A former Sierra Leonean rebel commander on trial for war crimes in the Liberian civil war has been released.
Gibril Massaquoi, an ex-member of the defunct Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, was set free on Wednesday, February 16, on the orders of the court in Finland which was trying him.
Massaquoi was detained almost two years ago on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity that he allegedly perpetrated in Liberia between 1999 and 2003.
The verdict on his year-long trial is expected in April this year, and his release has therefore sparked speculation about his possible acquittal.
Massaquoi was arrested in March 2020 in Finland, where he had been living after been granted asylum. He was reportedly a key informant for the office of the prosecutor of the former Special Court for Sierra Leone. The UN-backed tribunal tried people thought to bear the greatest responsibility for the eleven-year civil war in Sierra Leone.
Massaquoi reportedly testified during the trial that lasted for about six years (2002 to 2008), helping the court to convict some of his former colleagues in the RUF.
The case against him was brought up by human rights organizations in Liberia and Switzerland. The Global Justice Research Project (GJRP), a Liberian NGO, partnered with the Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima to investigate and file the complaint against him. The charges against him included murder, aggravated rape and aggravated war crimes.
But few weeks to the court’s verdict, the judges presiding over the case suddenly decided to release Massaquoi. And he was later freed from the jail where he had been held in pre-trial detention.
The Tampere District Court in a statement said that it took into consideration the exceptional severity of the charges the accused faces, as well as their large number. However, it also noted that Massaquoi had been detained for around two years, which it said was an exceptionally long time.
The court also noted that an exceptionally long period of 20 years had elapsed since the crimes were allegedly carried out.
“Having considered all of the above factors, the District Court considers that it would be unreasonable to continue to detain Massaquoi,” the statement reads, calling on the authorities to immediately him.
Massaquoi, now 51, was a notorious commander in the RUF, for which he later became spokesman. He was also a member of the AFRC military junta of Johnny Paul Koroma.
From the war to the junta regime, Massaquoi was associated with several high-profile crimes.
His alleged crimes in Liberia included ordering for the murder, torture and mutilation of civilians. He was also accused of cannibalization.
Part of the hearing in his trial took place in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, where court officials heard from witnesses.
If he is acquitted, it will be a major blow for efforts by rights campaigners to bring justice to victims of the war in Liberia which has failed to set up a tribunal to hold those involved in committing crimes accountable.