Liberia: Advocates Unmoved by Senator Johnson’s U-turn over War Crimes Court

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Monrovia – Senator Prince Johnson’s reconsideration of his decision not to support the establishment of a war crimes court for Liberia stole the headlines last week, but advocates for the court here say they are not moved by his new position.  


Report by James Harding Giahyue, New Narratives Senior Justice Correspondent


Senator Johnson of told a Prime FM 105.1 live program on last Wednesday that he was “no longer afraid to face the court” once he is assured of a free and fair trial. That was a reversal to his stance on the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2009 that call for the court, which he branded a witch-hunt and has been its standup opposition for nearly a decade. 

“Senator Johnson turnaround is not welcoming news,” said Adama Dempster of Human Rights Advocacy Platform of Liberia in an interview with FrontPage Africa over the weekend. The fact is, those crimes he committed are international crimes as such he has no option but to be prosecuted when the court is established,” he said.  

Senator Johnson’s new position on the court came less than 24 hours after he and Senator Sando Johnson of Bomi County sparred in the Senate over issues ranging from the 16 billion Liberian banknote saga to their involvement in the civil war. It all started when Senator Johnson of Bomi told the Senate the people in the county were angry that the government of Liberia was reluctant to set up the court. 

Interestingly, both men are among 98 “most notorious” perpetrators in the TRC report. Senator Johnson of Bomi is named in the TRC report for alleged killing and forced recruitment, while Senator Johnson of Nimba for alleged killing, massacre, destruction of property, force recruitment, assault, abduction, torture, forced labor and rape. The Nimba lawmaker is one of eight leaders of warring factions recommended by the commission to face the court and is most infamous for torturing and killing former President Samuel K. Doe.  

Dempster said Senator Johnson’s decision to now face the court was too spontaneous to celebrate. 

“In the first place Senator Johnson turnaround statement did not come
under normal situation, rather it was done when he was engaged in an
argument between him and Senator Sando Johnson of Bomi County,” Dempster said.    

Aaron Weah of the Search for Common Ground agreed with Dempster.  

“Prince Johnson is noted for being erratic and inconsistent. There’s real possibility that he could have a change of mind very soon,” said Weah in an emailed interview.  

Responding to whether the Nimba lawmaker’s new position could shift public opinion, Weah said “I will not give much credit to Prince Johnson’s change of mind as a basis for people’s support toward the war crimes court. 

“For me, it’s not whether they need to reconsider their position, rather it’s about engaging into aggressive outreach and advocacy about war crimes and what’s in the TRC final report. The perception that the TRC report is targeting certain ethnic group is untrue and needs to be clarified in systematic outreach activities.” 

A war crimes court for Liberia has been one of the biggest issues in the presidency of ex-soccer star George Weah largely due to the widely held opinion that the President did not play a role in the civil war. Scores of national and international human rights organizations have called on him to set up the court. The United Nations has given Liberia up to July next year to address past human rights violations. Protests have been held for the court, and there is a petition before the Legislature for it to be set up. 

The TRC recommended an extraordinary criminal tribunal but that has to be legislated. Hassan Bility of Global Justice and Research Institute (GJRP) said in an emailed interview Senator Johnson’s reversal should inspire the Legislature to pass a bill to set up the court. 

This can only be impactful if the Liberian Legislature takes advantage of it,” said Bility. “I see this as a challenge from Senator Johnson and it’s now left the lawmakers.” 

Senator Johnson’s support for the call comes less than a month after the International Criminal Court acquitted former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo for crimes against humanity. 

Bility said he was not very sure that Senator Johnson‘s decision was based on Gbagbo’s acquittal but said was evidence that Liberian alleged war criminals would get a free a fair trial if tried. 

“People now are beginning to believe the international justice system is a process
people can trust,” said Bility whose group collaborates with Switzerland-based Civitas Maxima in prosecuting Liberian alleged war criminals in Europe and America. “Maybe some individuals do have problems with the call for an extraordinary criminal court for Liberia, and when those concerns are addressed, it’s only normal, like in the case of the Senator, that people change their minds,” he said.

Victims, meanwhile, have welcomed Senator Johnson’s decision. 

“This news is worth celebrating because it strikes a very important chord,” said Cooper Vuku of Survivors’ Truth, a victims group that advocates peace by concerted local efforts. “It is a testimony to the rule of law that is beginning to take root in Liberia,” he said.   

Peterson Sonyah of the Liberian Massacre Survivors Association (LIMSA) also said it was a welcoming news.  

“I think [Senator Johnson] did extremely well. That is a very good pronouncement that he made,” said Sonyah, who comes from Nimba County and is a survivor of the Lutheran Massacre. 

“That is what we want to hear.” 

The story was produced in collaboration with New Narratives as part of the West Africa Justice Reporting Project

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