Liberian Criminal Justice System: In Retrospect and Reforms


By James Thomas-Queh, PhD*


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
February 17, 2006



The criminal justice system has three main components: court, police and prison. They work somehow like on an assembling or production line – that is, the police investigates and arrests; the court prosecutes, and the prison is the custodian that rehabilitates the criminal for social re-integration. Thus understandably, if were the system to be effective all three of its components must necessarily be efficient; none must be overcrowded or congested, rusted and corrupt. There must also be a mutual respect and an harmonious working relationship.

However, in the past this mutual respect and harmonious working relationship among the components of our criminal justice system were not so cordial or as smooth as such. There were always controversies and counter-accusations. The police cells (which can only detain for 48 hours) were almost like permanent detention centres until some charges of Habeas corpus cropped up or a report of starvation of detainees. Then the police would accuse that the courts refused the cases on the pretext of “lack of evidence for prosecution.” On the other hand, the prisons were usually overcrowded with mostly detainees “pending trial” sent by the courts. And when the prison administration later would refer these cases back to the courts, the same courts would reply: “evidence has yet to come from the police to enable a trial or that the courts are overcrowded with more urgent and important cases.”

The real problem here, of course, was that the police, court and prison suffered the same fate like all our other social and political institutions; they were overwhelmed with the rapid urban population growth. What was more, over 75% of the population was subjected to the “Aborigines Law” which provided a distinct and self-financed justice system where ordeal, sassywood and other inhumane indigenous rituals were administered both as indirect brutal punishments and torture to extract confession; and whereas the modern Western criminal justice system - this huge machinery with enormous financial implications - was applied in the minority urban areas. In short, our criminal justice system was caught unprepared for the transition from a rural society to a mass urbanised population; and in the process it became gradually congested, incompetent, rusted and corrupt. In addition to that, the majority of these new rural migrants who got themselves entangled into this modern justice system never did not know how it functioned nor had they the financial means to solicit any adequate legal defence. As a result, they were also the prime victims of the legal system. And for the masses that was all part of our chronic social and political injustices.

Brief historical purview
Needless to mention then that Liberia has some of the most modern Western penal and criminal procedure laws. In the criminal procedure law one finds elaborate modern penal institutions (8 different kinds of prison institutions listed), Correctional institutions, bureau of probation and parole, etc., etc. And so also are our court system and police organisational chart. But the gap between the practice and the law was more than million miles apart.

However, it was President Tolbert with his tireless reforming zeal that attempted the first real and practical penal reforms - in particular, to humanised our penitentiary system. By 1980, there was already a trained, competent and dynamic correctional administration at the Division of Rehabilitation in the Ministry of Justice. In addition, a brand new palace of correction located in Zwedru had been inaugurated with the first trained corps of correctional officers and prison guards. There was also in the program an intent to construct small model and decent prisons around the various counties. In short, for the first time the prison was being considered an integral part of the criminal justice system, and not just a mere dumping ground for criminals. It was now taking its rightful place –an institution to rehabilitate and re-integrate inmates into the society. It was one of the most farsighted attempts to render the criminal justice system more equitable and efficient in its entirety.

Unfortunately though, President Tolbert was also a man of many contradictory and inconsistent facets. Because while he was engaged in such fundamental penal reforms, he in turn introduced also in practice the two most cruel penalties – death sentence and corporal punishment. True, both penalties are inscribed in our laws, but had up to that time been dormant and foreign to the Liberian society. From the first public execution of Justin M. Obe on November 19, 1971, to that of Allen Yancy, James Anderson et al on February 16, 1979, the President had signed a total of sixteen death warrants by April 12, 1980. And believe me, that was an awful lot of blood on the hands of a man who pretended to be a God fearing leader and of a God fearing nation.

The public flogging of poverty-stricken juvenile delinquents begun with an executive order in January 1977. These youths, nicked to the trousers were tied to the goal poles at the Antoinette Tubman stadium where they were savagely flogged by soldiers. In 1978 alone more than 120 juvenile delinquents were publicly brutalised and disgraced in this manner. More than anything else, it was a cruel and barbaric spectacle that tarnished the international image of our country.

These inhumane and cruel punishments, apart from not having any deterrence effect on the increasing criminality – did more harm by traumatising both the population and the entire criminal justice system. The fear of sending the convicted murderers to the gallows, the courts (and the Supreme Court in particular) begun to acquit some of those accused in controversial murder cases in the latter part of the Tolbert years. And soon the restless masses confirmed what they had long time perceived as a corrupt political Establishment.

And as the abolitionist Samuel Romilly rightly put it: “Cruel punishments have the inevitable tendency to produce cruelty in the people.” The April 14, 1979, rice riot came immediately after the controversial public execution of Yancy, Anderson et al on February 16, 1979. And there was a new and dangerous element introduced during this public uprising – that was, the extra-judicial orders given to the security forces to-shot-and-kill demonstrators on sight. For the first time a legal government of the Republic had ordered the summary execution of citizens (in exercise of their constitutional rights) without a charge neither a trial. This order and the violence it engendered were, in no doubt, a driving force on the minds of the planners of the April 12, 1980, military coup d’état.

The military regime that followed did not learn a lesson either, but instead extra-judicial killings became more like a de facto penal policy. There were summary executions by firing squad, secret killings by henchmen, and then back to the application of the death penalty by hanging. Just to mention few of the known cases: April 17, 1980, first official execution by firing squad of three soldiers and one civilian on the beach behind the BTC; April 22, 1980, execution of 13 government officials by firing squad on the same beach; on February 6, 1981, seven long serving convicted murderers were hanged at the Monrovia central prison; in August 1981, general Thomas Weh-Syen and four other junta members were secretly executed; on February 3, 1982, four military officers were executed by firing squad for an alleged ambush and robbery; and the list could continue indefinitely.

And if at all there is any merit to the assertion of Samuel Romilly, at the end Samuel Kenyan Doe was butchered alive by Prince Y. Johnson (now an honourable senator of the Republic of Liberia); and while at the same time this heinous crime was being filmed for our visual national historical record. These images would attest the total decadence and decomposition of our beloved Republic and its system of justice.

When we finally got to Charles McArthur Taylor, there was only one institution that had been saved all along: the presidency. But without any other institution, this presidency would be run like a gangster land – a sort of the Wild, Wild West. Then came Gyude Bryant to the throne; and understandably, the first thing the man did was to purchase a very expensive and luxurious armour vehicle for his personal security; and the rest of the jack-pot was distributed in luxury jeeps to the group at the legislature. The police, court and prison were left to fetch for themselves or became a prerogative of the international community and a reserved headache for the incoming genuine elected democratic government.

The Danger and Way Forward
Unfortunately, that very grim picture of more than two decades of protracted chaos has left our country in a complete state of anomie – meaning: “the lack of moral standards in a person or social group.” When put into a criminological context, it is a state of uncertainty or confusion where law and order are not clearly perceived by the population and thus propitious to an upsurge in criminality or lawless behaviour. The recent wave of shameless thievery by some of the out-going legislators and some government officials is a typical example of this tendency which has now become known as a “culture of impunity.” And if should it soon be seen that the Ellen-Johnson government is not taking quick control of the government, especially the criminal justice apparatus, then we should expect an acceleration in armed robberies, organised crimes, criminal-rebel gangsterism, and the rest.

From our perspective, there are two formulas the government must apply simultaneously and complimentary of each other, if we are to effectively combat and avoid an upsurge in criminality, lawlessness and impunity. Firstly, pure and honest preventive measures, and secondly, a robust and efficient security organisation. For the former, everyone should know the answer – that is, just solving up to even 50% of the daunting problems that we already know; and that will give the people some confidence not only in their government, but also in themselves and the nation. And confidence is the rampart of a country’s national security as a whole. That said, the youths must be mobilised and kept occupied both in school and extra-curricular activities: sports, athletics, boys scout and girls guard, community services, etc., youth training centres must be envisaged throughout the country; youths inter-county exchanges be it in sports, athletics or back –to-the-soil or roots initiatives where youths or youth brigades would go into the interior to assist parents and villagers do farming during vacation, etc. etc. And last but not the least, those youths that are engaged in petit trading – wheel-barrow boys, water, ice, cool-aid boys and girls, etc. – must be recognised, encouraged, promoted and organised; instead of burning their stalls overnight and demanding them to re-integrate into society without not yet offering them the alternative or the means to do so.

For the latter –robust and efficient security organisation – that speaks for itself. The organisation, capability and effectiveness of our criminal justice system – police, court and prison – must be one of the major priorities. Of course, in this light the effort by the international community to train the police force and oversee the judiciary is laudable. But up to present UNMIL has trained only about 1,300 police officers (see –Feb. 8, 2006) and is seeking over US$7m to increase the number to 3,500; rehabilitate police infrastructures, purchase communication equipment, vehicles, etc. And more important, the report said: “Police salary payments are several months in arrears, something that affects moral and undermines efforts to eradicate corruption within the force” (see – Feb. 9, 2006).

While there is much hope that the situation will gradually improve, we do not see the same zeal for reform of our penitentiary system –reorganisation of the Division of Rehabilitation, renovation of prison infrastructures and training of its administrators. Just recently UNMIL graduated only 24 correctional officers and 55 more are undergoing on-the-job training (see –Feb. 13, 2006). The effort is great; but the government must also emphasise and foresee the necessary budgetary allocation to continue this prison reform. And needless to say that our human rights record as a democratic government will never be of full international standards as long as the Penitentiary System is not an integrate part of the trend of reform and development within the entire Criminal Justice System.

Some Ideas for Reforms

1. From what I can deduce, UNMIL will probably leave us 3,500 strong police force, 4,000 trained military, over 300 Special Security Service (SSS) and around 500 National Security Agency personnel –that would make total force of over 8,400; and in a machinery that functions 24 hours per day and 366 days per year. Thus this number may seem insignificant, but the effectiveness of this corps would have an enormous cost (not mention yet the Judiciary and Prison) in decent salaries, equipment, vehicles, constant fuel and maintenance, uniforms, arms, etc. Therefore we need a long-term budgetary planning that will give an idea of future expenditure fully on our own; and that in turn will also help to sort out the area that would need more emphasis and attention.

For my part, I would prefer a fewer military and much substantial expenditure on a larger and robust police force whose presence would be felt throughout the length and breath of the country in mobility, communication, and what have you.
2. That the National Police Academy, as the producer of our security personnel, should be upgraded in status so as to attract more competence and the needed substantive reforms.

3. The Ministry of National Security and National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) must be dissolved and that fund transferred to enable the capability and efficiency of the remaining institutions within the national security apparatus. The fewer institutions finance adequately, the more efficient they shall be.

4. It must be envisaged the creation of an institute or a program within the University of Liberia to train our judges as a distinct career within the legal profession and also court administrators. Because while a judge must always be a lawyer, a lawyer may not always be a good a judge. One of the causes of corruption within the Judiciary is precisely because most of our judges are practicing lawyers who have or have had a network of clients-relationship along their professional career. And in a small society such as ours, one will always see a former client before the court or former law office partner as a defence counsel.

5. The creation of a Juvenile Court system is an urgency. Since the early 1970s juvenile delinquency has been on the increase in the country and nothing concrete has been done to deal with the situation except with draconian measures.

6. The prison reforms initiated by President Tolbert must be revisited. A full assessment of the existent prison facilities and manpower needs to be undertaken. Among the priorities should be the urgent reorganisation of the Division of Rehabilitation, continuous recruitment and training of correctional officers and prison guards, etc. The Place of Correction in Zwedru should be developed more as the experimental centre of the Liberian Penitentiary System.

7. The Death Sentence and Corporal Punishment must be abolished and inscribed into our constitution as such. Because I have the strongest conviction that the rampant application of both penalties under the Tolbert and Doe administrations was a politically motivated exercise than any intend to combat crime. Now that we have had enough blood and violence, our nation must lead the example of a non-violent and peaceful society which was before in our nature as a people.

True, in the past we have had highly qualified Chief Justices, Justice Ministers and Police Directors, but they ended up more in creating “personality cults” (the official norm for efficiency then) than having any real impact on the efficiency of the entire justice system. Similarly, we observe today that highly experienced, qualified and high profile personalities have been designated to head the criminal justice apparatus. We applaud the choices; but at the same time we would caution them to avoid the temptation not to fall into this habit of the past. Each must not seek only to shine on his or her own or over the other, but must also seek to work in unison and collaboration so that our justice system will be effective, efficient and equitable in its entirety for the common good of our emerging democratic society.

* The author, now a dual-citizen, among other functions has served as Director in the Division of Rehabilitation, Ministry of Justice. He proposes his voluntary service as an expatriate advisor–meaning at no cost to the nation, but a patriotic duty (and if, at least, that is allowed under the constitution)- to this government in the area of penitentiary reforms and management. Contact: