Warning: the following article contains a graphic description of an inhumane act
I’ve written on an earlier occasion on the atrocities, ritualistic murders, cannibalism and other war crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war – for shortness sake let me refer to my October 20, 2022 posting, entitled ‘Atrocities, witchcraft, superstition and ritualistic cannibalism during Liberia’s First Civil War (1989-1997)‘.
There’s not much to add without risking repeating myself. Let me just briefly mention what I consider the triple motive of the perpetrator(s): first, to intimidate the bystander, the perceived enemy; secondly, to make clear that he, the actor, is the strongest, the conquerer, and thirdly, without doubt, there is a religious or superstitious drive, a belief in the supernatural powers of eating the heart of the enemy. Notably the latter motive makes it a ritualistic act, and murder, a despicable crime.
The 2009 report of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) includes many examples of ritualistic acts committed during the back-to-back civil wars (1989-2003). For reasons only known to herself, President Sirleaf (2006-2018) never implemented the TRC recommendations including the prosecution of the rebel leaders responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, possibly because she was also recommended for a sanction because of her (admitted) support of the NPLF, the rebel organization which started the civil war in 1989. Also President Weah (2018 – present) decided not to start procedures establishing a war crimes court, backtracking on previous statements when still in opposition.
The result is impunity for the perpetrators. Injustice. An insult to the survivors and victims.
Liberians will go to the polls on October 10 to elect a president, vice president and 88 lawmakers. The incumbent president, George Weah, has shown his position when it comes to justice for the victims and survivors. His main challengers are a former Vice President under President Sirleaf, Joseph Boakai, from Lofa County, whose running mate is a political protégé of warlord-turned-senator Prince Johnson – yes, the rebel commander who in 1990 gave his men orders to torture and kill then President Samuel Doe – and Alexander Cummings, who has promised to establish a war crimes tribunal when elected into the highest office.
We’ll closely watch events in Liberia during the coming month(s).
Chopped up with an axe and a heart eaten out: some crimes never die
Published: September 13, 2023
By: Alain Werner – Civitas Maxima
Exactly 30 years ago, in the summer of 1993, a group of rebel soldiers sowed unheard-of terror in the town of Foya, in the small West African country of Liberia, then ravaged by civil war.
Here, 450 kilometers north of the capital Monrovia, a pious man respected by his community had the courage to denounce the rebel group that occupied the premises, ULIMO (United Liberation Movement of Democracy for Liberia). He did so to a humanitarian group, and told them that ULIMO was responsible for the looting of a hospital financed by humanitarian aid.
Once the foreigners had left, the pious man was taken to what was then used as an airstrip and his thorax was cut out by the rebels, his heart extracted and eaten in front of the population. “Try ULIMO, your heart” – which could be translated as “Defy ULIMO, we’ll take your heart” – was one of the slogans used to terrorize the population, a slogan that some civilians who survived that inferno still remember.
The most bloodthirsty of the ULIMO commanders, who opened the pious man’s chest with an axe and spread his killing spree to Foya, was known by the war nickname of “Ugly Boy”, despite his handsome features. The local population, who spoke a different dialect than the ULIMO soldiers, had nicknamed this commander differently among themselves, so as to be able to alert each other to his arrival without being understood by the rebels. They called him “Saah Chuey”, or “the man with the axe” in the Kissi language, as this commander was famous for chopping up civilians with his axe.
“Ugly Boy” was never tried for his ignominious deeds. Indeed, legend has it that he died by popular vindication, having been recognized in Guinea by refugees who had fled Liberia. However, if he were still alive today, “Ugly Boy” would still not have been tried in Liberia.
Indeed, in August we will be celebrating 20 years since the end of the wars in this country, and yet no one has been tried by a court in the country; the government and the United Nations having done nothing for the forgotten victims of Liberia. Despite the fact that a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommended in 2009 that the main players in the war should be brought to justice, and that at least 250,000 people lost their lives during these bloody conflicts between 1989 and 2003.
However, on Thursday June 1, 2023, the Federal Criminal Court of Appeal in Switzerland convicted a man, Alieu Kosiah, of participating in the axe murder of the Pious Man. Jurisdiction was given in our country because Mr. Kosiah had been resident in Lausanne since the late 1990s. The conviction came exactly 30 years after the events, and was handed down in Bellinzona, seat of the Federal Criminal Court, some 7,000 kilometers from the scene of the crimes, Foya.
Alieu Kosiah had already been convicted in June 2021 by the Criminal Court for multiple acts of war crimes, including having eaten a piece of the pious man’s heart in the company of “Ugly Boy”. At the time, however, he was found not guilty of the axe-murder, the first judges considering that he had not played an active role in this crime.
The appeal judges decided otherwise and sentenced Alieu Kosiah for complicity in the murder of the pious man, an act qualified as a war crime and a crime against humanity. During the reading of the verdict, the President of the Court, Olivier Thormann, explained that, according to the Court, Alieu Kosiah had handed the pious man over to “Ugly Boy” to be taken to the Foya airstrip, knowing full well what would happen next.
This appeal judgment marks Swiss legal history, as it is the very first conviction in our country for crimes against humanity. It now opens the way for prosecutions in Switzerland for such crimes, even if committed before 2011 and the entry into force of the new provisions of the penal code.
As a lawyer and Director of Civitas Maxima, since 2014 I have represented several Liberian victims in this case alongside Me Romain Wavre, including a friend of the pious man who was present at the scene and witnessed his ordeal, having himself been a victim of ULIMO crimes.
Our clients and other victims have shown exceptional resilience, dignity and courage. Most of them came to Switzerland three times to testify throughout the proceedings, and overcame the obstacles posed by the Ebola epidemic in 2014-2015 and the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020-2021 to finally obtain justice.
War crimes and crimes against humanity are unique in that they “never die”. Indeed, because they concern the international community as a whole, these offences are not extinguished by a statute of limitations after a certain number of years, as is the case for most ordinary crimes. Prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity are thus theoretically possible as long as the person accused of committing them is alive and evidence exists, theoretically even if the victims are all dead. Just as the forgotten victims of Liberia obtained justice in Switzerland in 2023 for crimes committed so far away in 1993, victims of international crimes committed during current or recent armed conflicts must never lose hope. Even if we must do everything to ensure that they obtain justice before 2053 for the crimes they have suffered.
The article first appeared in French on Heidi News on the 16th of July, 2023.