Hasan Bility, the man at the center of accusations of bribing and tampering with witnesses in the ongoing war crimes trial of Gibril Massaquoi, took the stand on Monday to refute the allegations. He testified in this trial and at the Special Court for Sierra Leone that Massaquoi tortured him.
Bility, Director of the Liberian NGO, Global Justice Research Project (GJRP), which together with its Swiss partner CivitasMaxima, documented Massaquoi’s alleged crimes during Liberia’s second civil war, said none of the claims by witnesses were true.
“Everything those witnesses said are all false and lies intended to mislead the public,” Bility told the four-judge panel.
“I do not need to bribe witnesses, because there were over 250,000 people who died and they have many relatives willing to testify for free so why should GJRP bribe witnesses to testify? Furthermore, I do not have the power to grant asylum to anybody, neither does GJRP have that power, because asylums are usually granted by governments and not individuals. The U.S. government, Europe and Scotland Yard, pay for flight tickets for witnesses, and not GJRP. Neither is there any organization in Ghana that grants asylum to anybody.”
Three defense witnesses have appeared before the Finnish Court alleging that Mr. Bility coached them to lie about Mr. Massaquoiand Agnes Taylor, who was charged and detained in the United Kingdom.
They said Mr. Bility wanted them to testify that Mr. Massaquoiand Madam Taylor committed human rights violations and promised to pay them US$15,000 to US$20,000 once they had testified.
The first witness said Bility gave him US$200 and promised to advance him US$4,000 and pay him US$16,000 and secure him asylum in a European country. But the witness claimed he refused to testify.
The second witness said Bility gave him US$20 and promised him US$15,000 and asylum to any European country of his choice.
The third witness claimed Bility coached him to lie about seeing Madam Taylor killing and opening people’s stomachs during the war. He said Bility promised him US$16,000 and asylum for him and his family.
The court has ordered journalists to withhold identities of witness to protect them from retaliation, but Mr. Bility asked that his name be made public. He took the stand and denied all allegations.
“When a witness is afraid to testify, we have a witness protection service to relocate the witness within Liberia and our officer is usually in communication with that witness. We tell witnesses if they are going to testify, they should not tell anybody. And if there is a witness living outside of Liberia and wants to testify, but there is a security risk, the witness makes a case to the government of that county regarding security risk,” Mr Bility said.
When asked by the defense team during cross examination, if US$15,000 to US$20,000 was much money to run his organization, he replied: “that amount can run GJRP operations for two months when it comes to paying of staff, utility bills, gasoline and fuel for running vehicles and generator.”
Bility said his organization has a consent form given to witnesses and the form has nothing about giving benefits to witnesses. But he pointed out that there is a part on the form that mentioned lodging wage. And the lodging wage enables a witness traveling from out of town to receive money for transportation, feeding and lodging because many people do not work in Liberia and cannot afford to transport their own way to come and testify for GJRP.
When asked to differentiate between a falsehood and a lie, Mr. Bility answered confidently, saying a falsehood is said out of ignorance, but emphasized that ‘lie’ is an intent to deceive people.
Bility was asked about Alan White, the former chief investigator of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, to whom all three accusing defense witnesses admitted having spoken to in the run up to the trial.
White’s conduct in overseeing the Special Court investigation is under question in this trial because many of the crimes Mr. Massaquoi is charged with allegedly took place in Liberia while Mr. Massaquoi was in a safe house in Sierra Leone under witness protection overseen by Mr. White.
His communication with the witness may be seen as witness tampering.
A third defense witness took the stand last week in the ongoing war crimes trial of Massaquoi to claim that Bility, the human rights advocate whose work gathering evidence has been instrumental in the trials of a dozen accused war criminals in international courts, had asked him to tell lies that would implicate Alieu Kosiah who was convicted of war crimes in Switzerland in June.
The witness, codenamed L3 to protect him from retaliation, undermined his own testimony by insisting Bility made the request in May this year, a month after trial of Kosiah had ended.
Kosiah, a former commander of the ULIMO rebel group, was prosecuted and convicted of war crimes committed in Liberia by the Swiss Federal Criminal Court. The trial ran over two periods because of COVID. It began in December 2020 and ended in early April, 2021.
But L3 insisted to the Finnish court, conducting hearings at a secret location in Monrovia, that Bility had made the request.
“We met at a funeral in Black Gina yard and we talked for five minutes, and he told me he had a job for me to do,” said L3. “He told me to work for him and testify against three persons – AlieuKosiah, Issa Kabbah and Yousuf Massaquoi – but when I told him I did not know the two men Kabbah and Massaquoi, he said he was going to tell me what to say and he gave me US$20. Bility promised that if I testify against the people he asked me to, he was going to pay me US$20,000 and make my family and I leave Liberia.”
Massaquoi is charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, including committing and inciting the murders of civilians and enemy fighters, aggravated rapes, aggravated war crimes, and aggravated violations of human rights in Liberia.
He is standing trial in Tampere, Finland where he was living under an agreement with the Special Court for Sierra Leone for which he was an informant.
Prosecutor Tom Laitinin presented a summary of an interview L3 did with Finnish police investigating the case where L3 said the alleged conversation with Bility about “a contract” took place in 2015 and not 2021.
L3 replied, “Sometimes during discussion you are not able to explain everything.”
Mr. Laitinin pointed out that in the police interview L3 did not mention anything about Bility promising to pay him US$20,000.
L3 said Bility did not give him details about the testimonies he wanted him to provide against Kosiah and others.
Unhappy with the encounter, L3 said he told a fellow witness about it. That witness made his own claims in court about Bilityoffering him bribes. L3 said the fellow witness had connected him to Finnish investigators.
L3, who told the court he fought separately for ULIMO and Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, known by the acronym LURD, also confirmed speaking to Alan White, a former chief investigator for the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone. Two earlier witnesses have said they were also called by Dr. White.
The actions of the former investigator may come under scrutiny if Mr. Massaquoi, a Sierra Leonean former commander of the Revolutionary United Front rebel group, is found to have committed the crimes of which he is accused. Witnesses say the crimes took place in Liberia in June to August 2003 while Mr. Massaquoi was supposedly in a Sierra Leone safe house under witness protection overseen by Dr. White while he was informing on former combatants including Liberian President Charles Taylor.
“I talked with White constantly on the phone,” L3 told the court. “I was connected to him by my friend. I spoke with Dr. White on April 10, 2021 in Ganta, Nimba County, when he called on my colleague’s phone and he (colleague) put me on with him. I do not know what they talked but I guess it was about this same issue.”
“When he called, I told him I was in a meeting and could not talk but he should discuss it with my colleague and he was going to relay it to me. My colleague told me Mr. White told him to carry me to talk with some people.”
A second witness appeared behind closed doors with no press allowed. No reason was given but the Finnish court has previously allowed survivors of sexual assault to testify to a closed court.
Prosecution and defense teams are seeking to probe the question of exactly where Mr. Massaquoi was during the period of June to August 2003 when witnesses say he committed atrocities in Liberia.