A woman cried on Wednesday as she testified to a Swiss court that a former Liberian rebel commander had raped her repeatedly during the country’s civil war, on the first day of his appeal to overturn 22 convictions for war crimes.
While Alieu Kosiah is appealing the 2021 ruling Swiss prosecutors are arguing that he also committed crimes against humanity, which could increase his 20-year sentence if his conviction is upheld and he is found guilty on these counts.
Kosiah, who fought against former Liberian president Charles Taylor’s army in the 1990s, was convicted on charges including rape, murder and cannibalism in Switzerland’s first ever war crimes trial. The court is now considering crimes against humanity for the first time in a Swiss trial.
The public left the courtroom to allow a plaintiff, who said she was raped by Kosiah at the age of 14, to continue her testimony. “I was told I would be his wife,” she told the court. “If I didn’t go (with him), he would have killed me. He forced me four times.”
Kosiah was arrested in 2014 in Switzerland, where he had been living as a permanent resident. A 2011 Swiss law allows prosecution for serious crimes committed anywhere, under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Kosiah told the court he had never met the woman. “It’s not because someone gets emotional that she is right,” he said. His lawyer Dimitri Gianoli says he was not present when the war crimes were allegedly committed.
During Liberia’s back-to-back wars between 1989-2003 thousands of people were mutilated and raped in clashes that involved drugged fighters and marauding child soldiers conscripted by warlords.
Unlike neighbouring Sierra Leone, engulfed in civil war at the same time and which later held war crimes trials, no prosecutions have taken place in Liberia. The victims testifying in Switzerland have asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals. Some former warlords still hold major positions in the country.
Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer and director at Civitas Maxima who is representing the victims, said he was confident but it was a complicated case. “Sometimes it’s just their word against his and these are things that happened 30 years ago.”
The court will later hear from a man who alleged he witnessed Kosiah eat slices of a man’s heart and another who accuses him of stabbing him and ordering killings.
The three judges will make a ruling later this year.
Observers hope the case will galvanise other lengthy Swiss probes yet to go to court, including a torture case against a former Gambian minister and a war crimes case against a former Algerian junta leader.
Momentum is growing outside of Liberia for justice for war-time atrocities. In November, a former Liberian rebel commander was sentenced to life in prison by a French court and a Finnish appeals court is hearing a Liberia war crimes case.
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