Washington – The U.S. Department of State has slammed Liberia over various human rights abuses including corruption, deficiencies in governance and violence against women.
In the 2015 edition of its annual report, released by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Friday the report said the most serious human rights abuses were those linked to deficiencies in the administration of justice, official corruption, and violence against women and children.
The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices are submitted annually by the U.S. Department of State to the U.S. Congress in compliance with sections 116(d) and 502B(b) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended, and section 504 of the Trade Act of 1974, as amended. The reports cover internationally recognized individual, civil, political, and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The report noted that other important human rights abuses included Police abuse, harassment, and intimidation of detainees and others; arbitrary arrest and detention; violence against women and children, including rape and domestic violence, human trafficking; racial and ethnic discrimination; discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; mob violence; and child labour.
“Impunity remained a serious problem despite intermittent and limited government attempts to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed violations, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government,” the report noted.
On a positive note the report said that civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces but lamented that the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) crisis of 2014 and 2015 disrupted access to medical care and education, stigmatized affected communities and individuals, discouraged traditional burial rites, and stressed already limited government capacity and funding.
World Witnessing Accelerating Trend
Releasing the report, Secretary of State Kerry said the world is witnessing an accelerating trend by both state and non-state actors to close the space for civil society, to stifle media and Internet freedom, to marginalize opposition voices, and in the most extreme cases, to kill people or drive them from their homes.
“Some look at these events and fear democracy is in retreat. In fact, they are a reaction to the advance of democratic ideals – to rising demands of people from every culture and region for governments that answer to them.”
The U.S. Secretary of State said the frequently grim examples detailed in the Report strengthen the U.S. resolve to promote fundamental freedoms, to support human rights defenders, and to document and promote accountability for violations of human rights.
“We do so because it is right and because it reinforces our interest in a more peaceful world. People everywhere want to be free and in control of their lives. If they are denied basic rights and dignity, they will ultimately stand up for what they want, as we have seen from Syria to Sri Lanka, from Burma to Nigeria.
The choice some governments offer between freedom and stability is thus a false one, for freedom is the foundation for lasting stability.”
Continued Secretary of State Kerry: “This year we witnessed shocking abuses of human rights, violations of international humanitarian law, and other criminal acts by non-state actors such as Da’esh, Boko Haram, al Shabaab, the Taliban, transnational criminal organizations, and others. The range of abuses included genocide and crimes against humanity directed against religious minorities in Iraq and Syria.”
The Report this year continued to track the weakening of institutions that undergird human rights and democracy. In many countries, governments cracked down on the fundamental freedoms of expression and association by jailing reporters for writing critical stories, or sharply restricting or closing non-governmental organizations for promoting supposedly “foreign ideologies” such as universal human rights. Our message to these countries is that, far from threatening the democratic process, a free press and open civil society are the release valve and life blood of a thriving democracy.
Mr. Kerry said the U.S. has taken note of the troubling trend among some elected leaders who undermined existing democratic institutions, such as by taking steps to stifle opposition, circumvent the electoral process, and weaken judiciaries, often in an attempt to perpetuate their continued rule.
“Corruption, often carried out with impunity, had a corrosive effect on democracy, respect for human rights, and the rule of law. Institutions lose credibility when people can no longer expect a fair and impartial judiciary to address their grievances, obtain basic government services without a bribe, or participate in the political process without their franchise being undermined by corruption. People must have faith in their institutions in order for societies to thrive.”
The report noted that during the period under review, Police officers and other security officials allegedly abused, harassed, and intimidated persons in Police custody to extort money, out of personal animosity, or for other reasons.
Beginning in April the Liberia National Police (LNP) increased its investigation of these types of cases. The constitution prohibits practices such as torture and inhuman treatment; nonetheless.
UNMIL Cited for Sex Abuses
The report also took aim at the UN mission in Liberia for a wide array of sexual assaults. “The Office of Internal Oversight Services identified the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) as having a high incidence of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA).
In its first SEA report for the country, released in February, the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Unit of the Department of Field Support identified 85 cases of alleged SEA in the period 2008-14.
There were four cases reported in 2014, with three of them determined by UN authorities to be unsubstantiated. The fourth case from 2014, involving military personnel accused of sexual abuse, remained under active consideration by both the United Nations and the troop contributing country, which has primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute (if appropriate) alleged misconduct by its uniformed personnel. No other information was available by year’s end.”
Harsh Prison Condition
The 2015 report said prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding, food shortages, lack of sanitary facilities, and inadequate medical care.
“Inadequate space, bedding and mosquito netting, food, sanitation, ventilation, cooling, lighting, basic and emergency medical care, and potable water contributed to harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions in the country’s 15 prisons and detention centers. Many prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors.
The local press and Prison Fellowship Liberia, a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported that prison officials threatened prisoners’ lives. The Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) reported two prisoner deaths through November 25.”
The report citing the BCR, noted that approximately half of the country’s 2,203 prisoners were at Monrovia Central Prison (MCP). “This prison operated at nearly three times its 375-person capacity because of the large number of pre-trial detainees.
The MCP population of 1,008 individuals included eight women and eight juveniles as of December, and there were approximately 20 women in other prisons. Prisons remained understaffed and prison personnel were irregularly paid.”
The report also cited the lack of logistics as a key deterrent for the prison system. “The MCP has, at most, only three operable vehicles, and consequently was often unable to transport prisoners and detainees to court or to a hospital. The LNP, international law enforcement advisors, or commercial motor bikes and taxis transported prisoners to or from court.
The United Nations, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Carter Center, and Prison Fellowship Liberia continued to provide medical services or related training and improve basic sanitary conditions at the MCP and other facilities where such services and conditions remained inadequate.
NGOs provided medicines to treat seizures, skin infections, and mental health conditions, but other necessary medications, including those for malaria and tuberculosis, were replenished only when the stock of that medication was exhausted.
Since replenishment sometimes took weeks or months, inmates went without medication for lengthy periods. Funding to feed prisoners, maintain prison facilities, and pay employees lapsed in the last quarter of the year.”
According to the report, there were reports of inadequate treatment for ailing inmates and inmates with disabilities. “While the law provides for compassionate release of prisoners who are ill, such release was uncommon, since the law requires a written policy that does not exist.”
More Freedom for Women in Prison
While the report gave good marks to authorities for holding men and women in separate blocks throughout the country, some counties and cities had only one detention center, where officials held juveniles with adults and pretrial detainees with convicts.
“There were reports that separation of juveniles was inadequate, except at the MCP, where children were held in separate cells within adult cellblocks. In some cases, children were misidentified as adults and held in adult cellblocks.”
Nonetheless, the report said conditions for women prisoners were somewhat better than those for men, and women inmates were less likely to suffer from overcrowding.
“Women also had more freedom to move within the women’s section of facilities. The Corrections Advisory Unit of the UNMIL worked with the BCR to improve its accountability and adherence to international corrections standards. In addition to mentoring, advising, and capacity building, the unit assisted refurbishment and rehabilitation of facilities.”
The government however received good marks for making efforts to improve recordkeeping on prisoners, but noted that the process was manual and problems remained.
“The BCR maintained a prison roll with help from the UNMIL Corrections Advisory Unit, but these were handwritten and referenced only one or two court documents.
An electronic record-keeping system and biometric intake process, including photographs, at MCP has been developed through a cooperative international initiative among two domestic NGOs (Making all Voices Count and the Prison Fellowship of Liberia) and a donor country, but has yet to be put to use.”
The government also received positive notes for permitting independent monitoring of prison conditions by local human rights groups, international NGOs, the United Nations, ICRC, diplomatic personnel, and media.
“Some human rights groups, including domestic and international organizations, regularly visited detainees at Police headquarters and prisoners in the MCP.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross provided hygiene items to four prisons and essential medicines to all 15 prisons.
The ICRC also worked with the Ministry of Justice to improve water and sanitation infrastructure in four facilities and to establish a comprehensive prison health-care system. The government hired and trained 69 additional correctional officers during the year.
Judges ‘Influenced by Corruption’
Like previous years, the report had no improved report for the Liberian judiciary, slamming the judiciary branch for lack of independence.
“Judges and magistrates were subject to influence and corruption. Uneven application of the law and unequal distribution of personnel and resources remained problems throughout the judicial system.
The government continued efforts to harmonize the traditional and formal justice systems, in particular through campaigns focused on trying criminal cases in formal courts. These cases included murder, rape, and human trafficking, as well as some civil cases that could be resolved in either formal or traditional systems.”
The report also noted that jurors were subject to influence and corrupt practices that undermined their neutrality.
“Defendants have the right to be present at their trials, consult with an attorney in a timely manner, and have access to government-held evidence relevant to their case.”
“Defendants have the right to be informed of the charges promptly and in detail. If a defendant, complainant, or witness does not speak or understand English, the court provides interpreters for the trial.
Defendants also have the right to a trial without delay and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense, although these rights often were not observed.
Defendants are presumed innocent and they have the right to confront and question adverse witnesses, present their own evidence and witnesses, and appeal adverse decisions. These rights, however, were not observed consistently.”
The Magistrate Sitting Program, according to the report, begun in 2009 to expedite the trials of persons detained at the MCP, adjudicated 1,016 cases during the year through October.
“Those proceedings resulted in the release of 880 detainees, the conviction of 122, and the transfer of 10 cases to different courts. Four case files were unaccounted for during the proceedings.
Among other problems, the program suffered from poor coordination among judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and corrections personnel; deficient docket management; inappropriate involvement of extrajudicial actors; and lack of logistical support.”