Impunity through Justice
By: Alfred Jah Johnson
The above statement is one of many fundamental rights provided to Liberians and residents of Liberia. Regrettably, since its inception, the practical application of these rights has always contradicted its theoretical version. Members of the ruling class consistently and systematically suppressed and exploited disadvantaged Liberians.
This wanton treatment gravitated to an unimaginable, but some how inevitable level when, on December 24, 1989, rebel soldiers masquerading as “Freedom Fighters” attacked the border town of Butuo with a fusillade of A.K. 47s, Grenades, RPGs, etc. What was perceived as only an attempt to unseat Pres. Doe’s Administration lasted for fourteen brutal years claiming the lives of more than two hundred thousand Liberians, displacing and exiling hundreds of thousands more, and stigmatizing at least an entire generation of Liberians.
Since the cessation of violence, Liberians call for justice has become rightfully uncompromising. In the recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) consultations, participants from three regional locations opted for the establishment of a Sierra Leonean style court; absolutely rejecting Pres. Sirleaf’s call for a “rational” recommendation from the TRC.
Unfortunately, the sudden impatient behavior that is slowly but steadily taking over our long-exercised patience in striving for justice may be exactly what the culture of impunity needs to live on.
Fixation on one aspect of justice (prosecution), has limited our ability to view it (justice) from a much broader perspective and notice how close we are to making a grievous and -this time around- inexcusable mistake.
It is an established fact that genuine peace and stability cannot exist alongside the culture of impunity. With this in mind, the need for a special and permanent court to prosecute perpetrators of past and future crimes cannot be overemphasized. It is, in fact, a cardinal pillar in Liberia’s reconstruction process. However, our support for opportunistic “advocates of justice” is rapidly reducing this call for the prosecution of alleged perpetrators of unjustifiable and cruel acts, to the level of a political campaign message.
Unlike our overwhelming support for the events of 1979, ’89 and the subsequent rebel uprising at which time, available options were scarcely limited thus making any opposition a hero regardless of intention(s), this time around, we have relatively unlimited options. We can either tell the likes of former LURD spokesperson T.Q. Harris and opportunist Mulbah Morlu “thanks but no thanks” or aid them in exploiting our grievances and legitimate concerns for political purposes, all in the name of advocating for a war crimes court. Individuals with such unctuous and highly questionable character only reduce such an important call to a political “stump speech.”
Another disturbing behavior is our refusal to pause and take a closer look at the very justice system we will ultimately pin our hopes. If the prosecutory recommendation of the TRC’s Report survives the Legislative Debate, it will be a major step forward in our quest for justice. However, can this historically broken, corrupt and parasitic justice system impartially deliver justice? Given the financial and logistical problems, judges and potential jurors lack of resonating loyalty towards the law, and (as previously stated) a parasitic judicial system, an impartial ruling is highly improbable.
Under the “Denial of fair public trial” section of the U.S., State Department 2008 Human Rights Report on Liberia, the Liberian Judicial System was described as “largely nonfunctional and plague by corruption .” The report further stated, “Judges regularly received bribes or other illegal gifts from damages that they awarded in civil cases…. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested that defendants pay a gratuity to appease or secure favorable rulings from judges, prosecutors, jurors and police officers.”
An UNMIL Report on Liberia’s Human Rights situation (from November 2007-June 2008), also described the justice sector as “….weak as a result of several factors including the absence of key personnel in the justice system and inadequate resources to essential rule of law institutions including the Judiciary, Liberian National Police (LNP) and the corrections services.”
These findings are evident in the Government of Liberia (GOL) case against former speaker George Koukou, Col. Charles Dorbor and Gen. Charles Julu.
After the guilty verdict, the defendants were granted a new trial because the prosecution bribed jurors to convict the defendants. The presiding judge also admitted to have being offered a bribe in exchange for a guilty verdict. Eventually, Julu and Dorbor were acquitted due to lack of evidence. The case against Koukou did not go to trial as well, due to lack of evidence.
At the beginning of the February 2008 Court Term, the judge at Criminal Court D (which deals mostly with armed robbery cases) was the same judge assigned to hear cases at Criminal Court A.. Extremely striking is the fact that during the term, there were only two armed robbery cases on Court D’s docket, while there were over one hundred alleged armed robbers detained at the Monrovia Central Prison. Eventually, those two cases went unheard because Criminal Court A had one hundred and ninety-eight cases on its docket, which were the responsibility of the same judge at Court D (UNMIL Report on the Human Rights Situation in Liberia).
Like Dorbor and Julu, Edwin M. Snowe, until other charge(s) can surface, is a legally free man all because the GOL cannot provide evidence “beyond all reasonable doubt” to obtain a conviction. To date, the GOL (representing the people) has lost almost all of its cases despite its many attempts to influence the System. Now, imagine, as an Amnesty International Report rightly stated “if the Liberian criminal justice system is not… in a position to respond to ongoing human rights violations and abuses, even less( it is) in a position to deal with past crimes under international laws, the prosecution of which requires specific resources and expertise, as well as effective legislation.”
Let us remember, the TRC’s “Use immunity” guarantees individuals that evidence disclosed during the hearings will not be used against them in eventual criminal proceedings; and the “General immunity” also immunizes individuals (including perpetrators) giving testimony or evidence before it “…from prosecution or tort action.” In essence, every possible case will begin from the very beginning, requiring patience and unlimited financial and logistical support to insure its success. Unfortunately, the current economic constraint, a reluctant executive branch, and a legislature of recidivists and potential defendants, make the chances of such level of support very slim.
Liberians, given all of these facts, it is obvious we cannot pin our hopes for justice on this system in its present form; a system with approximately seventeen qualified prosecutors, thirteen public defenders and a prison population with ninety-three percent pre-trial detainees. Let us continue to exercise patience in our unrelenting pursuit of justice and accept the grievous fact that heartfelt justice is almost impossible at this time. From John Demjanjuk (Germany), to Tharcisse Renzaho (Rwanda) to Issa Sesay (Sierra Leone), history has and will continue to show that the length of time or age cannot and will not stand in the way of justice. We need to exercise the necessary temperament and judgment in our quest for justice because any attempt to do the opposite will only translate into an indirect support for the culture of impunity.
Alfred J. Johnson is a 2003/2004 graduate of E.J. Goodridge Memorial High, Barnersville, Monrovia, Liberia. He is presently a student of Criminal Justice at Northampton Community College, PA, U.S.A. Email: email@example.com