Outside the courtroom, the sea shimmers. Atlantic waves roll in with white crests of foam. Through the window you can see the bungalows of a holiday resort, an infinity pool, and sunshades made of palm fronds. There is no one on the beach this early in the morning.

It is 17 March 2021 in Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, in West Africa. In the meeting room of a hotel, which has been converted into a courtroom, a woman is talking about how her son was murdered, some 20 years ago. She is wearing flip-flops, a purple skirt, and a pink headscarf. She bobs her leg and thumps her foot on the stone floor: clap, clap, clap.

Around the witness sit foreigners, white people: four Finnish judges (two male and two female), two Finnish prosecutors, the defendant’s Finnish lawyer and three interpreters. Despite the heat outside, the men are in suits and immaculately ironed shirts. The women wear dark blazers.

“When I reached my parents’ house, soldiers approached me at gunpoint,” the witness says. “The soldiers said, ‘stop! Don’t take another step’.” She describes how the soldiers hauled out everything her father owned from their hut. How they tied up her son, and set the whole village on fire. Her voice becomes quiet and anguished. “Then they shot, and my son was dead.” She begins to cry. From her pocket she pulls a small handkerchief to wipe the tears on her face. The session is adjourned.

After a quarter of an hour it continues. One of the two Finnish prosecutors asks:

“Do you know what the commander’s name was?”

“Yes, I remember it well.”

“What was his name?”

“Angel Gabriel Massaquoi.”

Angel Gabriel, like the Archangel, a messenger of God, and the accused’s surname: Massaquoi. A strange amalgamation.

Gibril Massaquoi is his official name. He was a warlord in the civil war in the West African country of Sierra Leone more than 20 years ago. After the war ended, a Special Court, backed by the UN, was set up to try the most serious crimes. Massaquoi testified as a crown witness, in return for which he was promised immunity from prosecution for his deeds in Sierra Leone. In 2008, he went to Finland, where he lived a peaceful, undisturbed life for more than a decade. Then his past caught up with him. A human rights organisation in Liberia had collected evidence. They accused Massaquoi of crimes committed in neighbouring Liberia, where a civil war was also raging at the time. They alleged that he had murdered, tortured, and raped. And since Massaquoi lives in Finland, it was a Finnish court that took on his case.

In recent years, many states have prosecuted crimes according to the legal principle of universal jurisdiction. It is a principle that only applies to the worst crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide. In universal jurisdiction cases, the location of a crime does not matter. The crimes are prosecuted even when they occurred in a country thousands of kilometres away. It also does not matter if the alleged perpetrators have long since left their home countries. They are tried by the countries in which they now live.

In recent years many countries have applied the principle of universal jurisdiction: Germany has initiated proceedings against torturers of the Assad regime in Syria and against fighters of the “Islamic State”, France has convicted genocidaires from Rwanda, Senegal has tried the former president of Chad, and Sweden an Iranian executioner. Presumably, crimes committed during the war in Ukraine will also soon be tried in faraway courts.

The Finns, however, took this idea further than most. That’s why lawyers of a Finnish district court are now sitting 7,000 kilometres away from their hometown, asking a woman about the most traumatic moments of her life. Normally, the jurists work in a brick building in the centre of Tampere, Finland’s third largest city. Their experiment has been hailed as the “Finnish way” in international criminal law: Whole courts, with prosecutors, judges, defence lawyers, are travelling in pursuit of crimes – to hear the witnesses in the places where they live, to visit the crime scenes, to get a better understanding of what happened. They hope that this will bring them closer to the truth.

In the spring of 2022, after more than a year of proceedings, the Finnish court will finally pronounce its verdict in the case against Gibril Massaquoi. The result will turn out to be different to what everyone might have expected.

Juhani Paiho, 55, is the man presiding over the trial. He is tall; his head looks like it is carved out of hard rock. In March 2021, more than a year before the verdict, Paiho is sitting by the hotel pool in Monrovia, describing how he came to be the presiding judge in the trial. The other judges were horrified, he says, when the biggest war crimes trial in Finnish history was referred to their small district court in Tampere. But Paiho had googled Liberia on his phone and thought to himself, “You’ll never get a case like this again.”

Paiho is a civil-litigation judge. His bread and butter is maintenance payments, custody disputes, unpaid tradesmen’s bills. But he is also one of the few judges in Tampere with international experience. Years ago, Paiho worked for the European Union in Kosovo for some months. Because of this experience, small as it might have been, he was not only made one of the judges on the trial, but also given the court presidency.

Paiho has seen a lot since then. He drove for three days through the Liberian hinterland to look at crime scenes. He saw dirt roads dissolved in a thunderstorm. He stayed in a hotel where they gave him a bucket of well-water for showers in the morning. One night, he braved a termite invasion. Now he is back in Monrovia, still struggling to reconstruct what exactly happened in Liberia 20 years ago. “We are often unsure if two witnesses are really talking about the same event – or if they are talking about two completely unrelated crimes,” he says. He also mentions how strange the experience of testifying was for some of the witnesses that were brought to Monrovia from faraway villages. Several of them were petrified when they saw the ocean in front of the hotel. They had been told that evil spirits live in the sea.

It is often difficult for the Finnish jurists to tell how reliable the witnesses are – the cultural distance makes everything much harder for them; to interpret what is being said, to probe it, confirm it or disprove it.

Akaa prison in Finland is a 40-minute drive from Tampere, on a lake surrounded by birch and pine trees. 127 people are imprisoned there. One of them is the defendant, Gibril Massaquoi. In Liberia, the Finns could not guarantee his safety, so he stayed back in Finland. He attends his trial mostly via video link from a small room on the ground floor of the prison.

Massaquoi comes into the visiting room wearing a turtleneck jumper, trackpants and slippers. He has been here for two years. The circles under his eyes are deeper, his face gaunter than in the video footage from the war. But he still looks a decade younger than his 52 years.

Massaquoi was a spokesman for the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, of Sierra Leone. The rebel group started a brutal civil war in 1991 that lasted eleven years and is estimated to have cost the lives of 30,000 to 50,000 people. The RUF also chopped off the arms of thousands of men, women and children. Beforehand, the fighters often asked their victims, the cynical question: “Long sleeve or short sleeve?”

The civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia were closely intertwined. Many soldiers fought on both sides of the border. The RUF supplied diamonds from Sierra Leone’s mines to Liberian president Charles Taylor. In return, the rebel group received weapons.

When talking to Massaquoi one has to remain careful and vigilant. Massaquoi is a media professional. As a spokesperson for the RUF in the late nineties, he regularly gave interviews to foreign journalists. He deflected, denied, and blamed others. When the RUF kidnapped several hundred United Nations blue-beret soldiers in 2000, Massaquoi stood in front of the world press and suggested that the soldiers might have merely got lost in the forest. He offered to send out a search party.

Shortly after the war, in 2002, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work in Sierra Leone. Its final report said Massaquoi was “unique in the RUF” in that he remained a mystery even to those who were very close to him.

“Mr Massaquoi, the other fighters said after the war that you were a mystery to them. Why do you think that was?”

“Because they were jealous.”

Massaquoi never gets loud or aggressive in conversation, even when confronted with the most serious accusations. He instead politely says “thank you for the question”.

In the courtroom in Monrovia, a man tells the Finnish court how his wife and sister were murdered while they were preparing palm oil in the forest. He describes how their bodies were found: his sister lying on the ground, with a baby on her back. The small child survived, miraculously. Another man relates how he buried the half-decomposed bodies of his neighbours. The witnesses describe what happened to them with great emotional force. They show the judges the scars all over their bodies, their arms, and legs, and faces.

The first doubts about Massaquoi’s guilt begin with something that seems trivial in the face of all this visible, undeniable suffering: markers of time. For many Liberians, time is something they do not measure in months and years. It is more defined by the seasons, by the growth of fruits and crops. The illiteracy rate in the country is 51.7 percent. Many people are only able to vaguely estimate their own age.

In a courtroom, however, questions of time become crucial. Massaquoi’s Finnish lawyer, Kaarle Gummerus, asks each witness over and over again: When did this happen? In 2001 or possibly later, in 2003? Gummerus sits at his table, 57 years old, a stiff face like a poker player, and keeps repeating his questions about time until they begin to seem pedantic, almost cruel. The witnesses are often helpless. At one point, a former Liberian soldier says exasperatedly, “I can’t remember everything. My brain is not a computer.”

Gummerus, however, has a good reason for this line of questioning: Massaquoi has an alibi for the entire period after 10th March 2003.

Massaquoi never concealed who he was from the Finnish authorities. They knew who they were bringing into the country. When the United Nations Special Tribunal began its work after the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone, Massaquoi realised more quickly than others what was at stake. He offered to help as a key witness. The investigators of the Special Court for Sierra Leone interviewed him for weeks. The transcripts of his interrogations run up to 1735 pages. Thanks to him, several of the biggest war criminals were arrested and convicted. Massaquoi was not only guaranteed immunity from prosecution for his crimes in Sierra Leone, he was also included in the court’s witness protection programme. Investigators suspected that sooner or later word would get around in Sierra Leone that he was the traitor, who had talked to the investigators. Massaquoi was given round-the-clock armed security guards. He lived in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, until 2008. Then Finland, which had been very supportive of the special tribunal’s creation, offered to shelter him.

For twelve years Massaquoi led an inconspicuous life in Tampere. He lived with his family in social housing on the outskirts of the city. He cleaned the ice-hockey stadium, delivered newspapers on frosty nights. The Finnish police left him alone.

That was until the day the Finns learned that Massaquoi was suspected of having committed war crimes not only in Sierra Leone, but also in Liberia. No one had promised him immunity from prosecution for such acts. In May 2020, the Finnish police arrested him. It was still night, he had just returned from his newspaper round.

The police officers were amazed how calm Massaquoi was after his arrest. He lay down in his cell and fell asleep.

Why was he so visibly unimpressed?

When asked, he says, “I slept well because I am innocent.”

“But what about all the witnesses?”

“They are lying. All 91 witnesses.”

The Finnish trial of Massaquoi is the first war-crimes trial in Liberia. Unlike in Sierra Leone, key players in Liberia’s war remained in prominent positions after it ended. Almost all of them avoided criminal proceedings. Only the former Liberian president Charles Taylor was tried in The Hague in the Netherlands. Otherwise, none of the country’s warlords, generals and executioners have ever been prosecuted. And this despite the fact, that the war in Liberia was even more brutal than the one in Sierra Leone. According to estimates, 250,000 people died between 1989 and 2003, about ten percent of the population.

The perpetrators are in parliament today. They are presidential candidates. You meet them at the headquarters of Charles Taylor’s old party, the National Patriotic Party, which is now part of the governing coalition again. They live in large houses not far from the hotel where the trial is taking place. The Finns have entered a world where the past lives on beneath the surface.

Police inspector Thomas Elfgren has spent so much time in Liberia in the run-up to the trial that his driver has arranged a special number plate for the SUV he uses to drive around Monrovia, which reads: Tuffe1. Tuffe is Elfgren’s nickname. The Finnish police have made multi-week visits to Liberia on five occasions. Elfgren, 67, is tanned and slim. He walks around the city in short-sleeved shirts, three-quarter-length trousers and sandals.

On a morning in March 2021, the inspector is driving through the city’s dense Waterside market district. It is one of the three crime scenes where Massaquoi is alleged to have killed or tortured people. The SUV drives very slowly through the traffic jam. The alleys of the market are narrow, packed to bursting, with piles of stiletto-heeled shoes and pink bras, wheelbarrows full of T-shirts, toilet paper, mangoes, and prickly pears – a fruit that looks like a green, spiky heart.

At a crossroads, Elfgren points to the right and says: “This is where the dead were lying in the street back then.” Today there is a shop selling cooking spoons.

A few metres up the street was the shop where, on one occasion during the war, hungry people broke in to steal food. Soldiers came and opened fire. A witness says in court that he saw Gibril Massaquoi there, shooting people with a pistol. Another claims that Massaquoi had a knife and used it to cut a man’s throat. Still others say he did not kill with his own hands, but gave the orders. The versions are so different that no clear picture emerges of what actually happened that day. Nor can the witnesses say exactly when it happened – they cannot put a date on the murders.

However, they agree on one thing: the battle for Monrovia had already begun. The war had arrived in the capital. And that defines a precise time window for the murders: the battle for Monrovia began in June 2003 and ended two months later.

Massaquoi has an alibi for this period. He was in Sierra Leone, where the war was already over and the work of the special tribunal had already begun. Massaquoi was guarded 24 hours a day by the court’s security guards. Nevertheless, numerous witnesses claim they saw him in Monrovia at the time.

Something is off. Something is not right.

A storm comes in from the sea, fast and without warning. The rain pelts the corrugated iron roofs. It sounds like the growl of a huge, faceless monster. Then comes the thunder, so loud that the prosecutor, Tom Laitinen, winces. As a bolt of lightning flashes over the Atlantic, he covers his ears like a child.

52-year-old Laitinen has a prudent temperament. He often takes long pauses in conversation, as if he needs to sort out his thoughts. The pressure on him is immense. It is an expensive trial. It was Laitinen who suggested moving it to Liberia. He believes you understand things better when you see them in front of you. “We have to assess the whole person, his facial expressions, his gestures, how he speaks. You can’t do that nearly as well on video as when you’re in the same room.”

Laitinen admits the witness interviews are nevertheless often unpredictable for him. “It’s still not clear to me what questions I need to ask to elicit their most important memories.”

In few areas of modern politics is the belief in “progress” as strong as in international criminal law. The dream: a world in which organised, mass cruelty is banished by law. A future where the thought of a prison cell deters potential mass murderers from unleashing their troops.

In reality, justice crawls behind the violence with agonising slowness, often years or decades late. The business of justice is costly, frequently thankless and not infrequently futile.

When the Finnish police arrested Massaquoi, they found a book manuscript on his computer. 372 pages, entitled: The Secret Behind the Gun. Massaquoi says he started writing it more than two decades ago, while he was still in the RUF; it is a mixture of biography and political treatise.

In it, Massaquoi says his family was so poor that he often only ate one meal a day. When the RUF forcibly recruited him, he was in his early twenties and a mathematics teacher at a Catholic school in Pujehun, in southern Sierra Leone, on the border with Liberia. “Actually, I would like to have been an accountant,” he says.

In the text, Massaquoi remembers his first meeting with the leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, at a training camp. In an awestruck tone, Massaquoi writes: “We jogged alongside him. It was an electrifying moment.” Later, Sankoh made the young Massaquoi his personal assistant. In the most brutal scene in the book, Massaquoi describes how Sankoh, who was not to survive the civil war, had a woman killed. Sankoh ordered his soldiers to douse her with hot palm oil and then tie her feet to a tree “where she hung,” Massaquoi writes, “until she died”. In our interview in prison, he calls Sankoh a “caring man”.

The Finns are friendly and reserved guests in Monrovia with a curious two-part daily routine. From morning until afternoon, they are their professional titles: a judge, a prosecutor, a defence lawyer, and a policeman. In the evening, they take off their official hats for a few hours. Gummerus, the defence lawyer, and Laitinen, the prosecutor, sit together and eat spaghetti bolognese in the humid night heat. Paiho, the judge, chats by the pool with Elfgren, the police inspector. They talk about their children, their hobbies, about stomach upsets. They are not only closer to the witnesses here, but also closer to each other than they would ever be in Finland. In the end, they will have spent 16 weeks together in West Africa.

In court, it quickly becomes clear that the prosecutor Laitinen is not getting anywhere against Massaquoi’s alibi for the murders in Monrovia. But there are two other alleged offences. Massaquoi is also suspected of being responsible for crimes in the interior of the country that happened earlier, sometime in 2001, long before he turned crown witness for the Special Court.

Lofa County is beautiful and poor. The landscape is hilly. Along the roadside are kapok trees, 70 metres high, the oldest of which were already standing when slave traders dragged people from this region onto their ships 250 years ago. Plumes of smoke rise above the forests. Farmers are clearing land for rice fields.

The village of Kamatahun Hassala is situated on a hill. The houses are made of mud bricks, the roofs of corrugated iron. There is a small mosque. The witnesses in court described this village. In their memories it appeared as a hellish place. During the war, hundreds of people from the surrounding area were rounded up here. Dozens were burnt alive in huts.

Witnesses claimed in court that a soldier who called himself Angel Gabriel gave the orders. One man said this commander tortured him with electric shocks and then urinated in his mouth. Another said that Angel Gabriel had a man killed in order to make soup out of him. In the narratives in court, he is the decisive figure in the massacre.

But when you go to Kamatahun Hassala alone, without a judge or prosecutor, to talk to survivors on the spot, a different picture emerges.

Varfee Konneh lives in a small two-room house. In the bedroom hangs a poster of the American singer Alicia Keys. Konneh grows rice in cleared paddies, just outside the village. When the soldiers came, he was 12 or 13 years old.

He says he saw everything. How people were herded into one of the houses, young men and old, women and children. The fire. The dead.

He only survived because the soldiers used him as an errand boy, says Konneh. He was cooking food and fetching water. Then, while collecting water, he fled.

Who was the commander of the soldiers? Konneh says only one word: “Zigzag.”

Joseph “Zigzag” Marzah was a notorious commander in Charles Taylor’s army, a man who bragged about eating people, even after the war. Few names have spread such terror in Liberia. Marzah is a free man today. He never had to face justice for his crimes.

Three other men in the village who say they were eyewitnesses to the massacre mention this name to DIE ZEIT. They all say Joseph Marzah gave the orders.

Konneh says that fighters from Sierra Leone were also involved in the killings in Kamatahun Hassala. But neither Konneh nor any of the other men can remember a man who called himself “Angel Gabriel” or Gibril Massaquoi. None of these villagers have appeared before the Finnish court.

When Konneh returned to the village with a small group after more than a year on the run, everything was empty and overgrown with plants. “The first few nights,” he says, “we heard voices in the darkness.” They were ghosts, he says.

What did they say?

“Alilor e va ngor? Zizamazza lov e par ngor.”

Who killed me? Zigzag Marzah killed me.

Kaarle Gummerus, Massaquoi’s defence lawyer, sits in his hotel room in Monrovia in a polo shirt and gym shorts, pointing at the screen of his laptop. He has listed all the witnesses interviewed by the Finnish police. Most of them were shown a selection of photos with twelve faces, one of which was of Massaquoi. The witnesses were supposed to identify him.

In the Excel spreadsheet, the lawyer sorted the witnesses by location and date of interview. If someone chose Massaquoi’s picture, the tile is dark green. Those who did not identify Massaquoi show up as a blue tile, and those who were not sure as grey.

Gummerus points to the block of witnesses from Lofa County: it’s almost all blue, with a few grey blocks in between. Not a single tile is green. Not one of the witnesses from Kamatahun Hassala or the surrounding villages identified Gibril Massaquoi as the perpetrator.

71 of the 91 witnesses were shown the photos, and only eight identified Massaquoi. They all came from the capital Monrovia. Massaquoi has an alibi for all their accusations.

“Strange, isn’t it?” says Gummerus.

The man who started the case, who brought it to the Finnish authorities, is sitting on the rooftop terrace of the Boulevard Palace Hotel in Monrovia. Up here, the city is just a distant roar and muted honking. Hassan Bility shows off his scars, one in the crook of each arm. “This is the mark he left behind.” He means Massaquoi. That’s where the rope cut into his flesh, he says. Bility is a short man with ears that stick out. He is the best-known human rights activist in Liberia.

The scars he shows are the result of a common torture method during the Liberian civil war: the arms are tied so tightly behind the back that the tips of the elbows touch. It is immensely painful. Within minutes you lose all feeling in your arms. Bility says it was Massaquoi who tied him up like this, in 2002, in a Taylor-regime torture cellar in Klay Junction, 35 kilometres north of Monrovia. It is the third alleged crime scene. The Finnish prosecution has charged Massaquoi with torture based on Bility’s account.

Bility was a journalist, one of the few who dared to write critically about Charles Taylor. Taylor’s security forces arrested him several times, tortured him, and finally expelled him from the country. Bility went to the USA. After the war, he came back and founded a non-governmental organisation, the Global Justice and Research Project. Bility’s organisation collects evidence against Liberian war criminals living abroad and forwards it to European and American prosecutors. Several war criminals are already in prison as a result of his work, including in Switzerland and the USA.

In 2009, Bility appeared as a witness in the trial against Charles Taylor in The Hague. There he mentioned for the first time that Massaquoi had tortured him. Bility recalled it thus: “He asked me if I knew what the name Gibril meant and I said yes because I speak Arabic. I said it means Gabriel. He said, ‘Okay, I am your Angel Gabriel’.”

At the time, no one cared about that statement. The case was about Taylor, not Massaquoi. It was only years later that Bility’s organisation gathered more evidence of Massaquoi’s guilt – triggering his arrest in Finland.

The strange thing is: Bility was the only one who ever mentioned that Massaquoi had called himself “Angel Gabriel”. In none of the many texts about the RUF, in no interview, in no other source – not even in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone, which is several thousand pages long – is this nom-de-guerre ever used.

Until the Finnish trial, that is. Then suddenly the vast majority of witnesses were saying that Massaquoi had called himself “Angel Gabriel”.

How does all this fit together?

Perhaps the explanation lies in the fact that the Finnish police officers around Elfgren needed help when they came to Liberia for their investigation. They needed someone who knew the country, who could find witnesses and translate interviews. They needed a fixer.

Anyone who knows as little about a country as the Finns do about Liberia is at the mercy of their local assistants. The interpreters control what the outsiders understand and what they don’t. The Finns hired a man named Albert Kollie, who was one of 14 employees of Hassan Bility’s NGO. The Finns used him for several months, paying his salary during that time. Kollie was absolutely indispensable to them. He located almost all the witnesses in Monrovia and Lofa County who testified against Massaquoi in court.

Kollie was not supposed to interview potential witnesses himself, but only to pass them on to the Finnish police, who would then conduct the interview. This was important: memories are easily manipulated. The mere naming of a suspect can lead witnesses to believe that they recognise him as the perpetrator. The victims have to come up with the name on their own.

In court, Kollie described his approach as follows: “I asked the witnesses if they would be willing to talk about the activities of the RUF. I did not give names. I told them to just tell the police what they had experienced. Some then wanted more information, but I told them: No.”

Anyone who proceeds in this way will run into many dead ends, and have numerous conversations with people who remember the war, remember murders – but do not remember the suspect. Normally, a lot of time will be wasted, before the right kind of witnesses are found.

But that didn’t happen.

In just three and a half months, Kollie found dozens of witnesses who blamed Massaquoi for countless crimes in Monrovia and Lofa County. He had a spectacular rate of success. When Kollie is asked to explain in court how he managed to do it, he says he simply went around the city. “I go to the Ataya shops”, he says – places in the centre of Monrovia where mint green tea is served. He also claims that he found other witnesses on public transport, in buses and shared taxis. He discovered one man buying soap. Each time he overheard people talking about the war. Kollie says he never explicitly asked for Massaquoi.

Massaquoi’s lawyer finds this increasingly implausible. He asks why every single witness Kollie found could remember Massaquoi, of all people.

“I don’t know, I just accepted what they told me,” Kollie said.

Did he insist that the witnesses mention Massaquoi?

“No, not at all.”

Albert Kollie says he came across Gibril Massaquoi at every turn.

This, almost certainly, cannot be true. In other, much more thorough investigations, like the 2009 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia, there is not a single trace of him. The commission recorded more than 17,000 testimonies from the war. But neither Gibril Massaquoi nor “Angel Gabriel” are ever mentioned. If Massaquoi committed war crimes in Liberia, it was in secret. There cannot be that many people who have stories to tell about it.

Why didn’t the Finnish investigators notice that something was wrong?

At one point during our interview, presiding judge Juhani Paiho said that people tend to smooth out stories, look for coherence, fill in gaps. Especially in a foreign country. There is often no other way to proceed.

Albert Kollie gave the Finnish police investigators what they wanted: a guilty person. They willingly accepted the gift.

Furthermore, in doing so, the Finnish court unwittingly provided an incentive that made it easy to manipulate witnesses. Everyone who testified in the trial was given a travel allowance that was small by Finnish standards but huge by Liberian ones. Most witnesses went home with around $100, and some who said they came from far away pocketed up to $500. The daily allowance, without travel expenses, was $20 for witnesses was.

Juhani Paiho, the presiding judge, says he cannot imagine that this massively influenced the witnesses. But the Finns sometimes do not seem to grasp just how poor the people sitting in front of them are. The median daily income in Liberia is two dollars. Many of the witnesses took home enough money to feed their families for several months.

There is no guarantee that physical proximity will bring you closer to the truth. You can be very close and still only see the wrong thing. You can travel a great distance and still misunderstand everything. At the same time, the courtroom is a good corrective. In cross-examination, inventions often fall apart.

War crimes trials must leave the possibility of acquittal. They must demonstrate that, under the rule of law, the consideration of evidence is wide open. Even someone like Gibril Massaquoi, who was deeply involved in one of the cruellest wars in recent decades, must be able to hope to go home a free man in the end, if the crimes he is accused of cannot be proven. Even the acquittal of a bad man can be right.

It is a cold, rainy day in November 2021 in Tampere. All the witnesses in Liberia have been heard, the alleged crime scenes have been visited. The court is back in Finland and Massaquoi is being questioned a second and final time. He is wearing a black bomber jacket and a grey turtleneck.

His defence lawyer asks him, “How many times did you go to the special tribunal in the spring and summer of 2003?”

“Several times, whenever they needed me.”

“Did it ever happen that the investigators wanted to see you and you weren’t there?”

“No, never.”

Massaquoi gives detailed information from 9.30am to 6pm that day. He remains calm, he takes notes, everything he cites sounds plausible. At the end he says: “Nobody in their right mind would do what the prosecution is accusing me of.” No one would go from the safety of a witness-protection programme into a war zone, into the realm of a megalomaniac dictator who had his confidants killed by the dozen because he suspected them of treason.

Massaquoi has an alibi for the murders in Monrovia. Of the alleged witnesses in Lofa County, no one can identify him. And in the case of the torture in Klay Junction, it’s one man’s word against another’s. “I was never there,” Massaquoi says.

All this does not mean that Massaquoi is innocent. Maybe he did kill in Liberia, maybe he really did torture Hassan Bility. But it cannot be proved.

The verdict comes on 29 April 2022, in writing, and sent by email: “The accused Gibril Massaquoi is acquitted on all charges”, it says on page 31 of 850 pages.

Kaarle Gummerus, Massaquoi’s defence lawyer, says on the phone that he will demand compensation for his client of several hundred thousand euros for the long period in prison.

Tom Laitinen, the prosecutor, appealed the verdict earlier this week. Massaquoi himself says he wants to write a PhD thesis – about his own trial.

Translated by Voxeurop.