Tortured Journalist Hassan Bility Speaks Out
By Musue N. Haddad
February 3, 2003
Editor's Note: Hassan Billity, editor of the independent Analyst newspaper in Monrovia was arrested by Charles Taylor's security on June 24, 2002, under the then state of emergency declared by Mr. Taylor in a bid to harass democratic forces in that West African country. For six months, Mr. Bility languished in Taylor's dungeons where he was tortured by "security officers" and interrogated by government officials including Mr. Taylor himself. Due to pressure from the international community, Mr. Bility was released, and expelled from the country. Mr. Bility was recently interviewed by Musue N. Haddad. Below are excerpts from the interview:
Musue N. Haddad (MNH): You spent about six months in various Liberian prisons and cells without trial. The government said it was holding you and others because you were "unlawful combatants".
Hassan Bility: Yes, basically I think that was an ill chosen phrase by the Liberian government. The government did not really have anything to say, so it had to piece together some ill chosen phrase to satisfy its desire to the international community. Actually, I reject the government's accusation, I deny it fully. I have never been a military man or paramilitary man. And I have never participated in any war in Liberia. That is contrary to my own philosophy. I object to people who think that they can organize satanic organizations to seek power. I have never been a member of Satan's organizations.
I reject the government's accusation and if the government felt I did something bad, the government should have taken me to court. The government was elected as a democratically elected one and should be able to observe and respect the rule of law but if it can not and begins to behave as a military regime then of course that will erase the essence of its election as a democratic institution. So again, I think the government really did not want me in Liberia, the government did not like what I wrote and it was not unprecedented, that was my seventh arrest. Each time I was arrested there was no real or tangible explanation that would be given by the government so the government had to find a way to get me out. The government knew that I stood for the truth and could never have compromised that which I stood for the truth. So the government felt uncomfortable with me and designed a non-existent plot to cloth it on me by saying that I was a member or collaborator or whatever of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), forces, the group presently fighting the government.
MNH: You were released on released on condition that you leave the country. You said the government did not want you in the country doesn't that appear to be sort of contradiction to reports of how the government handles those it considers critics. Take the example of opposition politician Samuel Say Dokie who was killed along with his wife, Janet, his sister Serena and his cousin Emmanuel. Also in 1998, there is the incident of Market woman Nowai Flomo who was considered, “ Disappeared" and has not reappeared. There is also the November 2000 beating of Former Interim President Dr. Amos Sawyer and Conmany Wesseh who had to flee into exile. How would you reconcile those incidents with you been sent into exile?
Hassan Bility: First of all, I think it was the work of God. God did not want me to die. Secondly, there was too much international pressure on the administration in Monrovia that it could not do anything. I was arrested just about a stone throw from the Press Union of Liberia headquarter. I was picked up by government security officers without warrant and forcibly pushed into a (government) vehicle around the Press Union of Liberia offices and where there are a lot of business centers. I was arrested in the full view of, journalists, and many journalists so the government could not deny that it had arrested me. And because of my track record, because I had written objectively and spoke objectively, the Liberian people and the international community realized that what the government was saying was wrong. If the government had problem with me it should take me to court. So this is why and because of the pressure from the international community and from the Liberian people who refused to be taken for ride by the Taylor government, the government could not really kill me. And besides that the government wanted me out of Liberia because the government felt I knew too much about it, I knew so much about the government, its inner working, its inner circle people, I knew so much about them, their activities their dealing so the government decided to get me out.
In addition to that, the government knew that it had lied to the Liberian people. The government told the world that I had faced a military tribunal, which was absolutely false. I was never taken to any tribunal at all, that is a total lie.
Moreover, I had been so much tortured and beaten that visible scars were on my body all over. The government did not want to release me in the streets of Monrovia for people to see those scars on my body. The government knows that I would have told the stories of prison to the Liberian people so the government wanted me out because my stories and the conditions of my body would have contracted what the government had all along been telling the people. Simple.
MNH: After, you were taken away that June 24, 2002,when did you realize that prisons and cells would be your home for a very long time?
Hassan Bility: Well, when I was arrested, I was taken to the central police headquarter. It was about 3: 45pm local time and I remained at the police headquarter until at about 1-2 the next morning and then I was taken to president Taylor's home in Congo town. President Taylor was the first person to investigate me.
MNH: Do you mean personally, did President Charles Taylor personally investigated you?
Hassan Bility: Yes, President Charles Taylor personally investigated me in the presence of some of his security chiefs and ministers. There were Shaw, Emmanuel Shaw, (Presidential Advisor) Mousse Cisee and Kiadiatu Jarra-Findley, (Presidential Advisors) Security Directors, Freddie Taylor, Ramsey Moore, Benjamin Yeaten a lot of security and other officials. So the President decided to investigate me in the presence of the people. A video camera was brought to record the investigation. The president said a lot. He talked for a very long time and then he said I should talk. He told me that only the truth and God would save me. He said neither the Americans nor amnesty International would be able to release me.
I remember vividly all the things that happened to me.
After he got through questioning me, he said his technicians and security had broken in my e-mail box and that they have seen communications, which indicated that I was in connection with LURD and that I was planning to overthrow him. Taylor said that I had 24 men at the American embassy and that they were mercenaries and that I had bought arms from Europe and that I was storing the arms at the U.S embassy and he also said that I had meeting with ambassador Robert Perry at the U.S state department. He said the meeting took place in Silver Spring, Maryland. I had not been to the United States. And that I should tell him the identity of the people I was keeping at the United States embassy. The arms I bought and what European countries the arms came from. The ones at the U.S embassy I was keeping and other areas in Monrovia where I was storing the arms. So once the videotape was there, I knew that I was really headed for trouble, big trouble. I began by telling him that the whole thing was a sort of imagination, it was n on existent plot, it was a witch-hunt designed to silence me. You know he got annoy, he said he did not want to listen to that I should tell the truth and all of that. It was at that time I got to know that the prison cell would be my home for a long time. He personally told me that I would not be released even if Amnesty said something or the U.S government or who ever may have said something. He said we were many and we were doing all kinds of things. He mentioned Bishop Michael Francis, Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, Abraham Mitchell and so many people. Some of the names I am withholding because of security concerns in Monrovia. After that I realized that the government had orchestrated this thing and the government wanted to silence me but all along I know, I am a believer in predestination. I know that what ever would happen will surely happened. So I convinced myself that I would never lie what ever the situation was.
MNH: So how long did President Taylor carried on his interrogation?
Hassan Bility: Oh it lasted for hours. It was over an hour, two or so. The problem is that I had been severely tortured and beaten in the car and even suffocated in the car that took me from the police headquarters to the president's Taylor house to the extend that my left eye could not see clearly. Images were blurred to my eyes. Yes, I was sort of confused and my watch had been taken away by the security guys who were taking me to president Taylor's house. Basically, I was too scare, but under that condition, I was able to calculate for myself that my stay at Taylor's house lasted for about two hours.
MNH: Who were those who took you from the Police headquarter to the president's house and were you interrogated before taken to the president?
Hassan Bility: They went for me. An officer of the Special Operational Division, (SOD) went for me from the police headquarter. He asked, "who is the journalist Hassan Bility." I said, yes, it is I. The SOD officer came, he brought a black cloth. They tied my face, they blindfolded me. They began beating me and we went to the basement of the police headquarter where another pick up, another police jeep was. They put me at the back of the jeep and blindfolded and made the cloth to cover my nose and my mouth, I could not breathe properly and I was yelling. When I told them I could not breath properly, they said that was okay because they were going to kill me. So they did not talk to me, they only took me to the president's house. The president was the first person that personally investigated or interrogated me under a total climate of intimidation and fright. After that, I was never investigated until on the 24 of July when I was taken from Monrovia and taken to Clay, that was 32 days after my arrest. I was taken to Clay, (outside of Monrovia) to an underground cell. I was taken to Clay on the 24 and investigated on the 25 by some security guys. Before that interrogation, I heard from some people that Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said I had begun to confess which was absolutely false. When he told the Liberian people that I had begun to confess, by that time, I had not even been investigated by the real people who were to investigate me. After I told president Taylor that I knew nothing about what he was saying, and that all that he saying was a non existent plot and it was designed to silence me and it was a witch hunt, after all of that and when he could not get what he wanted from me, he said he was turning me over to the military people and that they would extract statements from me. The military people did not talk to me until on the 25th of July in Clay.
So basically, Goodridge was just lying to the Liberian people. We know his track record; he lies to the Liberian people. You know very well that if I was confessing, they would have name some of the persons they wanted me to confess or had mentioned during confession and they did not call any name. The investigators wanted me to incriminate Bishop Michael Francis, to incriminate Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, to incriminate Abraham Mitchell, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf and a number of other people including Charles Brumskine, Alhaji Kromah, Taiwan Gongloe because these were names that were specifically asked what I knew about them and all of that, what were their connection with LURD. The names are many but I will prefer not to further endanger the others in Liberia.
MNH: So how long were you held in Clay and what are some of the things you went through? Did you see other prisoners?
Hassan Bility: Yes, I did see other prisoners like the guys who were arrested along with me and many others whose names I would prefer not to mention. I was held in Clay for a little over a month, for about a month. I was in an underground cell for weeks. It is a prison in the middle of the road just before Grand Cape Mount County. ( Grand Cape Mount County is one of Liberia's political sub divisions, situated in the West). I was held in that underground prison in the middle of the rainy season with other prisoners. I stayed there for weeks. The cell is about three feet high and it is filled with water so I was basically squatted. After sometime we were removed from that and place in another cell in Clay and after sometimes removed from that one to another one and later I was flown to the northern part of Liberia-to Foya, a town in Lofa county.
MNH: Liberian based and international human rights organizations have described prisons and cells in Liberia as appalling. The world is anxious to see Liberian prisons and cells through your eyes.
Hassan Bility: "Appalling" is too soft a word to describe Liberian prisons. Just imagine if you have read, “ Behind the iron curtain” that spoke of before the collapse of the Berlin wall and what it used to look like. Basically, they are inhumane places, they are places that you can't, that you will not want to confine your enemies let alone someone who is only accused and has not had the opportunity to face court to exonerate himself or proof his case. The conditions in the Liberian prisons are very terrible.
For me, I went through 13 different prisons. At some of the prisons, I was basically in the midst of maggots with rains and the maggots were creeping all over my body. And I was in another prison where I was in a toilet hole cell. I was in another prison where the conditions were very bad in addition to the physical torture by the interrogators. I am a Moslem, I don't drink alcohol, I have never drunk alcohol but I was forced to drink. They forcibly made me to drink alcohol, this drink called Dewar. Usually I understand that it is diluted but I was made to drink it undiluted. They had expected that after drinking it, I would say something, I would confess but after they forcibly made me to drink it, God guided me; I did not say anything they wanted to hear. They said they wanted me to serve as state witness. They also said I had conspired but they did not bring anything to proof that I had conspired. What they did was they brought old clippings of my newspaper articles. When I was Editor for The National, I wrote an editorial in 1997 that was titled: Who is the Judas in ECOWAS”. As a matter of fact I was arrested for that editorial. They brought a number of newspaper articles and said that those articles were evidence of my being anti government journalist. So I believe I was arrested because of what I wrote so I saw my self as a prisoner of conscience. The human rights organizations are right. People are severely tortured in Charles Taylor prisons in Liberia and they are placed in underground cell. I am a typical living witness of the placement of prisoners in underground cell because I was placed in an underground cell that was three feet high about one foot with water in it so we were just squatting and could not sleep.
MNH: You spoke of physical torture. Can you describe some of those tortures inflicted on you and other prisoners?
Hassan Bility: They tied me with the rope they called twine. It is a rubber like rope but very strong and it usually cuts the victims. It penetrated the areas above my elbow where I was tied. There was a deep cut there and I was physically beaten regularly and they electrocuted me with the hope of extracting statements from me. They electrocuted my private parts and all over my body. They usually tied me, tied my hands, blindfolded me, tied my feet and swung me around like bag of rice and threw me in the pick- up when ever they were transferring me from one place to the other.
MNH: For how long would these tying, electrocutions and beatings carried out?
Hassan Bility: They tied me for about an hour or two and it really hurt. It hurt. My left hand was almost paralyzed. I struggled to take regular push ups while in prison when the sore healed before I could begin to feel. In fact it is not totally healed yet. The lower part towards my wrist, I don't feel properly in that area yet even though I had been [taking] treatment immediately after I was released in December and taken to Ghana and even up to now.
MNH: Did you ever believe that you would be released?
Hassan Bility: Well, once it was publicized and the security guards would come out and say I had been mentioned in various radio broadcasts, I knew that God had worked miraculously through the American government, through the European Union, through Liberian media, the Liberian council of churches, the Moslem communities, the human rights organizations both in Liberia and outside of Liberia and the Liberian media back home and the Liberian journalists outside of Liberia, I began to realized that I would not be killed. And I always prayed to God while I was in prisons and I saw some signs that indicated to me that I would not be killed.
MNH: What are some of the things you continue to think about; your worst moments in prisons?
Hassan Bility: I will continue to think about the Clay prison. I will continue to think about that day, when President Taylor said they should take me away. I was beaten from that evening; they tortured me up to 4am- 5am without ceasing.
MNH: During what you considered your worst moments in prison, what were some of the things that ran through your mind?
Hassan Bility: Some of the things that used to come to mind in Clay particularly, including the fact that they always investigated me at night starting from 1am, they would blindfold and tied my hands at my back, those were worrying. Whenever nights came, I always worried. And another thing that was also worrying was whether they would want to trick me and I would end up being like, Deli Giwa, of the Nigerian Journalist who got killed and Nobel Zongo (Burkina Faso Journalist who was killed). That happened during the first three four months but after wards I was convinced that I won't be killed. I thought about Deli Giwa and Nobel Zongo a lot and said those people died telling the truth. I know that if even I had died, I would have been killed because of the truth. I believe there is nothing more important for a journalist than to work for the truth. If even while working for the truth one dies, one would have died for a noble cause so I did not worry much but the thoughts certainly came to mind.
I also realized in prison that the government was holding me as a kind of bargaining chip with the international community most especially the United States. I was held hostage and the government I believed was trying to exchanged my release for political and diplomatic favor from the United States and the west mainly.
MNH: Why do you think the government of Liberian had to use you as bait?
Hassan Bility: They had to use me because they realized that the Americans developed interest in the release of political prisoners and I was one of the political prisoners? By deductive reasoning, since they realized that American developed interest in the release of all political prisoners, I was one of the political prisoners; they decided to choose me to do that. All the other guys in jail were arrested because of me, so they reasoned that it would be better that they used the so-called head to do the bargaining.
MNH: You described the Liberian human rights situation as grim. How would you reconcile the prevailing human rights situation and the ongoing political campaigns for elections 2003?
Hassan Bility: I think the first thing the international community needs to ensure that the war is stopped because the government in Monrovia is using the war to arrest people. Once that is done through dialogue then the Liberian people and the international community should make sure that free, fair and credible elections are held. The elections should be monitored; there should be international monitors, and international observers. I think again the elections commissions should be reconstituted. The reason for that is that the people who are to take part in the elections---participants, political parties don't trust the composition of the elections commission. Whether the election commission is fair or not, the fact of the matter is that those who suppose to take participate in the election do not trust it so that also raises another question. I do agree that the president has the constitutional right to appoint an elections commission, at least it composition but that should be done in a way that it will make people to trust the system.
I also think there is a need for stabilizing force in Liberia once an agreement is reached under which security can be provided. I sincerely believe that the politicians will not be provided the requisite security protection by the present institutions. Even if they are provided security protection but their supporters in the rural areas, lets say in Lofa, Nimba and Grand Gedeh, Maryland and other places will not be protected because there is a strange mindset that have been imparted in the minds of the security personnel by the present government in Monrovia. They see all other oppositions, whether political groups or military as anti Taylor and therefore against them. They have this strange belief that once Taylor is removed from power even if it is done through the democratic process they are all doomed to failure. That will be the end of their life. They have been told these kinds of things so it is very important that some Force is around so that people can people can properly and freely exercise their franchise.
MNH: President Charles Taylor has consistently said he is not interested in a Stabilizing force. Taylor has also said under his administration, no one will interfere in the sovereign state of Liberia and its affairs.
Hassan Bility: The government might have said that but they should reconsider because any elections held under the current atmosphere in Liberia will not be credible and therefore by extension will not be legitimized. That is because once the results are not legitimized it full of confusions and allegations of rigging. Definitely the government that will; emerge will not be welcome. In addition, if the government feels it is so popular because it won 75+ in the last elections, it should have nothing to hide. Any attempt by the government to reject such will generally suggest that the government has got some great plans for rigging and intimidate opposition politicians.
However, much of that is scenario dependent, that is whether the international community will sit idly by and allow things to unfold and whether the Liberian people will just also allowed themselves to be intimidated to remain in that state with no improvement in their condition- no electricity, no water, no salary for government workers and where everything has come to a standstill. It will be left with the Liberian people to decide. I believe there is a need for credible free, fair and democratic elections to be held in Liberia and it must be monitor by international observers and Liberian observers and most importantly, there is a need for stabilizing force.
It is foregone conclusion that once those things are not put in place, the elections will be a fruitless exercise. For anyone to go to Liberia now and is not harass, that does not means he or she is free. As elections draws nearer, you will see that things will change.
These guys believe and I was told when I was been investigated, that they are in power up to the year 2024. When I was taken to president Taylor's house that was one of the things I was told.
Once again, I am diametrically opposed to war and also differ with those using war as a means of bringing about political change in our country. I never supported any war and disagree with bush and banditry war that wreck Liberia that was introduced to Liberia in 1989. And I still remain opposed to any form of war.
MNH: Do you believe Western Countries can help to bring about political change in Liberia?
Hassan Bility: Oh yes, I think the West must be able to do it; I count on the United States. They can't sit in Washington and the European Union in Brussels to make statements that the government in Monrovia will not respect. If diplomacy must be successful, diplomacy can only be successfully if it is accompanied with a credible threat of force. So the west must understand that if the problem in Liberia is not resolved, the United States will continue to receive refugees. Europe too will continue to receive refugee if the situation in Liberia is not resolved. So why don't they solve the problems in Liberia so that conditions can be better which will dissuade people from leaving their homeland.
Let me clarify when I say Force from the United States, European Union and other diplomatic states, it mean direct sanctions that can be strongly tighten to make such countries as Liberia a pariah state under leaders like Taylor. Most of the time these stance are taken as mere statements they are not really serious about monitoring them that is the forceful part I am talking about. The United States, the European Union and other countries should carefully monitor and follow up on sanctions and be interested in solving the problems of developing countries. There should be careful monitored and follow up of the Sanctions and travel restrictions. You are a journalist; you know that both the United Nations and United States travel restriction is not fully complied with by the Liberian government.
What is the need to keeping an arm embargo on the government in Monrovia when the government is importing arms regularly? There is no need. The United Nations and other government are not interested in policing what is going on, so there has got to be a way to sort of police the sanctions properly
MNH: Anything else you would like to add?
Hassan Bility: Yes, I would like to say thanks to the Liberian people. I like to thank them because the public as you are aware was always at war with the utterances of the government. The public did not agree with what the government said about me and my colleagues in jail. I wish the Liberian people well. I also thank the Liberian journalists, the Press Union of Liberia, the Analyst newspaper and all the media institutions in and out of Liberia, the Media Foundation for West Africa, Reporters Without Borders. Some of the names I may not remembered at the moment but I am sure you know all of them, I tell them thank you in my own Liberian way. To the human rights organizations, Amnesty International, the Dutch Human Right Commission, Human Rights Watch all the human rights organizations in Liberia, the Coalition of Human right Organizations in Liberia and other parts of the world. I am also grateful to my friend and brother Aloysious Toe who is in jail; he was purposely placed in jail because of me. I am not happy as long as he and the other guys remain in jail. I will continue to work to ensure that the same amount of pressure that was mounted to ensure my release will be mounted so that they can be freed.
I am grateful to ECOWAS, African Union, the European Union Presidency, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, The EU commission offices in Monrovia, the American Ambassador, John Blaney and Ambassador Bismark Myrick, Deputy Ambassador Thomas White, Staff Department Officials, Mrs. Sarah Morrison, Richard Boucher. I am grateful to President George Bush, Mr. Colin Powell, lets say I am grateful to the American government and people but I like to remind them that they should continue to mount pressure so that the other guys who are held in jail for committing absolutely no crime are set free. I am grateful to Bishop Michael Francis, Sheikh Kafumba Konneh and the interfaith mediation council of Liberia and the Liberia politicians. I am grateful to the world community because this thing transcended the Liberian boundary