Circuit Judge Hindering Investment? Reportedly Stalling Sime Darby Eviction Process, Removal Of Illegal Occupants

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Tubmanburg, Bomi County – It has become clear now to several employees at the Malaysian oil giant, Sime Darby Plantation, one of the huge investments in the country and are blaming the 11th Judicial Circuit Court located in Tubmanburg, Bomi County presided over by Judge His Honor William B. Sando of stalling the eviction exercise   of illegal occupants of the company housing units, a process which should have taken place many months ago.

The exercise, according to the employees is intended to improve their housing conditions. Currently, there are several illegal occupants in the company’s housing units who have refused to leave, despite several appeals from managements.

Sine months ago when Magistrate Gloria J. Reed  of the Gbah Magistrate Court ruled that the illegal occupants should be evicted, the lawyer representing the illegal occupants took the Magistrate on Summary Proceeding before Circuit Judge Sando.

Under Liberian law and in legal practice, a Summary Proceeding is a resistance against the decision of a lower court Judge and the party taking Summary takes the matter to the higher judge to correct what is seems as error on the part of the lower judge before a final determination into the matter.

As per normal legal practice in Liberia, in the case of a Summary, the Judge is to expeditiously deicide the matter within few days to enable the parties to the dispute have a conclusion to the matter.

But in such a crucial matter relating to the survival of the company, Judge Sando has not been able to hand down a decision for more than two months running on the Summary to pave the way for the eviction of the illegal occupants.

The eviction exercise should have taken place since several months ago to enable the company comply with a mandate from the Honorable House of Representatives to renovate and ensure that housing units occupied by the company employees are up to standard.

 In line with the lawmakers mandate and to also reduce its operating cost, the company has decided to get an eviction order from the court to effect it.

But since three months ago, the company has carried out all the necessary awareness programs in line with the eviction exercise of the non employees living in the houses. Some of the employees are expressing frustration over the delay.

Some Court Judges use such process to deliberately refuse to make determination only to frustrate one of the parties to the dispute, in this case, Sime Darby Plantation Liberia.

Many of the houses are currently occupied by non-Sime Darby employees, thus making it difficult for the legal employees to move in. This is posing serious financial burden on both the legal employees and the company.

“The magistrate   has been delaying in issuing the eviction notice. This is making it difficult for us to move it. The longer the non-employees remain there, the more difficult things become for us that suppose to occupy these properties,” one Kemokai, said.

“We think this is wrong on the part of the magistrate. We do not know what she wants. We are appealing to her to release the eviction notice so that some of us can move in,” they said. 

Due to the current economic situation in the country and the global community, the management of Sime Darby Plantation Liberia has since taken a decision to improve the living conditions of its employees that will be in line with its operational budget.

The occupation has led to a sharp increase in the company’s monthly expenditure. “Do you know that the number of people taking free medical treatment at the SDPL clinic has increased from four hundred monthly to close to one thousand?”, one clinic staff said.

According to records, many of those who take free medical services there, are residents from the non-employees quarters. That has increased the expenditure of the company.

The workers said, the action of the magistrate is totally unacceptable and described it as a means to undermine government’s investment program. 

“Already, this company is threatening to leave and government is talking with them to remain.  But the action of the magistrate is not encouraging at all and sends a bad signal to business world,” one Abraham P. Zinah said.

This situation is said to be affecting the smooth operations of the company that is also facing enormous challenges from illegal occupants of its properties, illegal harvesting of its oil palm, series of attacks on its security officers among others.

The company signed a 63-year concession in 2009 to develop 220,000 hectares of land in northwest Liberia into oil palm and rubber plantations.

The concession makes up a fifth of Sime Darby Plantation’s total land bank, but so far only 10,000 hectares have been planted due to factors including an Ebola outbreak, severe environmental standards, unwillingness of locals to leave the land among others.

The company is reported to have spent over US$200 million on its operations in the country and have not been able to breakeven on this investment.

Sources close to the company told this paper that the reported move comes as the company’s return on investment in the country has been lower than expected due to disappointing planting activity amid sterner new international environmental standards among other domestic issues.

Although the company has remained tightlipped on these issues, but the latest actions by the Magistrate of the Magisterial Court might be another cause of worry for the company.

President George Manneh Weah recently said in a statement that the country could not afford to lose a major investor such as Sime Darby Plantation, and that the government was “committed to doing everything possible to ensure that this investment stays here”.

When contacted, through a visit at the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, a court staffer said Judge Sando was busy and will not speak on a legal matter publicly if confronted with the matter. 

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