A Lingering Indictment of Liberia’s Justice System

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THE LATEST US STATE DEPARTMENT Human Rights Report on Liberia chronicles a litany of indictments regarding the country’s judicial branch and the lapses in a flawed justice system that continues to raise questions about Africa’s oldest republic’s readiness and sincerity toward change.


THE 2020 REPORT cites arbitrary killings by police; cases of cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment by police; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by government officials; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on freedom of the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; official corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the worst forms of child labor.

ALL THIS WHEN ordinary Liberians and those languishing at the bottom of the economic ladder appear entrenched in a patronage system that leaves very little room for independent thinking, self-preservation and pride.

THE REPORT LAMENTS THAT Impunity for individuals who committed human rights abuses, including atrocities, during the Liberian civil wars that ended in 2003, remained a serious problem, although the government cooperated with war crimes investigations in third countries. “The government made intermittent but limited attempts to investigate and prosecute officials accused of current abuses, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government,” the report noted.

THE REPORT, coming on the eve of a number of mysterious and unexplained deaths points to occasional arbitrary or unlawful killings allegedly committed by the government or its agents.

THE CRUX OF THE JUSTICE dilemma in Liberia, according to the report stems from the fact that the judiciary branch of government remains grossly inept and compromised. “The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but judges and magistrates were subject to influence and engaged in corruption. Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial.”

FOR EXAMPLE, the report makes mention of a January 26 incident during which bodyguards of President George Weah assaulted Zenu Koboi Miller, a local broadcast journalist, as he was leaving the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sport Stadium in Monrovia.

THE REPORT NOTES: “On January 27, the case was highlighted in a statement by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), an independent organization for media professionals, and later by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Miller wrote in a Facebook post that he had seen a doctor and was suffering from pains in his legs and chest after the “brutal attack.” Miller filed a complaint with the PUL, which met with police leadership on January 30 and called for a transparent investigation, according to a PUL statement. Miller died in a local hospital on February 15, after complaining of numbness in his left arm and legs, according to local news reports. While a direct link between the assault and death was never established, since an autopsy was not conducted, the family issued a statement saying Miller had died of hypertension and stroke.”

THE CRUX OF THE JUSTICE dilemma in Liberia, according to the report stems from the fact that the judiciary branch of government remains grossly inept and compromised. “The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but judges and magistrates were subject to influence and engaged in corruption. Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial.”

THE REPORT FURTHER NOTES that the use of detention as a punitive measure, failure to issue indictments in a timely manner, lack of a functioning bail system, poor court recordkeeping and missing files, failure of judges to assign court dates, failure of defense counsel to file motions to dismiss, and a lack of resources for public defenders all contributed to prolonged pretrial detention. For example, as of October the oldest pretrial detainee case dated to 2014.

YEAR IN AND YEAR OUT, IT APPEARS a recurring and familiar theme and refrain suggest serious problems within the judiciary branch.

IRONICALLY, IN SPITE of all the red flags, all the signs and writing on the wall, those lingering problems persists.

WHAT HAS THE CHIEF JUSTICE and his Supreme Court justices done to address these issues? What is going on between the Minister of Justice and the Solicitor General? What is keeping them from putting egos aside and getting along? Why is the President so naïve and blind, unable to put his feuding officials in check but allowing their public spat to ruin the image of not just his government, but of Liberia?

AFTER NEARLY 174 years as an independent nation, the country sadly has very little to show. People continue to linger in abject poverty, land rights continue to be abused, women continue to be raped and even the ordinary citizens are gradually losing their sense of direction and sanity of all things normal.

ABNORMALITY IS BECOMING the new trend and everyone seems to be going along for the ride to nowhere, an unrealistic but shocking reality that appears to be catching on a nation, slowly losing its dignity and repeatedly settling for mediocrity.

THE SAD REALITY is that annual reports like what the US State Department puts out exposes flaws that could easily be avoided if government takes the right measures to prevent these issues from repeating themselves.

IF EVER THERE was a silver lining to any of this, it could be that the writings on the wall is clear for all to see. It is never too late for change and never too late for a government and its people to elevate itself out of the doldrums of poverty, suffering and neglect.

THE PULSE OF ANY NATIONS begins and ends with justice. If that system is flawed, it leaves an entire nation vulnerable to the frailties and trappings of life.

THIS IS A CLARION call to the George Weah-led government, and the three branches of government to wake up, rise to the challenges and stand to be counted. The time is now for changing and transforming Liberia from worse to better for the betterment of us all.

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