Liberian "Justice" Unfolds Against 4 Foreign Journalists
-As Mandela Discovers Charles Taylor's "Beautiful Image"
By Tom Kamara

The chicanery of the Liberian justice system is unfolding in all its rotten forms with wider implications this time because of its victims --- international journalists and therefore international concern. Even before President Charles Taylor's evidence could be marshaled, heard and evaluated by the jury, the trial judge has in effect made up his mind: the men are guilty.

"I am reluctant to grant bail as the presumption of guilt is great", declared the judge, named Timothy Sworpe, as he departed from the commonly held view in civilized societies that a man is presumed innocent until proven guilty.

And, of course, the pretrial publicity calling for blood Mr Taylor has launched is nothing strange in this politically backward, "Tarzan" setting. Hundreds of members of his Small Boys Unit (Made of boys as young as 8 or even less who fought Taylor's war and now abandoned except when they are needed for demonstrations as "the people"), "Special Forces", and others who split-open the bellies of women to determine child gender, stormed the streets this week on order chanting, "We want justice" But this mode of state pretrial agitation is only a bastardization of past methods when, during state political trials, the elite herded chiefs into Monrovia, wined and dined them, and then stuffed petitions in their hands to be read demanding guilty verdicts against political prisoners accused of endangering the "security of the state," which in most cases meant questioning the president's policies. Reputable civil organizations and mainstream political parties boycotted this week state demonstrations, while the demonstrators' expectations of presenting their grievances to the UN and ECOWAS failed because officials of the two organizations were absent. Reports say the poorly attended demonstration (an estimated 3000 in a city of about one million with a government that won 80% of the votes in 1997) reflects citizens' disgust of how crudely Taylor is manipulating events to their detriment, now that sanctions hang over them for his RUF links and Sierra Leone diamond theft.

And in its characteristic mundane manner, the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism, has saturated the air with misunderstood, misused doctrine of "Separation of Powers" (regarding the equality of the three branches of government) to sell the point that Taylor is neutral in this inquisition. The Government's propagandists have also intensified insults (and intimidation) on defense lawyers, denying their charges that the journalists have been tortured, with molten candle wax spilt on them. "These journalists had something under their sleeves against the image of this country, and must therefore face daylight justice," the propaganda ministry demanded, reminiscent of the days when Communists employed such methods to sell their ideas, but without the attendant communist sophistication.

In all this, there is a bitter disagreement on what the laws of Africa's oldest republic say about the alleged crime. The judge and defense lawyers cannot agree on the nature of the crime. The books and defense lawyers insist the crime is not a capital crime and therefore falls within bail. The judge maintains it is a capital crime, therefore beyond bail, and this is what counts, particularly so when the judge declares himself a victim of the journalists' alleged crime by ruling that the alleged crime is not only committed against the people of Liberia, but also against him. Whoever said that a judge must be impartial? Not in Liberia.

As the debate on the nature of law was continuing, the journalists were getting a taste of life in Taylor's Liberia--- dark prisons with no beds, horrible toilets if there are, colonies of mosquitoes in the day and at night feeding on sweaty, sleepless bodies, no food if a prisoner has no friends or family, etc. They were transferred to one of Liberia's most notorious cells, the prison at the National Security Agency under the constant watch of Taylor's Tonton Macoutes. Not surprising, there are claims that they were abused, and tortured. Their lawyer, one of Liberia's best lawyers still bold enough to live in the country, Varney Sherman, told the BBC that the men were threatened with bodily harm ("cutting them into pieces"), and that Taylor's Tonton Macoutes put cockroaches into their cells.

On the same BBC, President Taylor's deputy minister for public affairs and therefore chief propagandist, Reginald Goodridge, informed the world that the case was now in the hands of the court and that there was nothing his President, with his "hands tied" by the law, could do about it. Claiming evidence against the journalists, he said the "law" must take its course. He was reacting to several appeals, both local and international, calling for the immediate release of the men. South Africa's Former President Nelson Mandela, reminded Taylor (whom he once feted with a state banquet in South Africa befitting a visiting king) that it would be prudent for him (Taylor) to preserve his "beautiful image" by letting the journalists go, with the words "beautiful image" clearly manifesting Mandela's sagacity deep in sarcasm. On the other hand, the Government's propagandists, under pen names in messages from Monrovia placed on Africa Online Liberia Forum, in an astonishing attempt at blackmail, warned the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Taylor's personal friend and President Clinton's Special Envoy for Democracy in Africa, not to push his argument against Taylor too hard because his (Jackson's) "hands" were in "diamonds." Rev. Jackson had probably infuriated Taylor by contending that no one in the world believes the men are spies, and that a "crackdown on journalism is a crackdown on democracy." The CNN also quoted Rev. Jackson as saying he has received a letter from the journalists complaining that they "have been mistreated."

So here is the setting for a "fair" trial. We can expect to see Liberian justice at work in all its dimensions and crudity before international view. This is the beauty of this ugly drama. The agony is that the trial is only in form and no substance should be expected. Like all political trials in Liberia, it is ordered, directed, and monitored by the President. No judge is independent, bold enough to rule fairly in a political trial without the President's consent, particularly now.

There is a saying that experience is the best teacher, and those of us who have encountered Liberian justice in its rawness know how devious, unprincipled, manipulative and personal it is. It is a system tied around the president and his cronies. Their wishes are law, and the sooner the British, and the South Africans in particular come to grip with the farce placed before them, the better they will understand its implications.

Forgive me, but I must rely on a personal story to illustrate one example out of dozens on how degenerate justice has become in this country founded as the hope for liberty.

It was sometime between 1984 and 1985, as a young and hunted journalist, that I came face to face with the absence of integrity amongst many Liberian judicial authorities at the highest level. My late uncle, then a magistrate in the borer town of Foya Kamah, was told he must be transferred to the feared, forest- covered town of Belle Yallah. Belle Yalla's notoriety is linked to its hosting Liberia's maximum prison, reachable only by air from Monrovia. If you were sent to Belle Yallah, it meant no return. It was a hard labour camp mainly built for the Government's political opponents but occasionally for notorious criminals.

Obviously, the judicial authorities, in this case one of the Justices on the Supreme Court Bench (I will save the man discomfort for now by omitting his name, although he still lives in Monrovia and within Taylor's political arena), were determined to banish my uncle by dumping him in Bella Yallah as a magistrate. A well established farmer with large rice, coffee and cocoa farms and scores of wives and children, in fact the pillar of our town, it was inconceivable that he would be uprooted and thrown in the midst of nowhere, into the jungle of notorious Belle Yalla of all places. This was internal exile! But at the same time, my uncle revered his job. A self-taught lawyer, he felt that without being a magistrate his inner self was dead, although I tried to convince him in vain to the contrary. So he came to Monrovia to fight the transfer. Only a Justice of the Supreme could make that important decision of rescinding the transfer. And let me add here that the Justice in question was a friend of my uncle's, but the transfer was dictated to him by other powerful forces within Samuel Doe's National Democratic Party of Liberia who felt my uncle must know the extensions of their power and influence.

There was only one solution to annul the transfer: "see" the "Justice." I could not believe my eyes, ears and mind during the transaction as US dollar notes transferred into his willing and happy palms. My uncle's transfer was aborted. He remained a magistrate until his death in 1999 out of despair. His head wife for decades was executed by NPFL rebels in our looted and burnt-down town, and the resourceful woman being his pillar, he could never recover from the personal tragedy. He went senile before dying and receiving a beggar's funeral since many of who would have buried him were fleeing from Mr. Taylor and his rebels.

The essence of this little personal story is to establish the character of Liberian judicial system, which is now far more degraded than before because of the spreading poverty, and lack of competent manpower, factors exacerbated by the war and the caliber of people in power. So when Goodridge contends that the case is out of Taylor's hands, the Machiavellian nature of the statement is lost on people accustomed to the normal functioning of justice in normal, civilized societies with political checks and balances. And listening to the man on the BBC, a stranger to Liberia would never know the depth of the deception he is spreading because to the normal mind, a president or prime minister, etc., cannot intervene in court cases. In Liberia, the President embodies all branches, now more than ever before.

Africa's problem is that we were left institutions beautiful, practical, and fair on paper and in theory, but evil in practice. The evil is more menacing because it is justified in theory. Visitors to Liberia are greeted with giant signboards announcing, "Liberia is a country of laws, not of men," one of Taylor's many clichés. When individuals with a value system built on crime, now in charge of the state, are expected to uphold the law and ensure probity and transparent justice, it is not difficult to see the folly. Yes, Liberia, Africa's oldest republic, has three branches of Government, a concept totally copied from the Americans without any diversion. The courts are in theory and on paper independent. The other branch, the Legislature, is equally independent. On the surface, their actions are therefore legal and accepted as civilized and within the "law." (I once tried unsuccessfully to get The Index on Censorship to intervene on behalf of the New Democrat newspaper, which was denied registration. The lady in London, to my astonishment, in a cold voice, told me that once it is the "law" there was nothing they could do, ignoring the fact that Apartheid South Africa was perhaps the most legislated country in the world.)

But Liberia is a sad case. The President's influence is so overwhelming and over-powering that he decides the outcome of cases, more so if they are political. There is hardly any instance where one is acquitted once charged with acts against the "security of the state." No judge in his right mind is capable acquitting an accused facing such a charge. During the reign of the military junta, a political activist Dusty Wolokollie was acquitted on charges of treason under an infamous law that disallowed criticism of government officials (Decree 88A). But those of us with the inner knowledge of the case know that the judge handed down the acquittal only after he sought Head of State Samuel Doe's consent. A judge opted to flee from a trial instead of handing down a decision that would have angered President Doe. Knowing the fate that awaited him, a human rights activist, on trial for treason because he criticized Taylor's policies and practices, escaped into exile through the jungle.

The concept of trial by one's peers is laughable because "professional" jurors, mostly hungry and ill-educated people who line up at the "Temple of Justice" seeking "jury work", lack understanding of the cases, coupled with their terrible understanding of formal and sometimes difficult- to -understand English and arguments used in the courts. The quality of jurors, and the now intense economic hardships, makes jury tampering so common that it is now standard practice. And when the President has vested interest in a case, manipulating the jury is easier and cheaper, since his appointees handle jurors. It is a question of the highest bidder. (I never forget, as a young reporter in the 1970s covering a treason trial, when a juror defined treason as "telling the truth". Funny! In reality, the juror was right, because all the accused men were charged for questioning the truths about Americo-Liberian oligarchy. When the story was published the next morning, my editor was ordered by the Minister of Justice to remove me from the case because, the Minister claimed, I was against the Government. This is Liberia. It hasn't changed. It has only gone far worst under a man who has no respect for the law, hanging on it only if his interests are served or are at stake.)

The high level corruption within the Judiciary is something that even the current Chief Justice, a Taylor confidante, admits. Moreover, finding qualified lawyers to staff the courts is impossible due to low incentives, harassment by security forces, and interference from the President and his cronies. Most Judges have no vehicles, are paid less than $20 monthly. There is no job security since the President can at anytime effect change using the "law." It is such a Judiciary that the 4 journalists will be confronting. During the treason trial of leading now Krahn leaders, soldiers stormed the court as the judge, jurors, and lawyers ran for cover. Some lawyers refused to plead political cases because of fear for their lives, while others who do request the Ministry of Justice for special protection.

Manipulation of cases and trials is common. To remove public attention from the trial of presidential bodyguards accused of butchering opposition politician Samuel Dokie, his wife and two family members, the Government decided to try the case in Gbarnga, far removed from the press and other institutions. Naturally, the men were acquitted and now serve in the security structures. The Government pledged it would bring the murderers to justice but it has not found them. This is Animal Far setting expected to seek the truth in the allegations against the men.