PARIS, France—In closing statements prosecutors in the war crimes trial of Kunti Kamara, an accused Liberian warlord, have asked the French jury hearing his case to find him guilty of all charges and sentence him to the maximum possible sentence of life imprisonment which in France means 30 years.
Mr Kamara, 47, is accused of crimes against humanity and torture, including cannibalism, forced labor, murder and complicity in rapes.
He’s accused of committing the crimes as a commander for the United Liberation Movement for Democracy (Ulimo), one of the warring factions in the first Liberian civil war.
He denies all charges.
Prosecutors urged the jury of six civilians and three judges to use the principle of universal jurisdiction, which has provided the legal basis for trying a Liberian for war crimes in France, to deliver justice.
“It’s your responsibility to sentence Mr Kamara for all the crimes he did,” said Aurelie Belliot, a prosecutor in the case. “France should not be the last hiding place for war criminals. So, I am asking you to sentence Mr. Kunti Kamara to life imprisonment.”
Mr Kamara has admitted that he was in Foya, an area in northern Liberia, where all the crimes were allegedly committed for the four months Ulimo occupied the district in 1993.
But he has insisted that he spent a large part of his time there on the frontlines and not ruling over urban areas where the alleged crimes took place.
Unlike in Liberia and other common law jurisdictions like the US and Australia, which require a unanimous jury verdict for a conviction, the French legal system requires a simple majority. Only five of the nine jurors must agree to find Kamara guilty.
The jury in the Paris trial of Kunti Kamara includes judges and civilians.
Although Mr Kamara initially admitted in the trial that he had 80 men under his command, he claimed last week that he was a “floating officer”. But Belloit said she finds his argument to be inaccurate, because he also told the court that he held the ranks of colonel and captain in Ulimo.
Belliot insisted Mr Kamara was aware of the alleged crimes by his men, including rapes of women by one of his most feared soldiers known as “Babylon”.
“This constitutes aiding and abetting this crime,” she said. “As a superior he should have stopped this crime, but never did. Kunti Kamara is still telling the court that he’s the only one that never saw anything. The fact that he’s saying he never saw anything, does not give credibility to his defense.”
Universal jurisdiction allows the prosecution of individuals accused of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, regardless of where they took place.
It’s the same legal doctrine Swiss authorities used to successfully prosecute Alieu Kosiah, another former Ulimo commander for war crimes in June 2021. Appeal proceedings against Kosiah’s 20-year sentence are set for January 2023.
The defense has criticised Mr Kamara’s prosecution in France, arguing that the jury has never been to Liberia and does not understand the context of the Liberian civil wars. But justice advocates, including Massa Washington, an ex-commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, backed the trial.
The prosecutors used a large part of their closing argument to also defend the trial and the legal principle.
“You should take into consideration the suffering of the Liberian people. Every person in Liberia is saying that this hearing is a light of hope,” said Claire Thouault, the other prosecutor in the case.
Just like in other international trials of Liberians accused of war crimes, inconsistencies in witness testimonies have dogged this trial. It was a major line of argument by the defense.
“The issue that civil parties could not remember dates was not a memory issue, but a cultural issue,” said Thouault arguning the inconsistencies should be ignored. “During the civil war, there were no death certificates. There was no one to establish the cause of death. It was devastating! Testimonies are the central evidence. Many trials like in Rwanda and other places, testimonies were about the victims. Testimonies were about events.”
Kamara’s lawyers disagreed.
“Maybe the people are speaking together. Maybe these are the plot theories he’s talking about,” said Marilyne Secci, lead defense lawyer, talking of Kamara’s allegation that witnesses are part of a plot against him. “They didn’t recognize him. The first time they recognized him was only in court. A witness who claimed to have been on the scene cannot recall the names of two of three people there.”
Secci also challenged the lack of forensic evidence in the case and the prosecution’s reliance exclusively on the testimonies of witnesses to events that happened 29 years ago.
“There are no pictures about the facts. No picture of Mr. Kamara at the time. No bodies. You cannot provide evidence or claim with no body,” she said. “I cannot accept those accusations. The crimes are serious. Mr. Kamara runs the risk of spending his whole life in prison.”
Secci also claimed that her client’s case has been undermined by a lack of resources from the French state.
“My client didn’t have a fair hearing in this case,” she said. “Because French justice that wants to carry out fair justice but didn’t have the means. This criminal case was just carried out like an ordinary case. My colleague and had to share the legal wages. The defense didn’t have a means in this trial to present a proper defense.”
Tarek Koraitem, the other defense lawyer, pleaded with the jury to acquit his client.
“Your decision is very vital. You have to do it with justice,” said Koraitem. “And you have to do it in line with the French penal code. You are not Liberians to carry vengeance against a Liberian.”
The trial will break for a French national holiday on Tuesday and resume on Wednesday when Kamara will make his final defense statement. The jury will then retire to deliberate. The Court President Thierry Fusina stressed to Mr Kamara that his statement was critical and urged him to prepare.
“By law, you are the last person to speak,” said Fusina. “So, take time to think well. You are going to have a day to be able to think and to be able to tell the court what you want.”
A verdict in the case is expected Thursday.
This story is a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project.