Liberian Lawyers Under Siege

By: James W. Harris

The Perspective

October 19, 2001

Time and time again, the pariah government of President Charles G. Taylor has tried shamelessly to pin the blame squarely on others for his war-ravaged country’s "poor" state of affairs without looking directly into the "mirror" to see just who or what is causing the many problems it is currently facing.

But perhaps, the National Patriotic Party (NPP) government could do well for itself by simply doing just that (looking into the mirror) so as to gather the necessary courage to change "finally" for the "good" of the "suffering" nation.

When I wrote the article "Where is Thompson Adebayo" the other day (October 12, to be exact), I had set out determined to accomplish one main goal: To get the "stubborn" Liberian government to talk publicly about the man’s (Adebayo’s) plight or well being, purely out of "humanitarian" concerns. And as I had expected, the government did respond to my humble inquiry.

"The funny thing is, all the hoopla about Thompson Adebayo is nothing but hoopla. Adebayo is not in jail anywhere in Liberia [is he then in jail in Bukina Faso or Libya?]. He is a free man. Ask the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission. Ask all the Human Rights organizations in Liberia. They will vouchsafe that Thompson Adebayo is indeed a free man", wrote a government "mouthpiece", Molley V. Paasewe. I hope that he really is "freed" from the iron grips of Taylor’s dreaded security network!

But while I must honestly commend the government for being forth coming on the Adebayo case, its response, however, should be reluctantly accepted until it can be " independently verified". The simple reason being that the NPP government really doesn’t have any "credibility", and as such, its words cannot be entirely trusted.

I’m very sorry! Because if there is any truth to this, then why is it that no one has heard about his release, compared to the "well-publicized" manhunt? For a beleaguered government like Liberia’s that could use some "positive" publicity at this time, wouldn’t his release have been a good public relations scoop? Or at the very least, doesn’t local reporters "follow up" such intriguing stories like Adebayo’s? Just think about this, because I’m sure that I’m not the only one that missed it.

As the matter of fact, and because of the NPP government’s "worsening" human rights record as contained in the latest Amnesty International (AI) report, I had appealed in the same article to the Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) to seek the interests of Mr. Adebayo as well as others that are presently languishing behind bars in Taylor’s gruesome prisons.

But not surprisingly, the Bar itself has come under "siege" recently from the NPP dominated Legislature for standing by its "principles".

It all began a few weeks ago, when the President of the National Bar Association, Mr. J. Emmanuel Wureh, then serving as Legal Counsel to one-time "disgraced" House Speaker, Nyundueh Monkormana, who was being investigated on various charges of corruption and perjury [lying], was abruptly fined and thrown into jail for statements he had "allegedly" made against the lawmakers.

Knowing fully well that their President (Wureh) had done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law, the Bar’s Vice President, Marcus Jones and Cllr. Ishmael Campbell, President of the Montserrado County chapter, protested to the Legislature concerning the manner in which their colleague had been treated (mistreated). They even went further by calling on their members to boycott all courts in the country until their President was released.

Although Mr. Wureh was himself let go a few days later, but that was not the end of it. In typical NPP fashion, the Legislators then turned their wrath on Cllrs. Jones and Campbell, charging them of "contempt" just as they had done to their President.

In a subsequent meeting with the lawmakers to answer why they shouldn’t be charged with contempt for separate statements they had "allegedly" made against members of the House of Representatives, the two "prominent" lawyers again stood their ground and refused to retract same. And for their "deliberate" decision NOT to "please" the House based on constitutional grounds, they were ordered fined and put behind bars in "Taylor’s prisons" just like their President until next March (2002).

Well, as expected, it was now time for Mr. Wureh, in turn, to come to his colleagues’ aid and possible rescue. Following a meeting that was said to have been well attended by Bar members, the LNBA decided to again call for a "total" boycott of all courts in the war-wrecked country in protest against their colleagues’ continued incarceration.

But again, how did the Taylor government react? "The Government of the Republic of Liberia views with major concern the current situation of a paralysis of the functions of the Courts of Liberia, as a direct result of the boycott authorized by the leadership of the Liberia National Bar Association, on 11th October, 2001", said the local Inquirer newspaper, quoting what appears to have been an official government statement.

Now, here is the most interesting part. The Inquirer also said: "This action on the part of the Liberia National Bar Association has seriously impaired the Judiciary and grossly undermined the Executive Branch of the Government of the Republic of Liberia with the resultant effect of jeopardizing the maintenance of the rule of law, thereby depriving our citizens and residents of protection guaranteed by the constitution." Really? Since when has the Taylor-led NPP government upheld the Liberian Constitution? Wouldn’t it be good if his government actually did?

Some Liberians really believe, though, that the longer the courts remain close, the better it is for the Taylor government since it would not want to face other legal actions that may be brought against it.

But seriously, let’s put aside the rhetoric for now and "intelligently" examine the main "issue" in all of this: "Contempt of the Legislature".

According to CHAPTER V, Article 44 of the current Liberian Constitution, "Contempt of the Legislature shall consist of actions which obstruct the legislative functions or which obstruct or impede members or officers of the Legislature in the discharge of their legislative duties and may be punished by the House concerned by reasonable sanctions after a hearing consistent with due process of law. No sanctions shall extend beyond the session of the Legislature wherein it is imposed, and any sanction imposed shall conform to the provisions on Fundamental Rights laid down in the Constitution. Disputes between legislators and non-members which are properly cognizable in the courts shall not be entertained or heard in the Legislature."

Now, can someone tell me how the "contempt" charges brought against the lawyers violate this provision of the Constitution? How did their "alleged" statements "obstruct or impede" their (lawmakers) Legislative functions? I’d really like to know! Granted that the Legislature even has reasons to sanction them for whatever they might have said or done, the provision give the House a "remedy" to settle the matter by "clearly" stating that "any sanctions imposed shall conform to the provisions [constitutional] on Fundamental Rights". This leads us to our next question!

What then, one might ask, are the lawyers’ "Fundamental Rights"? Well, the Liberian Constitution has "clearly" defined those too. But for the sake of time and space, I’d like to mention only two that "appropriately" applies here: CHAPTER III, Article 15 (a) The right to freedom of expression and (b) The right to hold [express] opinions without interference.

Given the above, it is hard to see how any "reasonable" person or institution, for that matter, could hold these lawyers in "contempt" without grossly violating the country’s Constitution. And to say that they wouldn’t be released from detention in "Taylor’s dungeons" until their statements are retracted, leads one to believe strongly that the Legislators are simply bent on abusing both their power and the Constitution, nothing else.

That’s why those that are asking the United Nations to lift sanctions on Liberia should first call on the government in Monrovia to once and for all change its "ugly" ways and begin to abide by the Constitution which it had, in fact, vowed to "uphold and protect" when it was "supposedly" elected. Because it is only then that the country will begin to finally move towards "permanent" peace and stability, thereby paving the way for more international assistance.

The NPP government should be urged in the strongest possible terms by the international community to stop throwing people in jail just because they choose to exercise their "constitutionally guaranteed rights" to "free expression and opinion". Let’s remember also, that the "destiny" of Liberia largely depends on the "behavior" of the Taylor regime, and most importantly, there are certainly many ways to avoid a situation like this. But we are fortunate (very fortunate) that the country’s Constitution spells them out "clearly".

Meanwhile, we sincerely urge all Liberian lawyers to remain steadfast in their fight against this kind of "abuse of authority", because it is absolutely the right thing to do. Sooner rather than later, the morally bankrupt Taylor regime will realize that it cannot indefinitely trample on the nation’s Constitution with impunity.

For us, we will continue to draw international attention to the NPP government’s gross abuse of power so that JUSTICE can prevail, as it should. The Taylor government must know that we’ll definitely keep up the "hoopla" until Cllrs. Jones and Campbell as well as others are set free – it is our "sacred" responsibility as defenders of "freedom" and the Liberian Constitution.

For subscription information, go to: or send e-mail to: