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Hearings set to begin in landmark Liberia war crimes trial

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(FILES) In this file photograph taken on February 3, 2021, Sierra Leonean national Gibril Massaquoi (C) wears a face mask in the courtroom as he attends the first day of his trial at The Pirkanmaa District Court in Tampere, Finland. – The trial of suspected warlord Gibril Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean living in Finland since 2008, began in Finland on February 3, 2021, the first such case to be partly heard on Liberian soil. He is accused of murder, aggravated war crimes and aggravated crimes against humanity during Liberia’s civil war a generation ago. The Finnish court that is judging Gibril Massaquoi in Finland has been travelling to Liberia for about ten days to visit some of the sites of the alleged crimes and, starting February 23, 2021, will begin several weeks of hearing witnesses, in Monrovia rather than in Finland for practical reasons. (Photo by Kalle Parkkinen / Lehtikuva / AFP) / Finland OUT

A Finnish court was to begin hearing witness testimony in Liberia’s capital Monrovia on Tuesday, an AFP journalist said, as part of a first-of-a-kind war-crimes trial in the country.

The court is in the West African state for a case against Gibril Massaquoi, a former senior member of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a Sierra Leone rebel group that also fought in Liberia.

Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean national, has lived in Finland since 2008, but was arrested there in March last year after a rights NGO investigated his war record.

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A case against the 51-year-old then began on February 3 in the northern European country, where he is accused of responsibility for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1999 and 2003.

But in a historic move, the Finnish judges are also hearing evidence on Liberian soil — the first time war-crime proceedings have taken place in the country.

Around a quarter of a million people were killed between 1989 to 2003 in a conflict marked by brutal violence and rape, often carried out by child soldiers.

Finnish court documents consulted by AFP detail a litany of accusations of abuse committed or ordered by Massaquoi, including murder, rape, torture, enslavement and using child soldiers.

Very few people have faced trial for war crimes committed in Liberia, and none inside the country itself.

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Thomas Elfgren, a senior Finnish investigator associated with the case, characterised the proceedings as “historical.”

He clarified that they are not comparable to an international tribunal, however.

“At the end of the day, it’s a Finnish court which will make a decision in Finland,” Elfgren said.

Finnish law allows the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad by a citizen or resident.

There are regular appeals to establish a war-crimes tribunal in Liberia itself, but some ex-warlords remain powerful figures in an impoverished nation of 5 million people.

President George Weah has so far resisted the calls.

An official close to the Finnish case told AFP that the court will interview three witnesses at an undisclosed location in Monrovia on Tuesday.

Hearings are due to continue for several weeks, at a rate of about 10 witnesses a week, according to the official, who added that the testimony would likely be harrowing.

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