Liberians Hold Protest Rally Against Human Rights Abuses

On Friday, Feb 6, 1998, Liberians converged in Washington, DC, at the premises of the Liberian Embassy, to hold a protest rally against the abuses of human rights in Liberia. Liberians had come from various parts of this country in response to a call from the Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA), to protest the widespread and continuous abuses of human rights and civil liberties of the people of Liberia by the government of Liberia.

This pattern of humans rights abuses has been characterized by the constant harassment and clampdown of the press, the mysterious disappearances of citizens on a daily basis, and the arrest and detention of citizens without their right to the due process of law.

Since August 2, 1997, the day the Taylor government came to power, it has been well-documented that over 20 persons have either been abducted, kidnapped by government security agents or died while in police custody.

One of the highlights of the rally was to draw attention to the savage murder of a prominent politician, Mr. Sam Saye Dokie, his wife and two other family members. The protesters condemned the gruesome murders and expressed deep concern about what appeared to be a deliberate delay in the trial, and called for a speedy, fair and public trial of the case.

Amid the inclement weather, and attempts by Taylor's apologists to undermine the rally, the protesters showed a spirit of determination. The Chairman of the ULAA Board of Directors, Augustus Major, was one of those accused of giving misinformation in an effort to undermine the rally. Mr. Major, however, denied the allegation. The rally was characterized by marching, songs and a show of placards carrying various statements to reflect their sentiments about the human rights situation in Liberia.

Immediately following the rally, the protesters assembled on the premises of the Embassy of Liberia where it presented a position statement to the Liberian Ambassador, Mrs. Rachel Diggs, to be conveyed to the government of Charles Taylor. The position statement was read and presented on behalf of the Union by its President, Dr. Joseph Korto. Among many others, the statement called for the following: (1) A complete overhaul of the Liberian justice system, beginning with the replacement of the Minister of Justice and the Directors of Police and the Special Security Service; (2) that those arrested in connection with the Dokie's murders be given speedy, fair and public trials in a court of competent jurisdiction; (3) that an independent commission be set up to investigate reports of abduction and deaths in custody of detainees, as well as illegal detention of members of the press and other citizens.

Receiving the statement, Ambassador Diggs assured the President of the Union and those attending the rally, that she would appropriately convey the sentiments expressed by Liberians to president Taylor. "... The Dokie's case will be a deciding factor as to whether Liberia moves on the path to democracy or not... the world is watching.. "' she responded. She further said she would always make the embassy and herself accessible to all Liberians, adding: "I am the Ambassador for all Liberians"

Another significant highlight of the rally was a townhall meeting following the rally. The meeting renewed its call to the Taylor government to improve human rights condition in the country. Varied speakers representing various Liberian organizations and communities spoke passionately about the Liberian situation and called upon ULAA to become even more assertive during this period.

A major highpoint of this meeting was the presentation made by Mr. Gregory Simpkins, staff of the U.S. Congress sub-committee on Africa, who articulated the U.S. government's position on human rights in Liberia. Commenting, he said: "the U. S. Government views improved human rights and freedom of speech as critical to the process of democracy in Liberia." He commented that "one letter" could make a difference and encouraged Liberians to continue to write letters not only to express concern, but to thank them for their good work as well. This he said can make a profound difference.

There were many other statements of support for the rally that came from Liberians at home and abroad. An important statement of support was received from the Director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, Mr. S. Kofi Woods. In support of the rally, the statement noted that "the Liberian Community and friends of Liberia abroad constitute a forceful constituency for action but it must pursue the agenda with unity and purpose abandoning those vices which continue to keep us apart and incite anarchy in our dear country."

A veteran Liberian journalist, Mr. Tom Kamara, now based in the Netherlands also sent a statement of support calling upon Liberians not to be "complacent, but remain vigilant against the forces opposed to democracy at all times."

The rally seems to cast the Union in a new light. Having been accused of being an organization that has lost its relevance, and charged with cutting deals with the Taylor regime, many of whose players today used the Union as a launching pad to advance their political careers in Liberia. It appears like the Union is trying to disprove its critics and vindicate itself by returning to its positive role of promoting social change, the role it has always played in the political and civic life of Liberia.

Whether this is a "new Union" that is beginning to emerge is yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, in response to reporters' questions regarding Taylor direct involvement in the Dokie's murder, Mrs. Diggs said, "You see this thing we call democracy, it has steps, it has processes and they all must go together. And that is what happening now. Some people say the president was personally involved. I saw him that day. I don't know him very well, but I was staying at Senator Minor's house that day when he came and dropped on her bed and cried like a baby or like somebody had stabbed him. I said, oh, is this Dokie man a good man? And Senator Minor said, "no the president cries for Janet (Mrs. Dokie). Janet was his main girl and I have seen her hang out with the crowd". That left me to wonder: would he have killed Janet or Dokie? So I am watching this case very closely because that will be a deciding factor whether Liberia is on a path to democracy and rule of law or not. If there is no transparency in this case, Liberia can kiss what ever it is doing (development) goodbye."

Answering questions as to why the director of Taylor bodyguard (SSS) who ordered the arrest of Sam Dokie and family is not in detention, Ambassador said, "Benjiman Yeaten is not a suspect."

Critics contend that the behavior demonstrated by the president was theatrical rather than genuine.