A Liberian rebel commander was sentenced in Switzerland to 20 years in jail on Friday for rape, killings and an act of cannibalism, in one of the first ever convictions over the West African country’s civil war.
The case was also Switzerland’s first war crimes trial in a civilian court. It involved 46-year-old Alieu Kosiah who went by the nom de guerre “bluff boy” in the rebel faction ULIMO that fought former President Charles Taylor’s army in the 1990s.
Kosiah, faced 25 charges and was convicted on all but four of them, documents from the Swiss Federal Court showed.
He was arrested in 2014 in Switzerland, where he had been living as a permanent resident. A 2011 Swiss law allows prosecution for serious crimes committed anywhere, under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
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.
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 tussles for power exacerbated by ethnic rivalry.
Activists in the Liberian capital Monrovia celebrated the verdict. “This will serve as a deterrent for others around the world. I think justice has taken its course,” said Dan Sayeh, a civil society campaigner.
Jefferson Knight, another activist in Liberia, said he hoped the sentence would add to growing pressure for the government to create a war crimes unit, as the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee recommended years ago.
Charles Taylor was sentenced for war crimes in 2012, but only for acts in neighbouring Sierra Leone. His son, Chuckie, was sentenced for torture in Liberia by a US court in 2009.
Kosiah had denied all the charges and told the court he was a minor when first recruited into the conflict. He was cleared on Friday of attempted murder of a civilian, accessory to the murder of a civilian, an order to loot and recruitment of a child soldier.
The court said in an emailed statement that the 20-year sentence was the maximum it was allowed to give under Swiss law.
“No mitigating circumstances were taken into account in the sentencing. A deportation from Switzerland was also ordered for a period of 15 years,” it said. Kosiah was also ordered to pay compensation to seven plaintiffs, it added.
It was not immediately clear when the deportation would take place. Kosiah’s sentence includes the 2 413 days, or around 6-1/2 years, that he has already served in pre-trial detention, the court papers showed.