Liberia: U.S. Human Rights Report Details Arbitrary Killings, Abuses And Harsh Conditions In Liberia

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MONROVIA – Liberia has once again made a notorious appearance in the U.S. State Department 2019 County Reports on Human Rights, cataloging several cases of abuse and harsh practices.

The report listed several significant rights abuses including “arbitrary killings by police; arbitrary detention by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; substantial restrictions on free expression and the press, including site blocking; official corruption; lack of accountability in cases of violence against women due to government inaction in some instances, including rape, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); trafficking in persons; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.”

The Report noted that impunity for individuals who committed human rights abuses, including atrocities during the civil wars that ended in 2003, remained a serious problem. 

“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. Security forces and law enforcement officials undertook some training to increase respect for human rights,” the Report stated.

The report recalled the June 24, 2019 killing of a teenager in Todee District when a firearm was discharged to disperse protestors. 

“There were several reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings,” the report notes.

“On June 24, police officers fired live ammunition while attempting to disperse protesters who had gathered to demand investigation into the death of two children discovered on June 3 with body parts removed in what appeared to be a ritualistic killing. Abraham Tumay was shot and killed and two other individuals were reportedly shot and later released from the hospital after treatment.”

The report: “On June 25, President Weah called on the Ministry of Justice to “move quickly and probe circumstances surrounding the unfortunate incident that reportedly left a citizen dead.” An initial police statement said the individuals had been injured by improvised gasoline bombs made by protesters, but a subsequent review of the incident by the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) found that protesters “did not possess any firearm or explosive… as alleged by the police.” An internal police investigation noted that the fatal shooting was unintentional and ultimately led in early July to four police officers being charged with negligent homicide. A number of senior officers were also suspended for failures of leadership.”

The report listed several significant rights abuses including “arbitrary killings by police; arbitrary detention by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; substantial restrictions on free expression and the press, including site blocking; official corruption; lack of accountability in cases of violence against women due to government inaction in some instances, including rape, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); trafficking in persons; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and use of forced or compulsory child labor.”

Prison Conditions

Prison conditions were at times harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, and medical care.

The 2019 Human Rights stated gross overcrowding of prisons remain a major challenge in Liberia. 

Gross overcrowding continued to be a problem. The report noted that the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) reported the prison population in the country’s 16 facilities was almost twice the planned capacity. Approximately one-half of the country’s 2,700 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP), which was originally built for 374 detainees, but as of December held 1,262. Prison Fellowship Liberia (PFL) reported that overcrowding in Block D of the MCP required prisoners to sleep in shifts. Of those in the MCP, 74 percent were pretrial detainees. As of December, the prison population countrywide included 75 women and 52 juveniles. The majority of juveniles were in pretrial detention. Pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held together. In some cases men and women were held together, and juveniles were held with adults.

Seventeen prisoner deaths were reported through August due to medical reasons including anemia, heart conditions, and infectious diseases, likely exacerbated by inadequate care. According to the Bureau of Corrections and Reconciliation, none resulted from prison violence or mistreatment of prisoners.

“The General Services Agency, which does not have oversight responsibility for prisons, reportedly provided two shipments of rice when the Ministry of Justice was unable to provide funding for food,” the report stated.

According to the report, Prison Fellowship Liberia reported that Kakata Prison went without rice – prisoners’ staple food – or three weeks, during which time prisoners relied on friends and family members for food. Officials at Bomi County Prison reportedly purchased rice with their own money, as they had not received a supply in August.

“The MCP (Monrovia Central Prison) sometimes served rice alone, and prisoners purchased oil to supplement their diet. In a number of locations, prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors in accordance with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The BCR sometimes used farming to supplement food rations. Lofa County Prison, for example, grew approximately 660 pounds of rice, cassava, corn, and beans, which prisoners farmed and used to supplement their diet.”

Arbitrary Detention 

Police officers and magistrates frequently detained citizens for owing money to a complainant. The Ministry of Justice reported that magistrate court judges continued to issue writs of arrest unilaterally, without approval or submission by the city solicitors. Although the minister of justice announced in 2018 his intention to curtail magistrate judges’ ability to issue writs of arrest independently, the practice continued.

In general police must have warrants issued by a magistrate to make arrests. The law allows for arrests without a warrant if necessary paperwork is filed immediately afterwards for review by the appropriate authority. Nonetheless, arrests often were made without judicial authorization, and warrants were sometimes issued without sufficient evidence. Police sometimes requested money to effect arrests for prosecuting authorities, the 2019 Human Rights Report stated.

Harassments against Journalist 

The Human Rights report recognized that law enforcement officers occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners because of their political opinions and reporting, especially those that criticized government officials. Government officials also harassed media members for political reasons. For example, in August, FrontPage Africa newspaper reported cabinet members were pressuring the Firestone Corporation to fire Patrick Honnah, a public relations manager who criticized the government on social media and through the Punch FM website, where he previously worked. 

Separately, in July, Judge Peter Gbeneweleh summoned Othello B. Garblah, publisher of New Dawn newspaper, for possible contempt of court because of an article he wrote that speculated there was a plot to exonerate the defendants in the Sable Mining corruption case.

Internet Freedom

The report took into account that in the lead-up to and during a planned protest on June 7, the government disrupted access to the internet. Netblocks.org reported widespread social media blockages on both Orange and Lonestar, the two primary mobile networks. When protesters dispersed, access was restored. Cell phone providers announced to customers they had blocked internet access at the instruction of the government. Minister of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism Eugene Nagbe later confirmed the government requested the shut down and invoked unspecified national security concerns for doing so, while also criticizing protest organizers.

There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate senders, the report noted.

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