Civil Liberty and Security Interest Collide in Liberia

(News Analysis)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

November 6, 2002

By sheer coincidence, President Charles Taylor told Muslim leaders in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, Monday, October 28, that Journalist Hassan Bility and other fellow Muslims locked up since last June by the government for allegedly supporting the dissident Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) would be released within 72 hours in deference to the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. Forty-eight hours earlier, Saturday, October 26, once jailed and severely flogged human rights lawyer Taiwan Gongloe urged exiled Liberians at a program in Baltimore, USA, to return home and contribute to the development of Liberia. By their very pronouncements, it seemed that President Taylor and Lawyer Gongloe unconsciously had a temporary meeting of the minds about peace, stability and development in Liberia. But that was sheer coincidence as the avowed interests of the two men--Taylor in national security, and Gongloe in civil liberties-- have since continued to collide.

Gongloe continued his crusade for respect of basic human rights and basic civil liberties in Liberia at a youth empowerment program in Philadelphia, USA November 2, while President Taylor and his NPP government, in the name of national security, have yet to release Hassan Bility et al, and have gone on a new offensive arresting Human Rights campaigner Aloysius Toe and scores of other human rights advocates in Monrovia. Aloysius Toe, like Hassan Bility, is being accused by the government of supporting the dissident LURD. The government said it found email during an October 29 search of Toe's home that linked him to LURD, in the same way the government said it had intercepted email exchanges between Bility and LURD executives that linked Bility to the dissidents. Bility, Editor of the Analyst, an independent newspaper critical of the government, was first declared by the government as "Illegal Combatant" but government later changed his status to "Prisoner of War (POW)" after an otherwise unannounced military trial.

Aloysius Toe was charged with treason before a magisterial court in Monrovia November 4, the very day he surrendered to government security forces nearly five days after he went into hiding October 29 in the aftermath of a government security raid on his home. Toe's wife, Vivian, along with human rights advocates Blamoh Sieh, Dempster Brown, and local human rights center Security Officer Peter Nicholson, arrested during a government's sweeps of human rights advocates content on holding a planned public solidarity march in support of the release of Journalist Bility et al but opposed by the government, were released without charge prior to Toe's surrender. Aloysius Toe is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing before the magisterial court today, November 6.

Amnesty International issued a press release November 4 accusing the government of targeting Toe "specifically... because of his persistent and legitimate work in the defense of human rights (in Liberia)" Amnesty called on the government to "immediately and unconditionally" drop all charges against Toe and release him. Just two days after the initial arrest of Toe's wife and the other human rights campaigners, the U.S.-based Union of Liberian Associations in the Americas (ULAA) issued a statement October 31 condemning what it called "a vicious cycle of violence and the culture of lawlessness" in Liberia, and called on President Taylor "to urgently create the conditions for genuine peace and security, national reconciliation and unification, good governance, and the rule of law as required by the Liberian constitution."

ULAA said "since the ascendancy of the Charles Taylor to the presidency of Liberia in July 1997, the people of Liberia have been subjected to the denial of basic freedoms (including) the freedom of association, assembly, movement, thought and conscience, expression, speech, press, and the right to due process of law as guaranteed by the Liberian constitution", and noted that "hundreds of ordinary citizens, student leaders, media personnel, democracy and human rights advocates, political opposition figures have and continued to face the torrent of physical intimidation, harassment, politically motivated disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial killings."

But ULAA made clear its desire for a peaceful pathway to the Liberian problem, and urged Liberians to bring pressure to bear on the dissident Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the government to cease their hostilities and negotiate a political settlement. But ULAA may be in for a great shock as fighting between government and dissident forces are said to be intensifying in Lofa County, with potential spill-over effects into neighboring Bong County.

With detention of Aloysius Toe and the treason charge hanging over his head, it would appear that the Taylor's government pledge to release Hassan Bility et all within 72 has been swept under the rug. The new talk in town is about Toe, not Bility, and the government has reason to rejoice at the success of its political manipulations. It remains to be seen whether Toe will enjoy the same vigorous campaign he launched in favor of the release of Bility et al, now that the other local human rights campaigners have been somehow roughed up the by the government. Or perhaps Toe will have to wait for his turn of Ramadan gesture, even if unfulfilled as in the case of Bility. Only time will tell, but the political saga is only too real for the continuing collision of civil liberties and security interests in Liberia.

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