Report Shows no Improvement in Human Rights Practices in Liberia

The Perspective
February 27, 2001

The U. S. State Department issued its 25th annual report on Human Rights Practices in 195 countries. Countries such as Nigeria, Ghana, Mexico, etc were smiling when they received their respective report cards, because as U. S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell put it, "the year 2000 saw many improvements in human rights -- from the consolidation of democracy in Nigeria and Ghana to the defeat of an entrenched dictator in Serbia and the election of a new president in Mexico... Each nation must be accountable for the way it treats its citizens." Liberia is among the countries that are weeping due to poor performance in human rights practices during the year 2000. The report does not show any improvement in human rights practices in Liberia during the past three years of Taylor presidency. Below is excerpt from the report:

The Government's human rights record remained poor, and there were numerous, serious abuses in many areas. The security forces committed many extrajudicial killings, and they were accused of killing or causing the disappearance of persons. Security forces tortured, beat, and otherwise abused or humiliated citizens. The Government investigated some of the alleged abuses by the security forces; however, offenders were rarely charged or disciplined. Prison conditions remained harsh and sometimes life threatening. Security forces continued at times to use arbitrary arrest and detention, and lengthy pretrial detention remained common. The judicial system, hampered by political influence, economic pressure, inefficiency, corruption, and a lack of resources, was unable to ensure citizens' rights to due process and a fair trial. In some rural areas where the judiciary had not been reestablished, clan chieftains administered criminal justice through the traditional practice of trial-by-ordeal; authorities tacitly condoned this practice. More than 20 political prisoners remained in jail. Security forces violated citizens' privacy rights, conducted warrantless searches, harassment, illegal surveillance, and looted homes. The Government restricted freedom of the press; it detained, threatened, and intimidated journalists into self-censorship and shut down two radio stations, one temporarily. Security forces restricted freedom of movement, using roadblocks to extort money from travelers and returning refugees. Security forces frequently harassed human rights monitors. Violence and discrimination against women remained problems. The welfare of children remained widely neglected, and female genital mutilation (FGM) continued to increase. Societal ethnic discrimination remained widespread, ethnic differences continued to generate violence and political tensions, and the Government continued to discriminate against indigenous ethnic groups that had opposed Taylor in the civil war, especially the Mandingo and the Krahn ethnic groups. Forced labor persisted in rural areas. Child labor remained widespread, and there were reports of forced child labor. Ritualistic killings also persisted.

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

Security forces continued to commit extrajudicial killings. Human rights organizations estimate the number of such killings to be have increased to several hundred during the year. Many of the abuses were linked to ongoing violence in Lofa county between security forces and antigovernment dissidents who launched a series of crossborder incursions from Guinea. No perpetrators were arrested or convicted for any of these killings.

In February the police shot and killed Nyanqui Luoh, an accused armed robber. The police reported that they acted in self-defense. A human rights organization called for an investigation of the incident, but none had been undertaken by year's end.

There were credible reports that government forces as well as members of the Lorma ethnic group continued to harass, intimidate, and, on occasion, kill members of the Mandingo ethnic group in Lofa county. For example, in January armed men reportedly killed 18 Mandingos in the town of Bawon. In March security forces arrested and killed five Mandingos on a road linking Voinjama, Lofa County with Guinea. Human rights monitors reported that hundreds of Mandingos were killed during the year.

There was no investigation into nor action taken in the May 1999 death of a security officer allegedly while in detention.

At year's end, the Government had not released a report on its November 1999 investigation of the reported killing of as many as 30 Mandingos in Lofa county in August 1999. In that incident, the authorities initially arrested 19 persons, but they did not charge anyone with a crime.

The trial of nine Krahn AFL soldiers accused of involvement in 1998 violence ended in February; four soldiers were convicted of sedition and sentenced to 10 years in prison; the other five were acquitted and released.

There was no further action taken in the 1998 extrajudicial killings of Mannah Zekay, John Nimely, or others reported during that year.

In 1999 the President Pro Tempore of the Senate told the Interparliamentary Union that the investigation into the 1997 killings of opposition political leader Samuel Saye Dokie and three family members continued. However, there was no active investigation into the case during the year, and the case essentially was dropped.

Since September there were reports of attacks by fighters based in Liberia on the Guinean border towns, which caused several deaths. These attacks generally are perpetuated by a combination of Revolutionary Front United (RUF) rebels from Sierra Leone, Liberian military, and some Guinean rebels; however, some attacks also were perpetuated by armed Liberian dissidents based in Guinea. There was at least one attack reported on a Guinean town close to the Sierra Leonean border.

In November attacks were reported in northeastern Nimba, which resulted in numerous deaths, but it was unclear whether the rebel incursion was from Guinea or Cote d'Ivoire.

In October in Nimba county, a property dispute between Mandigos and members of the Mano and Gio ethnic groups led to rioting, which reportedly killed four persons (see Section 5). A mosque and five other buildings were burned. Police arrested 12 persons in connection with this violence and charged them with arson. The 12 remained in detention pending a trial at year's end.

b. Disappearance

Security forces were responsible for disappearances. In June security personnel arrested seven refugees returning from Guinea in an UNHCR vehicle after discovering that one of them carried a photograph of a former faction leader who opposed President Taylor during the civil war. The authorities claimed they were dissidents plotting to overthrow the Government. The detainees were charged with treason; however, their whereabouts were unknown at year's end despite legal challenges to the Government to produce them.

Security forces produced suspects whom they had held without charge when the courts issued writs of habeas corpus on the applications of human rights organizations. Their disappearances often were the result of prolonged illegal detention at the Gbartala base (see Section 1.c.).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture and other degrading treatment; however, government police and security forces frequently tortured, beat, and otherwise abused and humiliated citizens. In some cases, security forces produced suspects whom they had held without charge when the courts issued writs of habeas corpus on the applications of human rights organizations. Detainees continued to charge that they were tortured while in detention, especially at a security training base in Gbatala. Victims and witnesses reported beatings, torture, killings, and sexual abuse at the base. In October 1999, human rights organizations called for the closure of the base because of a number of credible reports of torture there; however, the base remained opened. A local NGO, the Catholic Affiliated Justice and Peace Commission, tried to investigate claims; however, the Government blocked their efforts.

On several occasions, government security personnel harassed, assaulted, and arrested journalists [see Section 2].

Law enforcement personnel, including the security forces, were implicated in numerous reports of harassment, intimidation, and looting. For example, in February SSS members carried out a series of armed robberies and shot and injured an LNP officer in the West Point area of Monrovia. In April armed soldiers clashed with marketers in Monrovia; they confiscated goods and harassed the marketers. There was a series of incidents involving harassment or looting and assault of foreign diplomats and local embassy employees. In February LNP officers pulled a foreign diplomat from his car in Monrovia and assaulted him. In March LNP officers demanded money from an embassy security guard and beat him with metal pipes. After various complaints in March from members of diplomatic corps, the Government called for investigations and punishment for offenders. Meetings with security agencies also were organized to brief them on diplomatic immunity; however, in June another local embassy employee was assaulted, searched for weapons, and robbed by AFL officers

Prison conditions remained harsh and in some cases life-threatening. There were credible reports of unofficial detention facilities, including one at the executive mansion, in which detainees were held without charge and in some cases tortured. The Government did not provide detainees or prisoners with adequate food or medical care. Cells at Monrovia Central Prison are overcrowded, mostly with detainees awaiting trial. Only about 10 percent of the total prison population has been convicted of criminal offenses. Convicted prisoners and detainees awaiting trial are not confined in separate facilities. Similar conditions exist in the Barclay Training Center military stockade. In some counties, the structure that serves as a jail is a container with bars at one end. In May the wives of 13 Krahn political prisoners held at Monrovia's Central Prison publicly complained about denial of medical care and other abuse of the detainees. The Government did not respond to these complaints by year's end.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The Constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention; however, security forces continued at times to arrest and detain persons arbitrarily. The Constitution provides for the rights of the accused, including warrants for arrests and the right of detainees either to be charged or released within 48 hours. Although the Government generally adheres to these standards, warrants were not always based on sufficient evidence, and detainees, especially those without the means to hire a lawyer, often were held for more than 48 hours without charge. In some cases, persons were detained secretly at unofficial detention centers including one at the executive mansion (see Section 1.c.)

The police only have limited logistics and forensic capabilities and cannot adequately investigate many crimes, including murder cases. When the courts release known criminals for lack of evidence, police officers often rearrest them on specious charges.

In August the Government arrested Auditor General Raleigh Seekie and charged him with treason. Police searched Seekie's home and office for subversive documents, arms, and ammunition but did not find anything. Nevertheless, he is charged with aiding armed dissidents trying to overthrow the Government

The Government did not use forced exile; however, as a result of frequent harassment and threats by the security forces, a number of opposition figures and human rights activists fled the country due to fear for their personal safety or that of their families. These included human rights activist James Torh and Muslim organization leader Lartin Konneh (see Sections 2.e. and 5). During the year, President Taylor publicly alleged that some of these opposition figures had gone abroad to conspire in the overthrow of his Government, which kept numerous prominent opposition figures and former warlords out of the country throughout the year.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, judges are subjected to political, social, familial, and financial pressures, leading to the corruption of the judiciary. Some judges and magistrates are not lawyers. The judiciary has determined that it is not feasible to retire all judicial personnel who are not legally trained, but intends to replace those currently sitting with lawyers as they retire. By statute members of the bar must be graduates of a law school and pass the bar examination. The executive branch continued to exert undue influence on the judiciary. For example, in response to an appeal of the 1999 treason convictions of 13 ethnic Krahn AFL members, the Government demanded in 1999 that their sentences be changed from 10 years' imprisonment to death. In December 10 years was added to their sentences for a total of 20 years' imprisonment

The security forces harassed and threatened perceived opposition figures and their families by conducting illegal surveillance. In some cases, they entered the homes of opposition figures, usually at night. For example, security personnel watched the homes of activists James Torh and Lartin Konneh for several weeks (see Section 2.a.). Fearing for their safety, both activists fled the country. Several student leaders remained under surveillance at year's end (see Section 2.a.). Several journalists and human rights activists resided in the homes of friends or relatives for months at a time due to fear that the security forces might follow through with their threats against them. Incidents of harassment and threats increased with the continuing violence in Lofa county. In rural areas, particularly in remote parts of Lofa county, armed security forces illegally entered homes, most often to steal food, money, or other property (see Section 1.c.).

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including: Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the Government restricted this right in practice. Security agents threatened, detained, and assaulted journalists and intimidated many journalists into practicing self-censorship.

In January human rights activist James Torh's sedition trial for criticizing President Taylor began. Decisions made on motions during his trial indicated that an impartial judgement was not possible and, fearing for his safety, Torh fled the country in March. Muslim organization leader Lartin Konneh, charged with treason for calling on Muslim government officials to resign their positions, also fled the country

In August the Government arrested four foreign journalists from Britain's Channel Four network who visited the country to gather material for a documentary about countries in post-conflict stages in West Africa, and charged them with espionage; while in detention, security personnel beat and threatened them. They also were denied bail because the charge was considered a capital offense by the prosecution, although the law did not require such a ruling. The journalists were released a week later after the international community criticized the Government. In October security forces arrested and briefly detained newspaper reporter Philip Moore for alleged treasonous remarks.

In March security forces detained the president of the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), Suah Deddeh, after the organization planned a mass meeting to respond to the closing of two radio stations. The meeting never happened, and nonmembers of the PUL were threatened with arrest. Deddeh was released after spending a night in jail. In May police detained Deddeh a second time when the Press Union, in celebration of World Press Freedom, was planning a march through the center of Monrovia. Security forces also threatened other activists who opposed the radio closings.

No action was taken during the year in the case of the police forces' 1998 flogging of journalist Hassan Bility or the 1999 assault on the editor of the Inquirer newspaper, Philip Wesseh.

There were numerous reports that government officials funded these newspapers, and that they generally reported only pro-government news. The ruling party also published a newspaper that circulated frequently during the period following the closures of the radio stations; however, the frequency of its publishing lessened later in the year

The Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism did not accept late license payment from two newspapers with the result that they had to cease publication. The Ministry did not renew the annual licenses of two newspapers because the Government believed that they were supported by "agent provocateurs"--persons whom, in the government's view, want to overthrow the Government

Television is limited to those who can purchase sets, the generators, and fuel to provide electricity. For those persons and businesses with satellite capability, the Cable News Network is available. There are two television stations: the LCN owned by President Taylor, and the Ducor Broadcasting Corporation which is privately owned but assisted by President Taylor's generator.

Government officials criticized journalists who used the Internet to express opinions that the authorities considered too critical of the Government. For much of the year, there was no direct access to information through the Internet. Star Radio's internet operations also were closed in March. Star Radio had supplied daily news summaries to its parent foundation, which put these on the Internet. Copies also were provided to the Ministry of Information, and the Government demanded (contrary to international practice) a special licensing fee for Star Radio's transmission of news on the Internet. During a press conference in March following the Government's closure of Radio Veritas and Star Radio, President Taylor indicated that he believed "cyber-warfare" was being waged as part of an international conspiracy against the country. Many observers believe that the Government blocked the operation of potential Internet providers.

When the closure of Star Radio did not stop the negative propaganda about the country on the Internet, which was generated primarily by opposition figures abroad, the Government and the ruling party began to use the Internet to provide news and sponsored several websites. An Internet provider reemerged mid-year and opened a cybercafe that the few persons with sufficient funds can access. Because of the ties between the provider and the Government, some potential patrons believed that their use of the Internet was monitored by government security personnel and choose not to use it

In June security personnel arrested seven Liberians who were returning from Guinea in a UNHCR truck (see Section 1.b.). The Government claimed that the men were members of a dissident armed faction based in Guinea. The men have not been seen since their arrest, and NGO's and relatives believe that they were killed

The legislature did not exercise genuine independence from the executive branch. There were 16 opposition parties, most of which had little popular support outside of the capital, and opposition legislators, who held only one-quarter of the seats in the House of Representatives and in the Senate, generally were more passive than members of the ruling NPP. Congressional committees failed to develop expertise in their respective areas of responsibility. No major legislation was enacted during the year. However, during the year, the House of Representatives refused to vote in favor of a government-sponsored rural property tax and strategic commodities act

The Government permitted domestic and international human rights groups to operate largely without interference; however, members of the security forces often harassed domestic democracy and human rights activists. During the year, the Government blocked efforts by a local NGO, the Catholic Affiliated Justice and Peace Commission, to investigate claims of torture at Gbatala security training base (see Section 1.c.). Government officials frequently criticized domestic human rights groups publicly. For example, in December at a pro-government rally, President Taylor criticized democracy and human rights activists and opposition leaders of destabilizing the government, and he warned that these individuals would be punished.

In November about 100 men ransacked the offices of the Center for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE) and beat former interim president and human rights defender, Amos Sawyer, and executive director of CEDE, Conmany Wesseh. Preliminary investigation by the Government revealed that former combatants were responsible; however, only seven or eight persons were arrested, and reportedly they were not the primary assailants. Numerous sources reported that the attack commenced from NPP headquarters, and that those arrested were paid by the NPP after they were released on bond. Prosecution still was pending at year's end...

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