PARIS (AP) — A Paris court on Wednesday found a former Liberian rebel guilty of torture, acts of barbarism and complicity in crimes against humanity during the country’s civil war almost 30 years ago, sentencing him to life in prison.
Kunti Kamara, 47, had been accused of “complicity in massive and systematic torture and inhumane 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 repeatedly rejected all the accusations against him during the nearly four-week trial.
Prosecutors requested a life sentence while defense lawyers called for acquittal, citing a lack of evidence.
“Your verdict will be historic,” prosecutor Aurélie Belliot told the court, which was made up of three judges and a jury. “You must send a clear message: France must not be the last shelter for authors of crimes against humanity.”
Kamara was arrested near Paris in 2018, following a complaint filed by Swiss-based group Civitas Maxima, specialized in helping victims of crimes against humanity.
During the investigation, he acknowledged having been a battlefield commander, leading about 80 soldiers during the civil war — a choice he said he made to defend himself against Charles Taylor’s rival faction.
With no material evidence because of the chaos of the war, accusations relied on witnesses. During the investigation, French police officers went to Liberia to identify witnesses and interview local residents. About 15 of them came to Paris to testify.
Among other crimes, Kamara was accused of having allowed and facilitated rapes and sexual torture of two young teenagers by some Ulimo soldiers.
One of the victims vividly described the pain and suffering she endured, crying until she felt unwell and was unable to continue testifying. She wasn’t able to come back to the court, and a message from her was read the next day saying she didn’t want to see Kamara again.
Kamara was also accused of having participated in the killing of two civilians and an act of cannibalism. Described by Belliot as the “active author of a collective killing,” he is accused of having eaten the heart of the victim after it had been removed by another soldier with an ax.
In addition, he was accused of having killed a sick woman, firing at her head with a rifle, and of having compelled people into forced labor under inhuman conditions. He and his group allegedly forced civilians to carry very heavy loads, including electric generators and food, for hours without food and water.
Accusations also included the torture of a man, whose arms were tied behind his back before being dragged on the floor until he was very seriously wounded.
The trial by the Paris criminal court has been made possible under a French law that recognizes universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity and acts of torture.
Prosecutor Claire Thouault stressed that Liberia never sent to trial those who committed crimes during the country’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that killed an estimated 250,000 people.
She said that as soon as he arrived in Europe, Kamara “did everything to hide the reality of his actions and avoid any accusation.”
Kamara said he left Liberia after the end of the first civil war in 1997 and later went to the Netherlands. He acknowledged he lied about his past to get asylum there, including by not disclosing he used to be an Ulimo soldier.
He was later granted citizenship and lived in the country for 12 years, before coming to Belgium and then France because prosecutors alleged that he felt his war activities were getting increasingly known by Dutch authorities.
Rights groups hailed the trial as an important step to bring justice to victims.
Speaking ahead of the verdict, Sabrina Delattre, lawyer for Civitas Maxima, said because “there is total impunity in Liberia” for war criminals, “it’s very important for the victims that this trial took place. It’s really important that they were able to come here and give their testimony before the court.”
The country’s post-war truth and reconciliation commission in 2009 recommended prosecution for dozens of ex-warlords and their commanders bearing greatest responsibilities for the war. But successive governments have largely ignored the recommendations, much to the disappointment and frustration of war victims.
The trial in Paris followed a related case in Switzerland, where a court in June 2021 convicted a former Ulimo commander, Alieu Kosiah, to 20 years in prison for the rapes and killings of civilians among other crimes. Kosiah was the first Liberian convicted of war crimes dating from the first civil war. He appealed the decision.
Kosiah’s statements involving Kamara partly led to the arrest of his former comrade-in-arms.
Alexander Turnbull and Oleg Cetinic contributed to the story.
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