Former Liberia rebel chief faces war crimes trial in France

Kunti Kamara faces charges relating to the conflict between 1989 and 2003 in which at least 250,000 people died

epa03197285 (FILE) A file photograph dated 30 July 2003 showing a Liberian child soldier fighting for Charles Taylor's government forces during the civil war in Monrovia, Liberia. Media reports state that Charles Taylor on 26 April 2012 became the first former African head of state to be convicted by a UN court after he was found guilty in The Hague, Netherlands,  of 11 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone, including terror, murder, rape, and conscripting child soldiers. While the court found it could not prove that Taylor did have direct command over rebel operations, presiding judge Richard Lussick said the court had 'found unanimously that Mr Taylor aided and abetted RUF and AFRC rebels in the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sierra Leone.' The crimes for which he was prosecuted date from November 1996 until the official end of the war, in January 2002.  EPA/NIC BOTHMA *** Local Caption *** 50315640
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France's first trial of a participant in Liberia's bloody civil wars opens on Monday, with former rebel commander Kunti Kamara facing charges of crimes against humanity, including torture.

The allegations before the Paris criminal court against Mr Kamara, 47, date back to 1993 and 1994, early years in Liberia's back-to-back conflicts. At least 250,000 people lost their lives in the violence between 1989 and 2003.

The conflicts were marked by mass murder, rape and mutilation, in many cases by child soldiers conscripted by warlords.

Atrocities against civilians were common, with drugged fighters chopping off people's limbs.

A truth and reconciliation commission was set up in 2006 to probe crimes committed during the war, but its recommendations, published in 2009, have remained largely unimplemented in the name of keeping the peace.

And many warlords who were incriminated are still considered heroes in their communities.

"Liberia is a country where total impunity for these crimes still prevails," said Sabrina Delattre, a lawyer representing several Liberians and the Civitas Maxima aid group, which is also a plaintiff in the case.

Mr Kamara was a regional commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, a rebel group that fought the National Patriotic Front of former president Charles Taylor.

According to investigators, he led a faction in Lofa county, a strategic area in north-west Liberia.

As well as torture, he is also accused of involvement in "mass and systematic practices of inhumane acts ... for both political and ethnic motives", including killing, gang rape and looting.

He faces a maximum possible sentence of life in prison.

In a statement, prosecutors laid out graphic details of Mr Kamara's alleged methods, including killing a whistle-blower with an axe before eating his heart.

The charge sheet also alleges that young women were raped and kept as sex slaves under his authority.

Mr Kamara, who was arrested near Paris in September 2018, denies the charges.

"He has acknowledged that he was an ULIMO soldier but has always denied committing atrocities against civilians," said his lawyer, Marlyne Secci.

Mr Kamara is "approaching this court case as someone who will be tried in a country that is not his own," she added.

The case was brought by the crimes against humanity division of the Paris court, which was set up in 2012 to try suspected perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide detained on French soil, irrespective of where their alleged crimes were committed.

Set to last until November 4, this is the first case taken by the unit that is not related to the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

So far only a handful of people have been convicted in Liberia itself for their part in the conflict, and efforts to establish a war crimes court in the country have stalled.

Taylor, the former Liberian warlord-turned-president, was imprisoned in 2012, but for war crimes committed in neighbouring Sierra Leone, not in his own country.

Other former participants in the Liberian wars have been tried abroad in recent years.

In Finland, suspected warlord Gibril Massaquoi was acquitted in April over alleged crimes carried out in the later years of the second war.

A Swiss court last year sentenced former ULIMO leader Alieu Kosiah to 20 years in prison for war crimes.

And in the US, the former warlord Mohammed Jabateh was jailed for 30 years in 2018 — albeit for lying on his asylum application rather than for his alleged crimes.

"The victims are still very traumatised and need this justice, but they fear pressure from former rebels who still have powerful networks in Liberia," Ms Delattre said.

Updated: October 10, 2022, 4:34 AM