Manhunt for Students, several arrested

The Perspective
March 22, 2001

President Charles Taylor has unleashed his security forces for a manhunt of university students attacked Wednesday for staging a solidarity march to support detained journalists. Reports say many have been taken to unknown destinations and that their fate is yet uncertain. Other unconfirmed reports say there were a number of deaths when the security men invaded the campus Wednesday. Unknown number of students were severely wounded. Several homes in Jallah Town, a poor neighbourhood near the university campus where many students live, were destroyed, broken into, and looted by marauding security men searching for students who had planned a solidarity rally for four detained journalists on espionage charge.

Fear is mounting for the safety of the students because the Taylor regime is known for secret executions and issuing denials. In 1998, a number of ethnic Krahn soldiers were arrested, tortured and executed on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia, according to the US State Department. But the President subsequently announced that the men had attempted to escape from prison and were therefore shot. On several occasions, Taylor had told loyalists that, "I will do it and apologise." In 1996, he warned that he would institute a system of "jungle justice" against opponents. Recently, he threatened that he would chase his opponents "in their mothers' wombs". Several of his opponents have simply disappeared. Sam Dokie, his wife and two family members were arrested by presidential bodyguards, tortured, shot, mutilated and burnt. Women activist Madam Nowai Flomo met similar fate. Not a single person was convicted in both cases as in many others. On the current situation, one university student reported:

"The security forces have just invaded the University campus, 1:00 p. m local time Some of the faculty, staff and students have been wounded, some of them have also been arrested. Momo Jebah, Charles Taylor's Aide-de-camp, has also led armed militiamen to the University. The situation is not very clear at the moment. I will keep you informed as things unfold. The students had planned a solidarity march in support of the four journalists in prison. The President of the University called off the march, which should have started this morning at 10:00 a.m. Some of the students had gathered under the palaver hut to discuss issues as usual when the security forces were called in, I learned by the President of the University, Dr. Ben Roberts to disperse the students. They moved in and began attacking anyone they met."

A university professor said, "I had just left the campus to go to town to pick up some documents in connection with our scholarship program when this occurred. Situation is terrible in Monrovia as I write you this e-mail. The Student Unification Party at the University of Liberia had planned to have a rally in support of the four detained journalists. The rally was scheduled for today, but the President of the University, Ben Roberts, a protégé of Taylor, told the students that they should not have the rally without obtaining a permit to do so. The students insisted that they had the right to have a rally without obtaining a permit since such an exercise was part of their academic freedom. According to my information, the dreadful Special Operation Division (SOD) acting on the order of their bosses condoned the campus and suddenly began to beat up the students. I am told that the scene was just a replica of the Doe's regime invasion of the campus on August 22, 1984. We are still trying to assess the damage done to the student population and will accordingly keep you posted. For the time being, I'm informed that some of the students were taken to unknown destinations by the SOD and the Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU)."

"This is worst than the Doe era," said a priest in a shaking voice from Monrovia. We are in worst state of terror that you people imagine I cannot talk much now. But it is terrible. It is terrible. The phones are monitored and I fear for my life", he cried as he hung up.

The University of Liberia has traditionally been an opposition base against corrupt and totalitarian regimes. In 1984, Samuel Doe launched a similar attack against students, wounding many and arresting several. Although there were reports of deaths, parents were afraid to announce deaths of their children.

Attacks on unarmed groups have been common since Taylor came to power. In 1998, his son led heavily armed security men against ethnic Krahns, killing as many as 300 according to the US State Department. Over 18,000 Krahns fled the country.

University students have been vocal against what they regard as Taylor's unparalleled corruption and misuse of public funds while basic facilities are unavailable. They have protested against the wanton destruction of the forest and its environmental implications. This week, an environmentalist said logging activities of the Dutchman Gus Kowenhouven, (among others) named in the UN Panel of Experts report on Taylor diamond smuggling and arms deals, would wipe out Liberia's forest within 10 years. The country's minister of agriculture made similar report last year and has since been silenced.

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