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Liberia Truth Commission Hearings Spark More Controversy

Two former warlords have testified before the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Liberia, as the hearings recently gained new intensity. Brent Latham reports from our West Africa bureau in Dakar, their testimony has sparked controversy on the streets of Monrovia.

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission was conceived as a forum to publicly air the disparate points of view of the principal actors in the country's bloody, 14-year civil war. It also gives both participants of the war and victims the opportunity to share their stories.

The testimony before the commission this week of two former warlords has stirred debate and opened old wounds on the streets of the capital, Monrovia.

Prince Johnson, whose rebel group in 1990 captured and is alleged to have tortured and killed then-president Samuel Doe, and Sekou Conneh, who led the rebel group that staged a bloody siege of Monrovia in 2003, both came before the commission this week.

The head of the Liberian Press Union, Peter Quaqua, said the pair described their versions of events, taking more credit than blame, and causing consternation,.

"We have had a situation where some of the testimonies have been contested by people in public. For instance, Mr. Conneh, as a matter of fact, he was jeered, or booed, in the hall when he testified, and it seemed as though people who witnessed the actions of his men were certainly not agreed to the testimony he gave," said Quaqua. "So there have been discussions on the streets of Monrovia and people are very much bitter. There have been calls to talk shows and people are criticizing especially his testimony."

Conneh, who launched a failed bid for the presidency in 2005, led the rebel group which made it all the way to the capital Monrovia several times in 2003, sparking large-scale looting. During the months of fighting, his rebel forces indiscriminately shelled the capital, causing large numbers of civilian casualties. But Quaqua says Conneh portrayed his actions differently.

"Mr. Conneh had modified his concluding statement at the hearing to ask that a monument be built for him as a liberator of the people. He has said that he has brought liberation to Liberia so we can have democracy today, and that has been his insistence," said Quaqua. "He has refused to take responsibility for whatever might have occurred during the course of the conflict, and he says he cannot take responsibility for things committed by his soldiers."

Conneh blamed former President Charles Taylor for the civilian deaths. Taylor himself is currently in custody at The Hague, awaiting the resumption of his war crimes trial before the United Nations-backed Special Court of Sierra Leone. This concerns actions which took place in Sierra Leone and not Liberia.

Taylor says he is innocent of any wrongdoing, and that he himself is the victim of international conspiracy. One of his early allies in the war, Prince Johnson, who currently serves as a senator, also made a controversial appearance before the truth commission this week.

In the testimony, while denying any wrong-doing relating to the death of former President Doe, Quaqua says Johnson described for the first time the unusual train of events that followed Mr. Doe's death.

"Clearly Prince Johnson's testimony has also been a subject of discussion, especially with his revelation that the former president who was killed was later exhumed and then burned, and that has sparked confusion in the streets," said Quaqua.

The Truth and Reconciliation commission, which has staged hearings throughout Liberia and in the United States, does not have prosecutorial or judicial powers. Several Liberian human rights activists are calling for a war crimes court, and convictions for those found guilty of atrocities.