Attack On Human Rights And Civil Liberties Must Stop


Throughout the course of the Liberian predicament, our people at one time or another have fought for equality, fair treatment before the law, social justice and the greatest of all - freedom which encompasses all civil liberties. And they have done so on different occasions with different ringleaders but with the same unfortunate result: violent death and destruction.

Without attempting to rewrite Liberian history in this limited space, we will confine ourselves to developments within the last three decades which brought our plight to international attention. And how the ordinary Liberian has had more faith in democracy and its attendant benefits, and has suffered the harsh consequences it entails, than those who professed to be its proponents.

For instance, in the 1970s when our people were told by the progressive forces that it was their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and petition the government for the redress of their grievances, they willingly obliged only to be met with violent force by the government. From this experience, they learned that freedom, in deed, is an expensive concept. Though not fully understanding it, many believe there is something inherently good about freedom which they must continue to fight for.

So, in 1980 when the military seized power, majority of our people celebrated, thinking freedom was finally at hand. But no sooner than the shooting stopped in Monrovia, their euphoria turned into bewilderment and uncertainty as Doe and his cohorts began the establishment of a dictatorial regime which adversely infringed upon the full exercise of freedom. For ten years, our people endured under a regime more concerned about its own survival than serving the citizenry. And as the Doe government realized that it had a rendezvous with destiny, the ordinary people in whose name it had assumed power became its main prey. Arbitrary arrests, mysterious disappearances and the breakdown of judicial authority became the order of the day. Again, freedom which was promised to our people had been ignored. Civil liberties trampled upon; death and destruction reigned.

Then in 1989, Charles Taylor, who had left Liberia surreptitiously to avoid arrest for embezzlement, and was jailed in Massachusetts pending extradition, invaded Liberia with armed men on December 24. He, like his predecessors, told our people that he had come to liberate them, free them from the yoke of totalitarianism and restore democracy. He urged them to galvanize themselves and join forces with his so-called national patriotic forces to fight the enemies of freedom and democracy. Again some of the people obliged. Thus, the beginning of one of Africa's most deadliest conflicts that bedeviled the Liberian people for more than seven years.

The result of this linear progression of violence was a civil war in which everything went out of control, and thousands of unarmed civilians lost their lives. The killing inferno that consumed much of Liberia over nearly eight years was evident in the faces of our fellow citizens, the destruction of our infrastructures and the economic ruins. Many Liberians will forever be scarred as they live with the devastating effects and traumas of this national debacle and human tragedy.

As this ravaging human carnage unfolded, many of its proponents, mainly remnants of the old political order and their supporters who had contributed to our misery, remained unscathed since they sought refuge in the safe haven of the United States and other foreign countries.

These former middle class Liberians remained physically detached from the violence because they had the means to get their families out of the country before their menacing surrogates unleashed the orgy of killing exercises.

But all of that is in the past. Mr. Taylor is now president, and many of those who had supported him during the war are telling us that perhaps freedom, which has eluded Liberians for many years will reign. After all, they argue, freedom and democracy constituted the core of Mr. Taylor's contention against then President Doe, when he launched the war in 1989. Most of these loyalists believe that Taylor cannot retreat from the promotion of freedom and democratic practices since that provided the moral justification to his quest for power.

However, according to the way things are unfolding in Monrovia, all citizens who have high hopes that perhaps the west African nation is about to join other emerging democracies should have reason to be concerned. The fate and prospect for freedom, the very essence which underlies the efficacy of participatory democracy, is being besieged by functionaries of the Taylor presidency.

And the most frightening about all of this is that while freedom of the press and other individual civil liberties are being assaulted by administration officials, the president has remained decidedly silent. This nonchalant and detached attitude has prompted many people, both supporters and detractors of Mr. Taylor, to suggest that perhaps the recent attacks on the press and individual liberty have Mr. Taylor's approval.

Others have concluded that either Taylor is out of the loop with public expectations or overwhelmed by the stark reality of destruction, and the responsibility that he has failed to adequately give guidance to human rights issues.

Over the past few months, since Mr. Taylor ascended to the presidency, several incidents which could have profound consequences on free speech and freedom of the press had occurred in Liberia with little notice. And during this period of rapid erosion of hope for the guarantee of civil liberties, neither President Taylor nor the national legislature has come out to condemn these actions or caution the perpetrators against violating citizens' constitutional rights.

It was in early August 1997, when the president and members of the national legislature were sworn to support, uphold, protect and defend the Constitution and laws of the Republic of Liberia. Article 15 of that constitution guarantees the followings, relative to free speech and freedom of the press:

a) "Every person shall have the right to freedom of expression, being fully responsible for the abuse thereof. This right shall not be curtailed, restricted or enjoined by government save during an emergency declared in accordance with the Constitution."

b) "The right encompasses the right to hold opinions without interference and the right to knowledge. It includes freedom of speech and of the press, academic freedom to receive and impart knowledge and information and the right of libraries to make such knowledge available. It includes non-interference with the use of the mail, telephone and telegraph. It likewise includes the right to remain silent."

c) "In pursuance to this right, there shall be no limitation on the public right to be informed about the government and its functionaries."

But the opposite of these provisions has been the norm in Liberia, since Mr. Taylor assumed the presidency. Beating, imprisonment, harassment and intimidation of journalists have become the standard operating procedure of the national security forces. And the poster boy for this assault against freedom and civil liberties is the director of the national police, Joseph Tate.

Either Mr. Tate is ignorant of these constitutional provisions or he is fully aware of them but has just decided to ignore them, in which case he would have violated the constitution and must be removed from office immediately. He would not have been a disservice to his president but also an impediment to the advancement of democracy in Liberia, a threat to individual liberties which must be contained in its infancy.

If Liberia is to have credibility in its attempt to shelve its old undemocratic practices, then such reprobates as Police Director Joseph Tate and other relic of the past, who believe and subscribe to undemocratic behavior that characterized past regimes, should not be allowed to hold positions of power in government.

To allow such people who have disdain for democracy to serve in the Taylor government, at this volatile period in our national life, raises serious question about Mr. Taylor's commitment to promote democratic practices. During the few months he has been president, Mr. Taylor has turned a blind eye on the abuses of human rights by people he appointed to position of power, though he knew that some of these individuals have derogatory public record and disrespect for civil liberties.

Police Director Joseph Tate is a case in point: On April 6, 1996, Mr. Tate, at the direction of his cousin Charles Taylor, then a council member in the interim government, went to the residence of General Roosevelt Johnson, with armed men, to execute a warrant allegedly for murder. The violence that followed consumed Monrovia for nearly seven weeks, and brought our conflict to greater national and international focus.

Prior to the violent explosion which engulfed Monrovia, many urban Liberians, especially former middle class property owners, who constituted the core of Taylor's support had remained unaffected by the effect of the civil war. Unlike their rural and poor indigenous counterparts who had borne the brunt of the war, most of these people had remained aloof from the tragedy until those fateful April days in 1996 when they saw their properties in blazing fire

Interestingly, the same gangs of bandits, which Taylor and other warlords unleashed during April of 1996 that turned Monrovia into a towering inferno, continue to torment residents of Monrovia today. These former guerrilla fighters have made Monrovia one of the most dangerous cities to live in. They are the core of armed robbers who have made life miserable for the average citizen; and it's against this group that Police Director Tate has declared what's tantamount to a shoot to kill war in his "Operation Clean Monrovia" to make the city a safe place to live.

While The Perspective applauds government effort to curb crimes and protect the citizens, we believe the proper approach to this problem is to bring the criminals before a court of competent jurisdiction. We urge the administration to be mindful that these people are armed robbery suspects whose guilt or innocence has to be decided in a court of law. In a democracy, the courts, not political operatives, are the final arbiter of justice.

When the operation was launched, Director Tate told reporters, "We are going to carry out this operation until every armed robber is caught and brought to justice before we can rest." He further indicated some 13 hardened armed robbery suspects, who broke jail during factional fighting in April 1996, would be arrested and brought to justice.

Again, we commend the government for recognizing this menacing danger to public safety, and its commitment to go after the criminals and provide a safe environment for the citizens. The key phrase in the director's statement is: caught and brought to justice. But so far, the administration has failed to adhere to its own public statements. Instead of catching and bringing suspected criminals to justice, the security forces are using vigilante tactics to solve the problem.

In addition, the security forces have decided to silence anyone who raises legitimate concerns about the methods national security officials are using to resolve the rash of crimes and violence in Monrovia.

Recently, the managing editor of the Inquirer newspaper, Philip Wesseh, was arrested, manhandled and detained for criticizing the police for its shoot to kill tactics during a recent sweep on criminal hideouts.

The detention of Philip Wesseh was a violation of the constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press as well as the public right to be informed. Beside that, such infringement raises serious doubt about Taylor's willingness to make the transition from military dictatorship to pluralistic democracy.

In another disturbing development, Vice President Enoch Dogolea recently ordered his bodyguards to flog Rep. Sando Johnson (Bomi County), for allegedly failing to clear a driveway for the vice president's convoy.

Mr. Dogolea earlier denied the charges but made an apology to Johnson, and promised members of the House of Representatives he would "punish those responsible for flogging Johnson."

According to press reports, Rep. Johnson has dropped the complaint he filed against the vice president for ordering his public flogging.

However, The Perspective believes this issues goes beyond the civil rights of Rep. Sando Johnson. We urge the Liberian House of Representatives to investigate this dastardly disregard for civilized behavior which could have profound implications, and take appropriate action against the vice president.

Again, we make reference to the constitution, the controlling document which gives guidance regarding rights and responsibilities appropriate for proper governance in the Republic of Liberia. And Article 62 of the document states: "The President and Vice President may be removed from office by impeachment for treason, bribery and other felonies, violation of the Constitution or gross misconduct."

The Perspective believes Vice President Dogolea's action against Rep. Sando Johnson is tantamount to "gross misconduct," thus an impeachable offense which must be investigated by the House of Representatives. We urge the House to proceed with deliberate speed on this clear constitutional violation.

The rapidly deteriorating human rights abuses in Liberia have heightened international concerns, prompting Amnesty International to call on the Liberian government to punish violators of human rights in the country. "Only when human rights are taken seriously in post-conflict Liberia and placed on the national agenda of reconstruction can there be an enduring peace and true reconciliation," the African Program Director of the London-based global rights watchdog, Roger Clark, said recently.

We urge President Taylor to take heed of these constructive observations and advance appropriate, corrective measures to halt the crackdown on human rights and civil liberties. The future of democracy in Liberia and the success of the Taylor presidency will depend on upholding international human rights standards. Liberia, we might add, cannot revert to the days of decadence which preceded the Taylor-led incursion.