Liberia: Pres. Weah Grants Clemency to 14 Convicts at Senniquellie Prison

Kokoyah District, Bong County – Green Advocates International, a human rights, advocacy and environmental institution along with other local and international partners have commended President George M. Weah for granting Executive Clemency to the last batch of fourteen (14) Brave Grassroots Defenders from Korkoyah District in Bong County.

The defenders were part of a group of 24 convicts who have been in prison after protesting the grabbing of their customary lands, the destruction of their ancestral forests, the massive spillage of Cyanide from the Turkish MNG Gold Company and the murdered of several of their community members resulting from what appeared to have been a ramming vehicle driven by an expatriate MNG Gold driver.  

The released defenders were arrested, trialed, convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison in November 2020, a process international legal experts and academic scholars described as troubling for the Liberian criminal Justice System.

The Clemency

President Weah on August 15, 2023 instructed the Minister of Justice  to initiate a presidential pardon of the 14 inmates among others across the country.

The Presidential mandate stated: “Accordingly, based on the reasons provided, stemming from serving a minimum of ten years with demonstrated good behavior, old age and life-threatening state of health, verified by medical records, your recommendation for Presidential Pardon is hereby granted as authorized by Article 59 of the Constitution of the Republic of Liberia”.

The fourteen defenders released included Alex Kuyon, Darlington Tartee, Junior Gaye, Emmanuel Kargar, Junior Bealai, Junior Flomo, Salient kollie, Morris Dolo, Oliver Robert, Adolphus Dolo, Maxin Kollie, Robert Johnson, Darious Kpoe and Henry Mulbah                          

Green Advocates Writes President Weah

On August 13, 2023, Green Advocate wrote the President through Justice Minister, Cllr. Frank Musah Dean, pleading for the  granting of an Executive Clemency to the Defenders.

The letter stated “While we do not want to dwell on the nitty gritty of the mass arrests, charges, prosecution, convictions and incarcerations of these defenders , we would like to formally inform you that along with the Yale Law School, Green Advocates did a comprehensive  legal analysis of the conditions, situation  and circumstances of these defenders, many of whom were caught up in the massive police operations to respond to the protest actions as the result of both the cyanide spill at the MNG Gold operations and the unfortunate accident involving an MNG gold contractor which resulted into the death of some community members”.

The letter indicated that due to the lack of funding and other forms of support from the Government of Liberia, corrections and prison facilities are overwhelmed, facing serious congestions, sanitation and sometimes very unpleasant health situations including the Sanniquellie Central Prison.

The letter furthered “As you are aware Honorable Minister, since these defenders were convicted and sentenced, around the third year of their imprisonment, a number of them felt sick, even some got paralyzed from the sickness popularly known as Zombie which is not only common to the Sanniquellie Central Prison where these inmates are being held but other prisons across Liberia including the Monrovia Central Prison”.

Green Advocates letter told the Ministry of Justice that granting clemency to the Bong County Defenders would be of more significance to the Government and people of Liberia.

The letter concluded “We strongly believe that it will be of more significance to the Government and People of Liberia if these Liberians are granted Executive clemency as their being in prison is rather creating more burden for the Government to provide for their feeding, medical and other needs especially when these inmates have shown that they are not harmful to society”.

Documenting

In February 2022, Green Advocates International and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at the Yale Law School where Liberian Legal Scholar, activist Lawyer and a Goldman Prize winner, Alfred Lahai Brownell Sr. serves as a visiting Fellow, undertook an extensive research and legal analysis of  the arrests, charges, indictment, trial, prosecution of the 44 Frontline Grassroots Environmental and Land Rights Defenders from Korkoyah District in Bong County. At the end of the trial, 20 of the defenders were acquitted while 24 were convicted and sentenced in what the Yale Law School and Green Advocates described as massive missteps in the Liberian Criminal Justice System.

Following their release, Green Advocates along with other partners who have been working with the Defenders over the last few years applauded the President for the gesture but are at the same time demanding full-scale investigation into the human rights abuses to which the defenders were subjected to.

Green Advocates and partners, argued that the processes that led to the arrest, detention and conviction of the Defenders, were marred by gross human rights abuses, non-adherence to the rule of law and failure to ensure fair and impartial trial for the Defenders in keeping with their constitutional rights.

While celebrating freedom for the last batch of defenders, the abuse of their rights can not be allowed to go without an investigation and prompt action from Government to restore their rights.

In November 2018, defenders were protesting against issues of the grabbing of their customary lands, the destruction of their ancestral forests, the spillage of chemicals into their water and the death of some of their family members by a sub-contractor to MGN Gold, were arrested by police, charged and sent to Court.

The protest became passionate with the Liberian National Police moving in and indiscriminately arresting as many as 67 persons according to media reports, but later charged 44 of them with a range of criminal charges without affording them their rights and due process as required under Liberian laws

In the aftermath of the arrests, the defenders were stigmatized in the media  and referred to as looters, rioters, thieves, arsonists, etc.… even though the defenders made every attempt to push back on the  sweeping narrative pointing to the heavy handiness and excesses of the police to no avail.

At the Court, the 44 were charged with multiple crimes ranging from armed robbery, Criminal Mischief, Theft of Property, Arson, Rioting and forwarded to the 9th Judicial Circuit Court located in Gbarnga, Bong County. Before the start of trial State Prosecutors filed a pretrial Motion for Change of Venue on grounds that a trial of the 44 in Bong County, where they were arrested would create tension and as such the trial should be conducted in another county.

The trial was transferred to the 8th Judicial Circuit Court in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, where the accused were represented by a Public Defender. They were far removed from their communities and had challenges providing witnesses and evidence to support their claims. There were also serious challenges with family members and friends visiting the defenders given the distances between where the trial was held and their communities. This had a serious emotional and psychological impact on the defendants 

Following the trial, 20 of the defenders were acquitted while 24 were found guilty and sentenced to ten years in prison.  Even though the public defenders announced an appeal to the Supreme Court, the defenders faced series of challenges in getting their appeal perfected and heard.  

The 24 convicted were in prison since their conviction in November 2020. Two of the 24 died shortly upon their release from prison on medical grounds due to the lack of proper medication at the prison facility. The actual cause of death of the two defenders is yet to be established due to lack of the diagnostic the cause of the death.

Right to a lawyer and Witness

A review of the entire case proceedings show gross missteps in the handling of the Defenders’ case. All the accused were arrested, interrogated and charged with committing crimes without access to lawyers contrary to Article 21C of the Liberian Constitution. The provision provides for an accused person to be represented by Lawyer at every stage of the investigation.

Article 21 C provides “c) Every person suspected or accused of committing a crime shall immediately upon arrest be informed in detail of the charges, of the right to remain silent and of the fact that any statement made could be used against him in a court of law. Such person shall be entitled to counsel at every stage of the investigation and shall have the right not to be interrogated except in the presence of counsel. …”.

The forty-four accused rights to witnesses were also restrained by Presiding Judge His Honor James N. Gilayeneh, Sr. as they were only permitted to produce ten witnesses, the court documents reveal.

With just ten (10) witnesses testifying in favor of forty-four accused who were arrested at different locations, different times but charged with alleged commission of the same offenses it was obvious that these accused could be convicted because they did not have the witnesses required to prove their innocence.

Why Appeal Process stalled?

Following the conviction of the Defenders, the Public Defenders who was representing the defenders announced an Appeal to the Supreme Court of Liberia.

In keeping with the legal requirements of Appeal, lawyers representing the Defenders were required to file a Bill of Exceptions to be followed by other appeal related processes.

Perfecting the appeal to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Defenders became very difficult due to lack of funding as the volume of papers in the case file required high amount of money to make copies especially with the requirements that eight (8) sets of the files have to be photocopied and other associated costs of transferring the files from Sanniquellie t

Green Advocates later hired a team of veteran Liberian lawyers including former Associate Justice Cllr. Laveli Supuwood to commence the Appeal process for the Bong Defenders but when all efforts meant to get their release failed, request for Executive Clemency became an option. 

Neglected in prison

After the conviction and subsequent imprisonment for a period of five years with another five years in community services, the convicted were neglected with no proper medical care despite the injuries suffered from police brutalities.

Some of the convicted were unable to stand while others lived in excruciating pain while in prison.

Two of the convicted, Peter Toby and Moses Kermue felt very ill in prison as a result of the injuries sustained from police brutalities. The two were released on medical grounds but died very shortly after leaving prison.

International Pressure

Few months ago, two Human rights organizations, Green Advocates International and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic Yale Law School in letter to the United Nations Rapporteur detailed the human rights violations committed by Liberia against these defenders.

In a November 28, 2022 Allegation Letter to United Nations (“UN”) Special Rapporteurs Concerning Urgent Circumstances of the Indigenous Defenders from the Bong County, the two institutions asked the United Nations Special Rapporteur to intervene and seek their release.

The letter indicated that the systematic use of detention as a political tool to suppress demonstrations contributes to the lack of proportionality.

The rights organizations stated that many countries including Liberia are indeed systematically silencing defenders who use peaceful assembly as a means of voicing political or social discontent.

The letter also stated “Given the context of community criticism against MNG Gold’s human rights violations and the corruption of the police and judiciary to the benefit of corporations like MNG Gold, the arbitrary arrests after the protests fit into this structural pattern of using detention as a political tool to oppress dissent”.

Green Advocates, MRU CSO Secretariat

The Staff Lawyer at Green Advocates, Atty. Samwar S. Fallah expressed that it is worthy that the Defenders who were subjected to human rights abuses can finally get their freedom.

“We have been working with these Defenders for more than a year now. We hope at the time of their arrest we were available to provide them legal aid, they should not be jail for this long as we believe they were wrongly accused and missteps in the trial”, said Atty. Fallah.

Atty. Fallah vowed that the advocacy for the rights of the Defenders will not end with their release from prison as he indicated that Green Advocates will push for full scale investigation with findings made public on the manner and form in which the Defenders were dehumanized and subject to human rights abuses.

Reacting to the release of the defenders, the Coordinator of the Mano River Union Civil Society Natural Resources Rights and Governance Platform (MRU CSO Platform), Peter Quaqua called on the Liberian government to step back and re-examine its policy on protecting indigenous communities in its quest for foreign direct investment.

Quaqua said “it is repressive for government to violate the rights of its citizens in the interest of multinational concession companies. Government must balance its investment with the security and well-being of the people.”

 The MRU CSO Platform is a network of land and environmental defenders across West Africa.

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For more information, contact: 0777463911/0886527541

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