GENEVA (Reuters) -The appeal hearings of a former Liberian rebel commander convicted of war crimes concluded on Friday in a trial that was broadened in its final stages to include crimes against humanity for the first time in Switzerland.
Alieu Kosiah, who fought in the 1990s against then-President Charles Taylor's army, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in June 2021 for rape, murder and cannibalism in one of the first trials for war crimes committed in the West African country.
During the three weeks of appeal hearings at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, the defendant sought to overturn the lower court's ruling, arguing at length that he was not present when the crimes were committed. Kosiah's lawyer denied the charges and said he was a minor when first recruited.
But lawyers for the plaintiffs said Kosiah's actions were "widespread and systematic" against a civilian population.
"We feel strongly that these crimes are the epitome of crimes against humanity," said Alain Werner, a Swiss lawyer and director of Civitas Maxima, an NGO that represents war crimes victims and is acting on behalf of some of the plaintiffs.
A verdict by the three-judge panel was set for June 1. If Kosiah is found guilty of crimes against humanity, this could extend his sentence to life.
No trials have taken place in Liberia for its back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 that became infamous for their brutality and degradation, with marauding child soldiers and combatants high on drugs.
The Kosiah hearings were often laden with emotion, with some Liberian witnesses and victims confronting him for the first time since the country's civil wars. They all asked for anonymity because of the risk of reprisals back home where former warlords still hold prominent roles.
In one poignant moment, a former child soldier under Kosiah acknowledged him with a military salute in the court room and then broke down and was too upset to testify.
In another, a witness who had been held as a sex slave by a soldier described how Kosiah had stabbed one of the Liberian plaintiffs present in the back. "Many people in the courtroom were crying. It was very emotional, even 30 years later," said Zena Wakim, one of the prosecution lawyers.
In a further indication of the importance of the trial to the plaintiffs, one of them who says she was raped by Kosiah named a recently born baby "Justice".
"I want him in jail," she told Reuters on the opening day of the appeals trial on Jan. 11.
(Reporting by Emma FargeEditing by Mark Heinrich)