A former Liberian rebel was tried Monday in Paris for crimes against humanity, torture and acts of barbarism during the civil war in the West African country in the 1990s.
Kunti Kamara, 47, is accused of “complicity in massive and systematic torture and inhuman acts” against civilians in Liberia’s Lofa County in 1993-1994, as one of the leaders of the Ulimo armed group. He was then less than 20 years old.
Kamara, who faces life imprisonment, denied having committed such acts.
“I am innocent,” Kamara told the court on Monday, adding that he did not know any of the witnesses who accused him.
Kamara was arrested near Paris in 2018 following a complaint filed by the Swiss group Civitas Maxima, which specializes in helping victims of crimes against humanity.
During the investigation, he admitted that he was a commander on the battlefield, leading about 80 soldiers during the civil war, a choice he said he made to defend against Charles Taylor’s rival faction.
According to court documents, he is accused of punching a man and then opening his chest with an ax to extract and eat his heart. He is also accused of authorizing and encouraging rape and sexual torture in his position of authority, and of forcing people into forced labor in inhumane conditions.
The trial before the Paris Criminal Court was made possible by a French law that recognizes universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity and acts of torture.
Kamara said he left Liberia after the first civil war ended in 1997 and then went to the Netherlands, then Belgium before coming to France about two years before his arrest.
Human rights groups hailed the trial as an important step in doing justice to the victims.
It is “a victory for the Liberian victims and a warning to the perpetrators that wherever they are, we will make sure they are held accountable for the crimes they committed in Liberia,” Hassan Bility, head of the Global Justice and Research Project, told The Associated. . To press. Bility’s non-governmental organization is committed to documenting wartime atrocities in Liberia and assisting victims in pursuing justice.
Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) noted that the first civil war in Liberia was particularly marked by “violence against civilians, as warring factions massacred and raped civilians, pillaged and coerced children. to kill and fight “.
Elise Keppler, Deputy Director of International Justice at Human Rights Watch, said the trial was particularly important due to the “inability of the Liberian authorities to hold accountable those responsible for serious crimes during the civil wars.”
“The French atrocity trial in Liberia reinforces the importance of the principle of universal jurisdiction to ensure that the worst crimes do not go unpunished,” said Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer coordinating the FIDH Prosecution Group.
Consecutive civil wars in Liberia killed an estimated 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003.
The country’s postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2009 recommended the prosecution of dozens of former warlords and their commanders who have the greatest responsibilities in the war. But successive governments largely ignored the recommendations, much to the chagrin and frustration of the war victims.
Political analysts say this is largely due to the fact that some key players in the war have held influential positions in government, including the legislature, since the war ended nearly 30 years ago. .
Current President George Weah has spoken out against impunity for war crimes when he was in the opposition, but has been reluctant to listen to citizens’ demands for a war crimes tribunal.
During her visit to Liberia last week, US War Crimes Ambassador Dr Beth Van Schaack promised her government would “100%” support Liberia if the country decided. to create a tribunal to examine his past. .
Expressing his disappointment that Liberia is still lagging behind in promoting transitional justice, he assured Liberians that he would recommend “that if something starts moving, we should be a partner in this effort.”
The Paris trial, which will last four weeks, is the fifth in France to deal with crimes against humanity and torture. Previous cases involved crimes related to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.