We have to take at face value what is said, without checking. We would not have allowed ourselves these gaps in a French trial, but because this conflict is far away, we have accepted certain biases. I regret that under the guise of historical trials, of a certain grandeur, these principles have been ignored.
In October 2022, a former member of the United Liberation Movement (Ulimo), Mr. Kunti Kamara, went on trial for crimes against humanity in Liberia. Accused of serious abuses committed or ordered in Lofa County (northwest) between 1993 and 1994, the former alleged rebel leader appeared before the Palais de Justice in Paris, under the universal jurisdiction of the courts (since he was arrested in 2018 on French soil). To this end, several Liberian victims, represented by Me Sabrina Delattre and the association CIVITAS Maximas, had taken the stand to testify. After 17 days of trial, the accused was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Maître Marilyne Secci, a general practitioner at the Versailles Bar, was assigned the Kamara case in 2019. Having previously worked on the issue of human rights in Chad with Avocats sans Frontières, she took the lead for the defense with her colleague Tarek Koraitem for this first trial in an African context investigated by the Crimes Against Humanity Unit of the Paris Court.
Interviewed by Amélie Segla (2023)
The interview was conducted in the spring of 2023 and has been edited for clarity
During the trial, I noticed that you were very precise about the geographical location of the crimes committed, seeming to be aware of the situation at the time and even grasping some of the subtleties. Were you familiar with the political, social, economic and cultural situation in Liberia before this trial? How long did you prepare for it and did you work with experts and natives to better understand the subject?
The investigation lasted nearly two years and was relatively long because of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lawyers' strike (2020). In the beginning, there was nothing on this case, except for the Civitas complaint, testimonies relayed by Civitas and Global Justice, as well as some press articles. The investigating judge had called upon photographers such as Patrick Robert or the author Thierry Paulais (of the book "Liberia, a singular history") during the first weeks of contextual recap. We also had maps given by the Crimes Against Humanity Unit. However, this was not enough; we needed historians to deepen our understanding.
During the trial, the question of Foya was delicate because it is the name of a district but also of a town. At no time was my client asked to indicate, to point out on a map where he was at the time of the events. We spent the trial essentially with the prepared booklet that had been prepared, including dates, anagrams and a little history summary. But the question did not arise as to "what" exactly was being talked about. My client's statements have remained consistent with what has been said. As mentioned in my plea, there was a lack of information and knowledge, and we have not been talking about the same thing for years. This is one of the great shortcomings of the case, this lack of necessary distinction to corroborate the evidence. To judge, one must understand, so if one does not understand the context or the geography, has one been fair?
Did you work with Liberia on this trial?
Unfortunately no, Liberia has never done anything about it. There were the Palava Huts and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but the warlords are still in power. Yes, the state allowed France to carry out investigations, but it also questioned them because they were considered biased. My cluster of clues was to believe a multitude of people without more evidence because the existence of a bloody war in Liberia was never questioned and therefore any information would be evidence to support it.
It is a problem to judge 30 years later. One must then deal with the local particularities, understand the current context as well and do the best one can.
Did you work with the prosecution at any time during the trial? How did you become aware of their evidence?
It is important to emphasize that we do not work with the civil parties at all. However, we both received the same information during the investigation. It happened that certain questions that had not been raised during the investigation were brought up by one of the parties before the session so that we could discuss them. In accordance with the adversarial principle in French law, the various parties involved in the trial must be loyal and diligent in communicating their documents and conclusions (unlike in the United States, where an element or a witness can be presented spontaneously). The defense relied mainly on the statements of the victims collected by Civitas and Global Justice, the transcripts of the trial of Mr. Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland and the minutes of proceedings of two examining magistrates who went to the scene.
How were cultural differences taken into account in this trial? I am referring in particular to the hard verification of the date of birth, for example, which is understandable in Africa knowing that civil registrations are not updated or that this question is not asked on a regular basis.
It is a cultural issue, certainly, but also a legal one. France does not have to adapt its legislation and certain requirements had to be respected in order for the trial to be fair.
This cultural difference was also found when we asked to find a person (existence of a clear home address). Thus, we were prevented from finding people who could have spoken in Kamara's honor, for instance.
Another typical example is the management of emotions. My client easily came across as a cold, cynical or impassive man, but at no point was it questioned whether his so-called lack of compassion was not rather an attempt to hide his emotions from the general public. It is quite understandable that in African cultures, one should not show one's weaknesses, especially for a man. In addition, his psychological expertise was not revealed, so you did not have access to certain elements of his past, such as the fact that he had seen his mother killed or other traumas that he had experienced. Many human and cultural components were missing here.
How did you ensure then that the testimony and evidence presented by the victims were evaluated fairly and impartially by the court?
As seen in this trial, we cannot verify the identity of people. 30 years later, we are not sure that it is the right person we are describing, the right person who is standing in front of us. We have to take at face value what is said, without checking. We would have not allowed ourselves these gaps in a French trial but because this conflict is far away, we have accepted certain biases. I regret that under the guise of historical trials, of a certain grandeur, these principles have been ignored.
How do you see the participation of the victims in this trial and do you think that their travel to France played a role in the verdict?
I understand why the victims came, it was important. All the people who came have suffered (although I have no proof that it is the cause of Kamara) and wanted to come before a court that fully considers them as victims and that will listen to them. This is an opportunity they did not have in their country. The victims did not get any compensation because my client is insolvent. They also could not seize the CIVI to obtain financial compensation because they do not reside on French territory and therefore only received a symbolic euro.
However, I maintain that most of the elements stated pointed at Kamara indirectly. If you had been a juror and had heard such harsh testimonies pointing to one and the same man, it would have been difficult for you to deny this suffering. Knowing the distant conflict, after hearing the history of Liberia, how can you, as a European, question the collective history?
How do you react to the verdict and what do you think of the court's hearing of your client?
I met with Mr. Kamara several times to prepare the case, he is someone I appreciate and am convinced of his innocence.
In my opinion, we did not find the real leaders. We came across him, his name was mentioned by Kosiah so that he could be heard as a witness and the machine swallowed him up. And although he is the weak link of the chain, he was sentenced for perpetuity. If this man was sentenced to prison for the rest of his life, what would have been done for a bigger fish?
Let’s note that he was barely allowed to speak, as people were anticipating his answers, rolling their eyes or tensing up at its slightest intervention. When a man arrives in a box in handcuffs, he is already guilty in the eyes of everyone. You may think, "We wouldn't have done all this if he wasn't guilty”.
His words were sometimes distorted or the questions were not rephrased more easily for him to understand. We need to stop this rhetoric of making a remark and then asking the question, hoping that everything will be understood once translated as a block. The whole court should be prepared to make a pause, a distinction between the two, in the future. It is not audible and does not give the accused (nor the victim) time to respond to the remark and then to answer the question. We cannot muzzle his speaking time.
Besides, due to a procedural problem (concerning the renewal of his pre-trial detention), he had been released for a short period of time. He could have fled the country! But he respected the rules, stayed and cooperated because he wanted to explain himself to the judge. He wanted to be heard. As a defendant, if you are guilty you keep silent and you let the proof of your culpability come to you.
Do you consider that the process was flawed? That France was not prepared for this trial?
There should have been new legislation that provided for new rules in the civil codes, with a special section on universal jurisdiction. Apart from Rwanda, this is the first trial on pure universal jurisdiction without France's involvement!
In my opinion, the legislation is not adapted. If we had other legal and financial means, France could have substituted itself for such an international jurisdiction that was not seized.
The Ukrainian case may soon be investigated and prosecuted, but here we have recent images and testimony. Unlike in Liberia, where we lack photos of Kamara at the time, for example, or of the victims to identify them.
Knowing that the appeal will take place in one year, what will be your strategy? What are the final lessons you are drawing from this trial to prepare for the next step?
This trial reminded me how much I have to be vigilant during the trial and especially how much I love my job, and why I fight for my clients.
For the next steps, we need to digest what happened and then talk more about the context in general, to bring more people to talk about the ethnic relations, the state of the country before the NPFL, the hierarchy etc, so that we can build with reliable information and not with what suits us.
About the interviewer: With a Master's degree in International Security and Human Rights in Africa, Amélie Ségla is passionate about writing, investigation and research. Particularly interested in issues of governance, multidimensional crisis management and transitional justice on the continent, she has worked on the Central Sahel region (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso), Chad, Central Africa, Liberia and Sudan. Having previously written several essays during her academic years, the present article is part of an effort to understand the representation of victims during trials under universal jurisdiction and their perception by the defense. How can the voices of both parties be heard ?