Liberia atrocity trial in France : Reform of French universal jurisdiction laws needed

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Marie Magnin / Hans Lucas / Hans Lucas via AFP

Paris, 5 October 2022. The trial in France of Kunti K. for crimes against humanity in his alleged role as a Liberian former armed group commander is an important step toward justice for victims of Liberia’s first civil war, Human Rights Watch and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said. The trial is scheduled to begin on 10 October 2022 in Paris, and is a sign of France’s commitment to hold those responsible for grave crimes to account.

Read the questions and answers about the trial.

Kunti K. is accused of crimes against humanity committed during the first Liberian civil war, which devasted the country from 1989 to 1996. Liberia’s first civil war was marked by war crimes and widespread, systematic human rights violations, including profound and disturbing patterns of violence against civilians, as warring factions massacred and raped civilians, pillaged, and forced children to kill and fight. The full name of the accused has been withheld by French officials in line with national privacy laws.

“This trial is an important step for justice for victims amid the failure of Liberian authorities to hold to account those responsible for serious crimes during the civil wars,” said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “Liberian authorities should take note: these crimes can and should be prosecuted, and a long-recommended war crimes court should be established in-country without delay.”

The organisation Civitas Maximafiled a criminal complaint in France against Kunti K. in 2018, following which he was arrested in Paris on suspicion of crimes against humanity and torture. Ahead of the trial, Human Rights Watch and FIDH published a question-and-answer document with information on:
 the accused, Kunti K.;
 the Liberian civil wars;
 the lack of accountability in Liberia for serious crimes committed, and need for Liberia to create a war crimes court with the assistance of its international partners and;
 the significance of the trial and legal restrictions in France linked to the prosecution of serious crimes committed abroad.

Kunti K.’s trial in France is possible because the country’s laws recognise universal jurisdiction over the most serious crimes under international law. Universal jurisdiction allows for investigating and prosecuting these crimes no matter where they were committed, and regardless of the nationality of the suspects or victims. This, and other universal jurisdiction cases in Europe and the US on Liberian civil wars-era crimes, have been the only chance so far for Liberian victims to see justice done.

The use of universal jurisdiction in France is, however, restricted by multiple legal barriers, the groups said. A recent decision of France’s highest court on a Syrian crime against humanity case annulled, on the basis of one of these limitations, the indictment of an alleged former Syrian agent who had sought asylum in France, raising concerns that the country could become a safe haven for those responsible for serious crimes.

“France’s trial for atrocities in Liberia reinforces the importance of the principle of universal jurisdiction to ensure that the worst crimes do not go unpunished, especially where accountability is not taking place through other avenues. France’s laws need reform to ensure justice can be a reality for more victims of the worst crimes, and the country is not as a safe haven for perpetrators.”

Clémence Bectarte, a lawyer who coordinates FIDH’s Litigation Action Group

Read also : Questions and Answers: France’s Trial for Atrocities Committed in Liberia

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