Kunti Kamara, an alleged former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, stood trial at the Paris criminal court in France. Proceedings started on the 10th of October and continued until November 2nd, with Kamara condemned to the maximum sentence of life in prison for aggravated acts of torture and barbarism, as well as crimes against humanity. He was arrested by French police on September 4th, 2018, in Paris, after the nongovernmental organization Civitas Maxima filed a criminal complaint earlier that year. To date, Liberia has not prosecuted a single person for international crimes committed during its civil wars, with only a handful of suspected perpetrators being prosecuted internationally. The trial of Kunti Kamara will be the first French universal jurisdiction trial not connected to the Rwandan genocide since the French war crimes unit was established in 2012.
The trial of Kunti Kamara provides an opportunity for closure for Liberian civilians who suffered during the conflict. Unfortunately, French authorities have failed to reach out to affected communities in advance of the trial. Instead, nongovernmental organizations such as Civitas Maxima and the Global Justice and Research Project are working to ensure that Liberian communities can follow the proceedings. Civitas Maxima explain how they collaborated with Liberian journalists to ensure they could attend and report on the trial. Furthermore, 27 witnesses and experts and ten civil parties took the stand over more than three weeks of debates and hearings. They described to the judges and jury the atrocities they witnessed and experienced in the Liberian county of Lofa between 1993 and 1994.
Bénédicte Jeannerod, director of Human Rights Watch in France, outlines how, “This trial is a significant step for justice for victims of atrocities committed in Liberia’s first civil war.” Human Rights Watch details how the civil wars in Liberia (1989-1996 and 1999-2003) were characterized by widespread and systematic violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Among the atrocities identified by human rights groups, foreign embassies, and the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, are executions, massacres, sexual violence, mutilation and torture, and forced conscription and use of child soldiers. Fighters gunned down Liberian men, women, and children, while girls and women were subjected to horrific sexual violence including rape, gang rape, sexual slavery, and torture. Children were abducted from their homes and schools and forced into service, often after their parents were murdered in front of them. The violence shattered the lives of tens of thousands of civilians and displaced almost half the population. Ultimately, approximately 250,000 people were killed between 1989 and 2003, with crimes being committed by members of all parties in the conflict, government and rebel groups alike.
Sabrina Delattre, a lawyer representing the civil parties, explained how, “Liberia is a country where total impunity for these crimes still prevails,” often in the name of keeping the peace. France24 outlines how despite a truth and reconciliation commission being set up in 2006 to probe crimes committed during the war, its recommendations, published in 2009, have remained largely unimplemented. Furthermore, many warlords who were incriminated in crimes against humanity are still considered heroes in their communities. Because of this, the importance of international trials such as the one of Kunti Kamara cannot be understated. The atrocities that occurred in Liberia went largely under the radar of the international community, and with a lack of news coverage there was a sense of invincibility amongst all parties to the conflict — they believed they would never have to face the repercussions of their actions. The outcome of the Kunti Kamara trial will serve as a warning to others that those who commit massacres such as those that occurred in Liberia will be brought to justice.
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