the war now occupy senior government positions, including Taylor’s ex-wife Jewel Howard Taylor, who’s currently the country’s vice president.
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