The Treason Trial: A Mockery Of Justice!
By The Liberian Democratic Future (LDF)*
In the Oct/Dec '98 issue, the Liberian Democratic Future (LDF) called for a fair and impartial trial of the 32 individuals accused of treason for allegedly attempting to overthrow the Liberian government. We had issued the statement against the background that we still believed that there was still a ray of hope and a silver lining that existed within the Liberian judicial system, since all other aspects of government had failed the Liberian people.
As we have observed the treason trial since it commenced few months ago, it is becoming clear each day of the trial proceedings that justice will not be rendered fairly and impartially. As we revisit this trial, we have found that justice has run amok. Interestingly, we have seen Liberian history repeating itself.
In Liberia, if you have a political opponent who does not shut up, there are three consequences the person must suffer: the opponent must either be murdered, charged with treason, or imprisoned for time indefinite. S. David Coleman, Henry B. Fahnbulleh, Didho Twe, and S. Raymond Horace are examples of these practices during the reign of the late President William V. S. Tubman, the mentor of President Charles Taylor.
So it was nothing unusual when on Sept 18, 1998, a group of armed men commanded by Charles Taylor's drug-addicted son, Chucky Taylor, raided Camp Johnson Road, killing several innocent people including women, children and the elderly in their bid to murder former warlord Roosevelt Johnson and prominent Krahn citizens. The government initially said the raid was intended to evict people who were illegally occupying private properties on Camp Johnson Road. But most Liberians feel that, from all indications, the raid was aimed at supporters of former warlord Roosevelt Johnson. Johnson and few of his men sought refuge at the American Embassy. In the process, two of them were killed at the U.S. embassy's gate. Though more than a thousand people were massacred, the government claimed only fifty-two people died.
But when the ultimate aim of killing Johnson and prominent Krahn opponents was not achieved, the government immediately changed the reason for the raid, saying it intended to crush sinister efforts by some elements to overthrow the Taylor government. Accordingly, the government charged thirty-two people, mostly from the Krahn ethnic group, with treason in an indictment.
The treason trial is said to be an uphill battle for the defendants, not because the government has mountains of evidence against them, but due to the fact that the judicial system in Liberia is "rotten." Besides, President Taylor's ruthlessness has instilled fear in lawyers and citizens of Liberia who perhaps "are not ready to go to heaven yet. " At the onset of the case, lawyers refused to serve as counsel for the defendants due to fear of being liquidated by the Taylor government, while citizens opted against serving as jurors for similar reason.
Some lawyers, however, decided to do the unthinkable but wanted to be paid a hefty sum of half a million dollars (US) by the government. One of those lawyers who insisted on anonymity said, "I wanted for my family to have some money for my funeral and for survival after I am gone. Serving as lawyer in this case is like digging your own grave." But human rights lawyer, Benedict Sannoh, broke the impasse when he agreed to risk his life by serving as defense lawyer in the case. Though he had requested for protection from the government, some observers consider the effort as a risky endeavor. It took several weeks to find jurors for the case.
There are some similarities between the treason trial and the Samuel Dokie murder trial. The most significant similarity is that Judge William Metzger who presided over the Dokie trial is now the sitting judge. It can also be recalled that in the Dokie trial, three of the accused were declared state witnesses, and the two who were tried were not found guilty. According to the state, the real murderers are still at large.
In this case, five of the accused have been drafted by government to serve as state witnesses. Worthy to note, prior to their being declared state witnesses, the five were made inaccessible to the defense lawyers by the government. They even went on record by submitting a letter to the court that they did want their interest to be served by the defense lawyers. The defendants who have been declared state witnesses include Edward Jah, Morris Harris, Lassanna Kennedy, Abraham Keita, and Jacouby Dolley.
One of the surprises in the case took place on November 20, 1998, when the prosecution lawyers filed a motion to amend the indictment handed down by the Grand Jury on grounds that the appropriate penal code was not used in indicting the alleged coup plotters. The defense attorneys, however, felt that granting the motion "will be charging defendants for crime that were never brought before grand jury which is the sole determiner of whether or not defendants should answer to the capital offense of treason in keeping with law." The motion for the amendment was granted, and subsequently a second indictment issued.
The burden of proof is on the government to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt that those being tried conspired to overthrow the Taylor government. But the help the government needed badly was not provided by the state witnesses. They contradicted each other, could not remember crucial names and alleged meeting dates, and could not provide travel documents since government alleged that some of them had to travel to Sierra Leone for a meeting to finalize their plan to overthrow the government.
For their part, the defendants contend that being a Krahn is a crime - meaning that they are charged because they are Krahn people. In addition to being served two different indictments for the same offense, the writ to arrest the defendant Bai Gbala, for example, was signed September 17, 1998, one day before the offense for which he's being tried took place (Sept 18 - 19, 1998).
The Dokie trial was held to exonerate the government; whereas the aim of this trial is for the government to convict the defendants. Like the Dokie murder case, however, the treason trial is being watched by the international community for transparency of justice. Further assistance to Liberia is based on the respect for human rights, rule of law, etc. Liberia had made mockery out of justice in the past, and a recurrence of such travesty will not augur well for the nation.
With corruption and human rights abuses hurting the Taylor regime internationally, President Taylor does not have the inclination to execute these guys, neither does he want to have political prisoners. A source at the Executive Mansion intimated, "the primary aim of the September raid was to get rid of Gen. Johnson and his supporters. Since that did not work to perfection, this treason charge and the trial are signals to discourage any attempt to topple our nascent government." According to the source, "Judge Metzger may used the case to liberate the judicial system which is considered "rotten" with a non-guilty verdict. But there are more at stake for the government than a mere judicial system. So it will be more beneficial for the president to pardon those people after they are found guilty" in an attempt to boost his sagging image internationally.
Welcome to Taylor's Liberia.
*The Liberian Democratic Future (LDF), publisher of The Perspective, is a think-tank democratic, & research organization
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