Liberia: U.S. 2020 Human Rights Report Cites “Serious Problems” with the Judiciary

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MONROVIA – The Judiciary under the watch of Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor has come under the spotlight for lacking independence while judges stand accused of soliciting bribes to try cases or even grant bails – according to the U.S. State Department 2020 Human Rights Report.

The report which was released on Tuesday by the U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, cites arbitrary killings, detention and judicial lapses.

On the judiciary, the report states: “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.”

According to the Human Rights report, some judicial officials and prosecutors appeared subject to pressure, and the outcome of some trials appeared to be predetermined, especially when the accused persons were politically connected or socially prominent.

The U.S. State Department Report on Human Rights cited the passport saga involving the former director of passports, Andrew Wonplo, who was arrested and charged in 2019 for allegedly selling Liberian passports to foreign nationals from 2018 to 2019, but the indictment was dismissed.

The case was dismissed on a procedural ruling that the state did not proceed within the statutory period. On September 16, however, the government issued a second writ of arrest against Wonplo and 12 other suspects for fraudulent issuance of more than 4,000 passports, which the government alleged deprived it of more than $30,000 in revenue, the report stated.

The U.S. State Department also stated that the Supreme Court’s Grievance and Ethics Committee and the Judiciary Inquiry Commission which investigate unethical conduct of lawyers lack appropriate guidelines to deliver their mandates effectively and have been perceived as nontransparent and subject to influence.

The independence of judges also came under questioning when it comes to the right for fair public trial. According to the report, defendants to trial without delay and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense were not observed, among other rights entitled to them were barely enforced.

This is the second time in four months that the judiciary has come under heavy criticism by the U.S. government.

Chief Justice Korkpor during the opening of the March Term of Court disclosed 32 cases involving judges, magistrates and lawyers were heard by the Judicial Inquiry Commission and the Grievance and Ethics Committee for ethical and professional misconduct.

“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.”

– Human Rights Report, U.S. Department of State

His Honor Peter G. Massey, Debt Court Judge, Fourteenth Judicial Circuit, Rivercess County was suspended for one calendar year with salaries, benefits and other emoluments withheld during that period;

His Honor Daniel K. Konah and His Honor Albert Dologma, Stipendiary Magistrate and Associate Magistrates, both of the Eighth Judicial Circuit, Nimba County were suspended for three and six months, respectively for unethical and unprofessional conducts; and

Attorney Joseph Sackor Doe was suspended from the practice of law directly and indirectly for the period of one year.

Justice Korkpor said, “Over the years, reports of ethical transgressions of judges and lawyers have been scrupulously investigated by the JIC and GEC and appropriate actions taken by the Supreme Court. By these actions, this Court has regularly sanctioned Judges and lawyers. In more egregious cases, we have recommended the removal of those whose acts are inimical to the core values of the judiciary.”

In December 2020, United States of America Treasury Department alleged that Counsellor Varney Sherman, Senator of Grand Cape Mount County, offered bribes to multiple judges that were associated with the 2010 Sable Mining alleged bribery case, as reported by Global Witness.

The Treasury Department made the disclosure when it slammed the Grand Cape Mount County Senator, Cllr. Varney Sherman, with economic sanctions due to the allegations.

The Treasury Department stated that Cllr. Sherman often bribed judges to sway cases in favor of his clients.

The sanction on the Liberian lawyer and Senator was in observance of 2020’s

International Anti-Corruption Day.

In last year’s commemoration, the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) targeted corrupt actors and their networks across several countries in Africa and Asia. The action was taken pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and targets perpetrators of corruption and serious human rights abuse.

Harry Varney Gboto-Nambi Sherman (Sherman), now a prominent lawyer, Liberian senator, and Chair of the Liberian Senate Judiciary Committee, offered bribes to multiple judges associated with his trial for a 2010 bribery scheme, and he had an undisclosed conflict of interest with the judge who ultimately returned a not guilty verdict in July 2019. Sherman has routinely paid judges to decide cases in his favor, and he has allegedly facilitated payments to Liberian politicians to support impeachment of a judge who has ruled against him.

In the 2010 scheme that led to this trial, Sherman was hired by a British mining company in an effort to obtain one of Liberia’s last remaining mining assets, the Wologizi iron ore concession. Sherman advised the company that, in order to obtain the contract, they first had to get Liberia’s procurement and concessions law changed by bribing senior officials. In 2016, Sherman was indicted by the Liberian government, along with several other government officials, for their involvement in the US$950,000 bribery scheme. In 2019, the presiding judge acquitted all individuals accused of being involved in the bribery scheme. Sherman’s acts of bribery demonstrate a larger pattern of behavior to exercise influence over the Liberian judiciary and the Ministry of Justice.

Sherman is designated for being a foreign person who is a current or former government official responsible for or complicit in, or directly or indirectly engaged in, corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.

Supreme Court’s Reaction

court will never allow or condone the act of any lawyer, party litigant, or whosoever desiring to exercise influence over judges of the Judiciary.

The court further explained that the information contained in the US Treasury Department’s statement, without more details, “is insufficient to serve as a basis for Sanction against the referenced judicial actors.

According to the release, in all cases before appropriate sanctions are applied, a formal complaint is filed, the accused judicial actor is furnished with a copy, an investigation is conducted by the body responsible, and hearings are conducted by the Supreme Court concerning recommendations from its judicial Inquiry Commission and the Grievance and Ethics Committee.

“This is an essential requirement to accord the cardinal principle of due process. But, in the instant case, the information contained in the US Treasury department is insufficient to serve as a basis for sanction against Cllr. Sherman and the named judges,” the Supreme Court said.

The Supreme Court said the statement casts serious doubt and aspersion not only on the integrity and credibility of Cllr. Sherman and the judges alluded therein, but also on the Liberian Judiciary as an institution responsible for the fair and impartial hearing and disposition of cases.

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