Earlier today, a Finnish court found Gibril Massaquoi not guilty on all counts after a more than one-year trial. On March 10, 2020, Finnish police arrested Massaquoi, who had located to Finland legally after assisting the UN-sponsored Special Court for Sierra Leone in its investigation of war crimes during that country’s civil war. Based on information gathered by Civitas Maxima, a Geneva-based NGO which defines its mission as “the documentation of international crimes, and . . . redress of such crimes on behalf of victims who do not have access to justice,” the Finns charged Massaquoi with crimes including “homicide, sexual violence, and the recruitment and use of child soldiers.”
The case against Massaquoi began unraveling early. Witnesses used to press the case against Massaquoi accused Hassan Bility, director of the Global Justice Research Project (GJRP), Civitas Maxima’s local partner in Liberia, of bribing them to shape their accusations against Massaquoi. Independent investigators accused Bility and Civitas Maxima Director Alain Werner of recruiting, paying, and coaching witnesses. Judges found that not only had Massaquoi never killed anyone, but he was not even present in Liberia at the time of the allegations leveled against him.
That the case against Massaquoi got this far—especially after he had dedicated years to help bring justice to Sierra Leone, an effort that ultimately led to the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of former Liberian President Charles Taylor—is a travesty of justice. In the local level, it smacks of revenge. More broadly, it would not have been possible absent the dishonest behavior of a self-described human rights organization.
Within the State Department, there should be some serious soul searching. As charges surfaced against Bility, US Ambassador Michael McCarthy invited him to the US Embassy in Monrovia to imply US support for his efforts. “Ambassador McCarthy remarked that the painstaking efforts of the GJRP to research war crimes has demonstrated that a group of committed Liberians can achieve justice for war crimes victims,” the embassy’s press release stated. McCarthy got it exactly backwards; that he was unaware of the depth of GJRP duplicity raises questions both about the embassy’s detachment from reality and its overreliance on a small set of agenda-driven informants.
For Foggy Bottom, the problem is not just Liberia. In 2015, the Belgian National Police arrested Michel De Sadeleer on accusations that he enslaved victims to mine diamonds and also provided weapons to the Liberian civil war-era Revolutionary United Front. Civitas Maxima provided them the evidence. De Sadeleer was an American citizen, and his aunt had been the US ambassador to Togo. Justice moves slowly, however, and the stigma of being accused of enslavement is not something that can be undone. After near two years in prison, De Sadeleer committed suicide. Subsequently, it became clear that the evidence against him was also tainted and that he was not guilty of the crimes for which he was accused. Civitas Maxima, meanwhile, raised funds off its cases and became a multimillion-dollar organization.
Crimes committed during West Africa’s civil wars were atrocious. The damage that dishonest activists now do unravels not only individual cases, but also casts doubt more broadly on local and international efforts to bring justice and accountability to the region. Not only will Civitas Maxima, its board of human rights luminaries, and its partners potentially now face charges itself, but the fruit of the poisonous tree doctrine may force retrial if not unravel every case in which Civitas Maxima or GJRP played a role. There are no winners in this tragedy, only yet one more warning that it is dangerous and naïve to take human rights organizations and advocacy at face value given how both money and politics have corrupted the community.