GENEVA — A former Liberian warlord was found guilty of war crimes including murder, cannibalism and the use of child soldiers in Switzerland’s criminal court on Friday — the first conviction specifically for atrocities in Liberia’s back-to-back civil wars between 1989 and 2003 in which a quarter-million people are thought to have died.
The court found the former warlord, Alieu Kosiah, 46, guilty on 21 of the 25 charges against him, including ordering the killing of 13 civilians and two unarmed soldiers, the murder of four other civilians, as well as rape, cruel treatment of civilians and using a child soldier in armed hostilities. Mr. Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy, or ULIMO, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed under Swiss law.
“This is a landmark judgment, not only because it is the first war crimes conviction against a Liberian commander, but because it shows it is possible to convince a court with testimonies of victims, even almost 30 years after the facts,” said Alain Werner, the director of the Geneva-based legal organization Civitas Maxima, which was instrumental in Mr. Kosiah’s arrest and which represented some of the plaintiffs.
Switzerland recognizes universal jurisdiction, which allows for the prosecution of serious crimes committed in other countries. The trial, held in the Alpine town of Bellinzona, was the first time Swiss federal courts have prosecuted war crimes in the about a decade since they took over jurisdiction from military tribunals.
For victims who had waited seven years for the case to come to court and traveled to Switzerland to testify, Mr. Werner said, the judges’ verdict was “a beautiful victory for their courage, their resilience and their quest for justice.”
Human rights groups also saw the trial as a milestone event for both Liberia and Switzerland. No Liberian perpetrator of atrocities has faced prosecution in Liberia despite President George Weah’s repeated vague expressions of willingness to set up a war-crimes court for that purpose.
In a trial lasting more than a month, the court heard gruesome testimony of summary executions and the torture of civilians during Liberia’s first civil war and how Mr. Kosiah forced Liberians on arduous treks as porters, carrying goods pillaged from their own farms and villages.
A woman testified by video that she was raped by Mr. Kosiah and later bore his child. Witnesses also described how one of Mr. Kosiah’s associates, known as Ugly Boy, hacked open the chest of a church schoolteacher and ripped out and cut up his heart, which he, Mr. Kosiah and their associates then ate.
Mr. Kosiah was living in Switzerland when he was arrested in November 2014 and has already spent six years in pretrial detention, which will be deducted from his sentence. On his eventual release, he will be expelled from Switzerland for 15 years.
Lawyers and human rights groups are hopeful that this conviction will invigorate international investigations and prosecution of other war crimes, even possibly within Liberia.
Mr. Kosiah’s trial is one of several cases moving through European courts on the basis of universal jurisdiction. A Finnish court is prosecuting another case that has involved judges traveling to remote villages in Liberia and to Sierra Leone to hear testimony in the trial of Gibril Massaquoi, formerly a senior member of a Sierra Leone rebel group that fought in Liberia.
France announced in April that next year it would put on trial Kunti Kumara, another former commander in ULIMO, who is also accused of murder, torture, rape and other atrocities.
The contrast between the prosecution of war crimes outside Liberia and the lack of justice within the country has placed increasing pressure on Liberia’s leadership to do more to hold perpetrators accountable, said Philip Grant, director of TRIAL International, another Swiss-based legal group pursuing international crimes.
Legal organizations hope that the outcome of this case will also galvanize change in Switzerland, where lawyers say the image of a country where the Geneva Conventions were established contrasts with a weak record in prosecuting international crimes.
Switzerland was an early actor in international justice cases. It prosecuted a Rwandan war crimes suspect in 1999, the first such case outside Rwanda and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and, in 2011, it adopted a law allowing universal jurisdiction cases to be pursued.
But federal authorities have provided only meager manpower and funding for what are typically long, complex and costly investigations, and lawyers say that in recent years Switzerland has fallen far behind other European countries.
“If you only had to rely on governmental authorities, very little would have happened,” Mr. Grant said. “Without the nongovernment, civil society organizations, these cases would be nowhere.”