Advocates condemn Pres. Boakai’s pick to head war crimes office – say relationship with rebel faction leader will undermine public trust 

Court watchers condemned President Boakai’s choice of Cllr. Jonathan Massaquoi, to head Office of the War and Economic Crimes courts.

By Anthony Stephens with New Narratives

MONROVIA, Liberia— Justice activists have expressed anger and disappointment at President Joseph Boakai’s appointment of Jonathan Massaquoi as head of the Office for War and Economic Crimes Courts for Liberia. They said Massaquoi’s role as lawyer for former warlord Agnes Reeves-Taylor in cases against justice activists will undermine public trust in the war crimes and economics crimes courts and risk the country’s security.

Reeves-Taylor, 59, spent eighteen months in a UK jail awaiting trial on charges of torture and conspiracy to torture allegedly committed during her time as leader of her husband Charles Taylor’s rebel faction the National Patriotic Front for Liberia. She had lived in the United Kingdom since 1998. In December 2019 the case was dismissed after a judge found prosecutors had failed to prove an unusual requirement of UK torture law – that the NPFL be “exercising government function” in the areas of the alleged crimes. UK immigration subsequently denied her application to settle permanently in the country ruling that there were serious reasons to consider that she had committed a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity. Reeves-Taylor returned to Liberia.

The Executive Mansion confirmed Thursday that Massaquoi, a Liberian lawyer at the Liberian firm the International Law Group, had been appointed to the post which will oversee the set up of the courts. It is not clear if Massaquoi has had any experience in international human rights law -a key requirement of the role listed in President Boakai’s executive order that established the office for the courts. He did not respond to requests for comment on his experience and advocates’ concerns by press time. Reeves-Taylor did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Advocates said Massaquoi’s role representing Reeves-Taylor in defamation lawsuits against justice activists Hassan Bility, of the Global Justice and Research Project, former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Massa Washington, and Alain Werner, head of the Swiss organization, Civitas Maxima, will taint his independence in the eyes of the public. They said the public would perceive him as likely to protect accused perpetrators from Taylor’s faction, the NPFL. Charles Taylor, an ex-Liberian president, is serving a 50-year prison sentence in a UK prison for crimes committed in the war of neighboring Sierra Leone. The NPFL was responsible for largest number of crimes reported to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“He does not have the requisite experience and expertise in international criminal law,” said John Stewart, a former commissioner of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). “I feel disappointed that there was little or no due diligence done nor public vetting as was done in the case of those nominated by civil society to serve as commissioners of the TRC.”

Stewart and others have called the lawsuits against Bility and Civitas Maxima vexatious and designed purely to bring down the organizations. Legal experts said the suits – claiming that the parties defamed Reeves-Taylor by giving UK authorities evidence that was used in the case against her – have no grounding in law. “Massaquoi is conflicted given the fact that he is currently involved in litigation against some justice and human rights organizations on behalf of clients associated with the horrors of the Liberian civil war and, for that reason, in particular, he cannot be the best fit for the job.”

Massa Washington also questioned Massaquoi’s credentials.

“Jonathan Massaquoi is a lawyer who has ZERO clue about human rights issues in Liberia and the world,” said Washington in a Facebook post. “[He] has NEVER interested himself in Not even the TRC process. Worst of all, he is the lawyer who represents the interests of perpetrators against human rights advocates. Jospeh Boakai is literally supporting the persecution of human rights advocates. The Liberian President has just stuck out his middle finger to the genuine fight for justice in Liberia.”

Kula Fofana, Presidential Press Secretary, defended the president’s appointment of Massaquoi.

“As executive director, you are not the court. This office is not the prosecuting arm,” said Fofona. “The office is to review and answer all of the lingering questions surrounding establishing the court, also looking at the legal issues, the different laws and ensuring that there’s harmonization and will ultimately report and put forward the recommendation to the president for onward action.”

“The activists should support this process to give the leadership the opportunity to do their job. Based on the different work that they do then they can determine whether Cllr. Massaquoi lives up to the terms of reference. They can flag issues if they see the counselor is proceeding wrongly.” 

“For now that is the appointment,” said Fofana. “If for any reason the president changes his mind, again, the constitution gives him the authorization to push forward his agenda.”

In 2023 Reeves-Taylor, with Massaquoi’s representation, won a $US15 million defamation suit against Bility and Werner in Liberia’s Civil Law Court “A”. Washington and Bility were also sued for $US1.5 million for spreading “hatred” towards Taylor by publicly talking about the case. In the first case, the court found that Bility and Werner had brought mental suffering on Reeves-Taylor by their actions in bringing evidence to UK prosecutors.  

Bility and Werner, and their organizations, were sued this month in the Civil Law court in Monrovia by Gibril Massaquoi, a former Sierra Leonean commander with the rebel Revolutionary United Front, tried and acquitted for crimes against humanity allegedly committed in Liberia at Charles Taylor’s behest, by a court in Finland. (Gibril is no relation to Jonathan. Massaquoi is a common name in the region.) 

Bility and Werner’s organizations supplied evidence to Finnish authorities that prompted them to bring charges including murder, sexual violence, and the recruitment of child soldiers, against Massaquoi in 2020. Massaquoi had been granted residency in Finland in return for his testimony against Taylor and leaders of the RUF to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. In 2024, a Finnish appeal court upheld a lower court ruling that found that, though the crimes had taken place, Finnish prosecutors had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Massaquoi was the person who committed them. Massaquoi’s lawsuit alleged that Bility and Werner conspired to provide fake information to Finnish authorities, leading to his arrest and prosecution. He is seeking $US50 million in damages.

Bility and Werner have rejected the allegations. Finnish authorities did their own investigations of the case and made their decision to prosecute Massaquoi. Legal experts dismiss the notion that prosecutors anywhere would bring a case solely on evidence gathered by a third party and without doing their own thorough investigation. 

As in Reeves-Taylor’s case, Cllr. Massaquoi had been initially involved with Gibril Massaquoi’s damages suit before passing it Joshua Massaquoi, a relative, to serve as the lawyer for the Sierra Leonean in the case.  

Jonathan Massaquoi’s appointment has also caused concern among international human rights advocates, US authorities and diplomats and comes at a fragile time when the government of Liberia will be seeking an estimated $150m from donors to fund the courts.

Before the announcement of Massaquoi, Beth Van Schaack, US Ambassador for Global Criminal Justice, one of Liberia’s key international partners on the court, praised the speed at which Liberia was moving to bring accountability for past crimes in an interview with Front Page Africa.

“We’re so heartened to see the progress being made towards the establishment of a war and economic crimes court,” said Ambassador Van Schaack. “It’s critical that this be a Liberian led enterprise. We know that Liberians of all generations have been demanding justice, even young people who didn’t live through the war. And we’re excited to see these very concrete steps moving forward and looking for ways to support the process.”

Ambassador Van Schaack did not respond to a request for comment on Massaquoi’s appointment by press time.

Dr. Alan White, right, Chief Investigator of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, addresses a US Congressional hearing on war and economic crimes courts for Liberia.

Earlier Press Secretary Fofana had addressed concerns among activists about the role of Alan White, the former chief investigator of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, after his inflammatory appearance last week in a US Congressional hearing on the Liberian courts. White made a series of previously discredited allegations that Werner and Bility and American rights group, Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), had bribed witnesses. (CJA has brought cases against accused Liberians and against the Liberian government for its failure to prosecute those responsible for the 1990 Lutheran Church massacre.) White also accused Ambassador Van Schaack of being compromised because of her previous role with CJA. 

The US government, as well as state investigators in Finland, Switzerland and France, have probed and dismissed the allegations against the activists. 

US Republic congressman Chris Smith, co-host of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the United States Congress, had surprised court observers by saying president Boakai had recognized White, an American, as “a trusted advisor and has personally requested him to assist in the establishment of the [war crimes] court.”

Fofana said White had not been appointed to any advisory role. 

Fofana said White had not been appointed to any advisory role. “President Boakai speaks to many people on many things,” said Fofana. “I wouldn’t know if Mr. White is informally advising President Boakai. Currently, there has not been any appointment of an advisor to the office. This process – of the war and economic crimes courts – is a Liberian process. And it’s going to be led and driven by Liberians themselves.”

Adama Dempster, one of the activists at the hearing, said he was unaware of White’s role, and stressed the importance of the war crimes court process being driven by Liberians.

“International experts cannot supplant the vital role that must be played by Liberians,” Dempster told the committee. “For this court to have a lasting impact on Liberian society and rule of law it must be Liberian led.”

Human Rights Watch’s Liz Evenson, an international activist who addressed the hearing, echoed Dempster’s words.

“Liberian experts should also fill key positions in the judiciary, the prosecution, the defense and registry,” said Evenson. “Liberian ownership of the court is crucial to build and maintain local support for accountability processes.”

This story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of its West Africa Justice Reporting Project.