MONROVIA — A court in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, is wrapping up the trial of 18 men accused of staging cross-border attacks in Ivory Coast. Experts have been pushing Liberia to address the security situation along the border for more than two years. But a defense lawyer for the suspects in this case said Liberia's law against mercenary activity is being misapplied.
Liberia was gravely affected by Ivory Coast’s 2010-11 post-election crisis, which claimed at least 3,000 lives before ending in May 2011.
The crisis erupted after the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to leave office even though he had lost the 2010 election to Ivory Coast’s current leader, Alassane Ouattara. Tens of thousands of Ivorian refugees fled into Liberia, as did an unknown number of combatants.
In the months after the conflict ended, the first cross-border attacks began occurring. Often involving a mix of Liberian and Ivorian fighters, the attacks were brief strikes against villages in Ivory Coast that killed civilians, destroyed homes and displaced thousands.
The problem went largely unnoticed until June 2012, when an attack in southwestern Ivory Coast killed seven United Nations peacekeepers.
Matt Wells, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the situation seems calmer this year. The last cross-border raids were recorded in March, when three attacks carried out in quick succession killed 10 people.
But Wells said there is still a possibility that violence could return to the region, underscoring the need for both Liberia and Ivory Coast to combat mercenary activity.
“There remain lots of the same underlying tensions in the region in terms of land conflict, refugees who feel that they can’t yet go home. So there’s still a concerted need for action on both sides of the border to protect villages along the border from these sorts of attacks occurring again," said Wells.
The current case wrapping up at the court in Monrovia involves 18 Liberians accused of taking part in cross-border raids in 2011 and 2012. They are being tried under Liberia’s 1976 law against “mercenarism,” which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Tiawon Gongloe, the lead lawyer for the suspects, says the case should never have made it to court because the law was not intended to prosecute crimes committed beyond Liberia’s borders.
“Here, the crime mercenarism was meant to protect Liberia from foreign attackers. But we now have a situation where the crime is being leveled against Liberian citizens for allegedly participating in war in Côte d’Ivoire. That is not the intent of it,” he said.
Gongloe said that a key witness for the prosecution was paid for his testimony, something the prosecution denies. And he argues that because Ivory Coast had not named the 18 suspects as participants in cross-border raids, there was little evidence to back up the Liberian government’s allegations.
Daku Mulbah, the prosecutor for Montserrado County who is trying the case, said he expected a guilty verdict.
“Given the evidence that we have in our possession and what we have done in this case, yes, we have the strong conviction that the 18 defendants actually committed the crime that they are accused of committing, mercenarism, yes,” he said.
If the suspects are found guilty, Gongloe said he plans to appeal.
Prince Collins contributed to this report from Monrovia, Liberia