A Swiss court on Friday handed down the first conviction over Liberia’s 1989-1996 civil war, sentencing Alieu Kosiah to 20 years in jail for various crimes, including rape, ordering murders, and cruel treatment of civilians.
The federal prosecutor alleged that Kosiah, 46, had committed 25 war crimes. He was found guilty of all but four crimes of recruiting a child soldier, attempted murder of a civilian, murder of a civilian in complicity, and issuing orders to loot a power station.
The trial also marks Switzerland’s first war crimes trial in a civilian court. The prosecution was enabled by a 2011 Swiss law that allows prosecution under the principle of universal jurisdiction for serious crimes committed anywhere under international law.
Kosiah, also known as “bluff boy,” was a former member of the Liberian rebel faction ULIMO. After living in Switzerland as a permanent resident, he was arrested in 2014 for his alleged role in war crimes between 1993 and 1995. The arrest was a result of criminal complaints made by seven Liberian victims.
The Swiss attorney general’s office filed an indictment against Kosiah after a nearly five-year investigation in 2019. In the current decision, a maximum sentence of 20 years was handed down by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court. The decision stated that there were no mitigating circumstances. Kosiah was also ordered to be deported and to pay compensation to the seven plaintiffs.
Balkees Jarrah of Human Rights Watch (HRW) commented, “More than 20 years after the violations were committed, victims played a vital role in securing the first conviction for war crimes during Liberia’s civil war. The verdict is a breakthrough for Liberian victims and the Swiss justice system in cracking the wall of impunity.”
Universal jurisdiction cases can be a vital–albeit narrow–route to justice for victims who have nowhere else to turn. Switzerland should build on the Kosiah trial and pursue similar cases, but Liberian authorities bear the primary responsibility to fill the massive accountability gap for brutal crimes committed during the country’s civil wars.
Nonetheless, HRW expressed disappointment that Swiss authorities have not justified the lengthy pretrial detention since Kosiah has been in Swiss custody since 2014. Accordingly, his time spent in pretrial detention should be considered in determining how long he will be serving a custodial sentence as per Swiss law.
During Liberia’s civil war conflicts from 1989-1996 and 1999-2003, violations of human rights in the forms of mass killings, rape, summary executions, mutilation, torture, and the use of child combatants, among others, took place. Liberia’s 2009 truth and reconciliation report recommended prosecution for war crimes committed during this period. However, Liberia has not followed this suggestion yet.