A Sierre Leone rebel on trial in Finland for war crimes in Liberia’s bloody conflict has been released by the court ahead of its verdict where he risks life in prison, the court said Wednesday.
Gibril Massaquoi, 51, has been on trial at Pirkanmaa district court for rape, ritual murder and recruiting child soldiers during the later years of Liberia’s second civil war, which ended in 2003.
The verdict is due in March or April.
Massaquoi denies all charges and claims he was not in Liberia when the alleged offences took place.
On Wednesday, the court released Massaquoi pending the verdict due to the fact that “Massaquoi has been imprisoned for approximately two years, which can be considered an exceptionally long period”.
“Moreover, an exceptionally long period of almost 20 years has already elapsed since the alleged acts”, the court said in a statement.
Finland tried the case as Finnish law allows the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad by a citizen or resident.
The continued detention of Massaquoi “would be unreasonable”, the court said, calling for him to be “released immediately pending the outcome of the district court’s judgment.”
The court placed no restrictions on Massaquoi’s movements, district court judge Juhani Paiho told AFP.
He added that the release should not be seen as an indicator of how the court would rule on the question of guilt.
A life sentence in Finland means a convict can be considered for parole after 12 years. Most are released after serving between 12 and 20 years.
Born in 1970, Massaquoi was a senior commander of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a Sierra Leone rebel group that also fought in Liberia.
He moved to Finland in 2008 and was arrested there in March 2020 after a rights group investigated his war record.
In an unprecedented move, the Finnish court decamped to Monrovia between February and April last year, and again in September, to hear witness testimony in the case.
The proceedings were described as historic, as very few people have been tried for war crimes committed in Liberia, and none inside the country itself.
Around a quarter of a million people were killed between 1989 and 2003 in the West African country, in a conflict marked by merciless violence and rape, often carried out by drugged-up child soldiers.
There are regular appeals to establish a war crimes tribunal inside Liberia, a poor nation of five million people where some ex-warlords remain powerful.
President George Weah has resisted the calls, however.