Ordeals & Pretenses

By Tom Kamara

The Perspective
April 3, 2001

The ordeal of the four Liberian journalists, indicted for "espionage" and thrown in jail, is finally over after over six humiliating weeks of illegal detention. Just as they were arbitrarily arrested, so were they arbitrarily released, with expectation that they will pay homage to their abductors and promise never to sin again by exposing theft.

But the irony is that a number of international and local media organizations, along with politicians, actually had faith in Liberian law, and therefore established a legal fund for an imaginary court battle with the government when it was evident that the objective was an inquisition intended to only punish and silence the journalists. Just why many miss the fact that historically, Liberia uses the "law" against critics for punishment, and not for arriving at justice? How could they not have known that the justice system since Charles Taylor's presidency has been decimated to the point of fulfilling the tyrant's vow of instituting "jungle justice"?

The encouraging stampede of volunteers promising financial resources for legal fees, (something Liberian lawyers, left with fewer financially rewarding cases to plead in a lawless society, were just too happy to hear as if a covenant has been signed between them and Government to periodically offer such lucrative cases) was a welcomed act in Taylor's little play of pretenses. The offers and concerns meant that respectable institutions actually bought the farce that Liberia was, as Taylor constantly proclaims, "a country of laws, and not men." And since he has shown his "magnanimity" in giving the men their freedom, why shouldn't he be rewarded for his democratic credentials in a case of the kidnapper demanding rewards for letting victims free?

Although the Liberian law has always operated in concert with the whims of the country's tyrants, the environment for lawlessness has degenerated in recent times. In 1995, a Chief Justice, James Bull, publicly endorsed then warlord Charles Taylor, bestowing lavish praises on him for his kindness particularly for bags of rice delivered to him. But as the Chief Justice, now living in American exile, frantically ran into the American embassy in 1996 to escape from pursuing child soldiers, he may have realized that perhaps the best gift any leader can give is the freedom to live in peace in the pursuit of happiness. When a Chief Justice of a country places such importance on gifts of rice, it tells the level to which the nation has sunk.

The erosion of the justice system despite war and electoral promises of promoting civil liberties is unprecedented. Few days in office, Taylor sacked of several independent minded judges, replacing them with loyal cronies. In this hemorrhage of what was left of the justice system, one writer, the late G. Henry Andrews, would note that in Taylor's Liberia, you are arrested by a Taylor policeman, tried by a Taylor judge, convicted by a Taylor jury, and imprisoned by his loyal prison guards of child soldiers. There was no escape route under a man who constantly promises to chase his critics "in their mothers' wombs" as the litany of abuses expands. In its Report on Human Rights Practices, the US State Department observed that:
"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. The Constitution provides for the right of a person who is charged to receive an expeditious trial; however, lengthy pretrial and prearraignment detention remained a serious problem. In some cases, the length of the pre-trial detention equaled or exceeded the length of sentence for the crime in question." The Report added that:
"Some judges and magistrates are not lawyers. 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. 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"
But Liberians, preferring pretenses, still talk about the "law" in a country that produces lawyers more than any other professionals. Even if there is no law, let's pretend that there is law and order, and therefore the need for lawyers. The Englishman Graham Greene observed in 1935 during a tour of the country that despite evidence pointing to a farce in such events as elections, "A curious fiction is kept up even among the foreign representatives. There are excited conversations at dinner parties; bets are always on the point of being laid. But the fiction goes, of course, stops short of losing money"

This pretense has incubated over the years. When individuals presumably trained in the search for, and administration of justice, see as their hero one of the most ruthlessly lawless individuals in contemporary Liberian history, it shows pretense has overcome substance. Despite Taylor's record of indiscriminate killings, looting and forced plunders of private property, he received enormous backing from the country's legal establishment. One of Liberia's best-trained lawyers, Charles Brumskine, who became President of the Senate but now lives in exile in the US, joined his National Patriotic Party, vigorously campaigning for the warlord during the 1997 elections and rebuking others who refused to see the "saintliness" of the warlord.

In fairness however, Taylor is simply building upon the pillars of lawlessness erected for decades. The coup of 1980 heightened the level of lawlessness since the soldiers lacked the finesse of their predecessors in pretenses of leading a democratic society when the truth was that it was a concealed tyranny. In 1984, this writer was arrested and thrown in prison on an infamous charge of "Security Risk" for Samuel Doe's Government. The "Security Risk" encompassed critical journalism, for Doe, unlike Taylor, had little idea what constituted "espionage." Without a formal charge, I was thrown in prison, but not before the head of, National Security Agency, (the secret police) Sylvester Moses, now in US exile, gave me a complete dress down for my alleged masterminding of underground leaflets produced by University of Liberia students against the regime. Since the NSA concluded I was the only one capable of producing such scathing leaflets in the absence of press freedom, Doe decided that the high security prison in the jungles of Belle Yalla was the best place to dump me and thus remove the risk. So the soldiers bundled me up from prison at my NSA cell and escorted me to the tiny city airport to be flown to Belle Yalla, possibly to be killed en route. But the officer in charge of the tiny plane saved my life by refusing to fly the plane and demanded legal papers on my case, including formal charges. Without the papers, he insisted, he would not risk his reputation in participating in an illegal imprisonment. As I was shoved in the car under heavily armed escort back to my cell, he yelled, "Tom you're lucky!" That was the last time I heard his voice. He was killed latter. This little event indicated some forms of "law" still existed in Doe's Liberia. Had this even occurred in Taylor's Liberia, I would not have lived to tell the story.

Finding a formal charge was however no problem for the Minister of Justice then, Jenkins Scott, now legal advisor to Taylor. He simply cooked up any charge he could imagine. The papers were ready the next day, detailing charges I did not see for a crime I had no idea of. The truth is I was not ready. Convinced of the plot, I made my way out of the prison into exile.

This mindset of incriminating critics, using the "law" to satisfy the whims of the tyrant and promote theft, has not changed, may never change in the short time. In Liberia, pretenses count, for although the records of the men and women now in power contained abundant facts about their love affair with jungle justice and theft, Liberians pretended they were suitable characters to foster justice and development. With such a value system, the ordeals of injustice will continue. The only good news in the journalists' case is that the men are not intimidated. Refusing to be intimidated provides one great hope for a change.

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