By John Ikani
A Swiss court has handed Liberian rebel commander Alieu Kosiah a 20-year prison sentence for war crimes during the country’s civil war in the 1990s, a ruling welcomed by activists and human rights groups.
Around 250,000 people were killed in Liberia’s two conflicts between 1989 and 2003, and many thousands more fled.
Switzerland recognises the principle of universal justice, meaning suspects accused of high-profile crimes elsewhere can be tried in its courts.
The 46-year-old was found guilty of 21 out of the 25 charges, including ordering or participating in the killing of 17 civilians and two unarmed soldiers, documents from the Swiss Federal Court in the southern city of Bellinzona showed on Friday.
He was also found guilty of rape, having deployed a child soldier, ordering lootings, inhuman and degrading treatment on civilians, and an act of cannibalism.
He was arrested in 2014 in Switzerland, where he had been living as a permanent resident.
A plaintiff in the case who testified that Kosiah ordered his brother’s murder urged other Liberians to come forward as witnesses and secure more convictions.
“If you set an example, the other guys will be afraid,” he said in a statement via the NGO Civitas Maxima that represented him. He asked not to be named in media reports for fear of reprisals.
Liberia has ignored pressure to prosecute crimes from its back-to-back wars between 1989-2003, in which thousands of child soldiers became bound up in power tussles exacerbated by ethnic rivalry.
Human Rights Watch called Friday’s sentencing a “landmark.”
“Switzerland’s efforts on this case should help mobilize wider accountability in Liberia as this shows that these crimes can be prosecuted. I see this as an opportunity,” the group’s Elise Keppler said.
The crimes took place while Kosiah was fighting with Alhaji Kromah’s United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy rebel group against Charles Taylor’s troops in the remote Lofa County in the 1990s.
Liberia endured two bouts of brutal fighting from 1989 to 1997, after which Taylor became president, and 1999 to 2003.
Before Kosiah’s guilty verdict, no Liberian had ever been convicted of crimes committed during the conflict. Taylor was, however, convicted in 2012 of committing war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone.