Liberians Brace for More Rights Violations
As GOL Extends State of Emergency to Private Home Searches
May 16, 2002
The government of Liberia (GOL) has extended the country’s state of emergency to include private home searches by the notorious Anti-Terrorist Unit (ATU) and other state security apparatus in the wake of reported military gains last week by the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), over-running Gbarnga, the political capital of president Charles Taylor’s erstwhile NPFL rebel group that masterminded the invasion of Liberia on December 24, 1989 to start a seven-year civil war leading to the assassination of President Samuel K. Doe and the subsequent election of Taylor as president of Liberia.
But the state of emergency, first declared on February 8, 2002, by President Taylor in the aftermath of several waves of attacks by LURD near the Liberian capital, Monrovia, has been marked by controversies regarding the government’s handling of political opponents, civil and human rights advocates, and press freedom, along with recorded abuses and rights violations by the state security apparatus against ordinary Liberians. And by extending the state of emergency to cover the entries and searches of private homes, it is no telling to what extent the government may be willing to go to cow voices of dissent or apprehend perceived rebel sympathizers.
"The war situation for which the condition (state of emergency) was imposed has not diminished. Instead ... rebels have stepped up their attacks on major towns across the country, “ the Associated Press quoted Information Minister Reginald Goodridge on May 11, after the Liberian legislature extended the state of emergency by six months, though it is not clear when the original state of emergency was to elapse.
But as Goodridge was justifying extension of the state of emergency, Defense Minister Daniel Chea was giving conflicting assessments of the war between rebel and government forces. At one point he said the rebels were well-equipped and inflicted serious injuries on government troops but no casualties, and at another point he said Gbarnga was “no man’s land” but acknowledged intensified fighting between government and rebel forces on a highway north of Gbarnga.
LURD, on the other hand, claimed in a press statement issued on May 12 that it had total control of Gbarnga, and dismissed the government’s claim that Gbarnga was a “no man’s land”. “News report by the Monrovia NPFL /NPP rebel regime of Charles Taylor that Gbarnga is no man's land is untrue and misleading. LURD's forces are in full control of Gbarnga and surrounding towns in Bong County, central Liberia. We are now pursuing Taylor's ATU rebel soldiers and foreign mercenaries at the notorious Gbatala sub terrorist base in upper Bong County towards Monrovia,” the LURD statement said.
“Meanwhile, our Executive Marines troop is advancing heavily on the Liberian capital Monrovia by way of Klay, in Bomi County. Suehn district, Klay and nearby towns are under LURD's control. At the moment, Po River, a few miles from Brewerville, an outskirt of Monrovia is under serious military attack. We are capable of over running Monrovia, but our defense staff is analyzing possible means in getting Taylor while reducing civilian casualties in Monrovia. Taylor's forces are on the run and at the same time committing atrocities against the civilian population. We condemn this behavior and call on the international community to ask Taylor and his bandits to stop same. We also appeal for humanitarian assistance for civilians in all parts of the country,” LURD also said in its press statement.
But in a national address to the Liberian people May 9, President Taylor acknowledged the rebels attacks on Gbarnga, but vowed that government troops will fight to the last man in order to repel the rebels advances. Government forces in combat have not shown any sign of defeat. They are anxious to fight to the very last person so that anyone wanting power in Liberia will use the democratic process," Taylor said.
"Like Kakata, I can assure the Liberian people that Gbarnga, through the grace of God, will be cleared,” the president said, and indicated that he was coordinating with the commanders of government forces at the front lines in Gbarnga to ensure that "those that entered Gbarnga should not return." Taylor said government forces were still in control of Gorlu, Konia and other towns in Lofa County but said the “peculiar nature” of the war terrain permitted LURD forces to “ manage to come in and do things, when most Government forces are at the forward positions .in action in the interest of the Liberian nation.”
The president’s address was also tempered with defiance of bravado and a resolve by his government to clampdown on political opponents and perceived rebel sympathizers. "The enemy does not have the capacity to defeat this Government. Everything is being done diplomatically and politically by some very powerful states to deny this government the right of self defense and continue the murder and mayhem of the Liberian people," Taylor said alluding to a government theory of foreign conspiracy to unseat it.
"There is no way this Government can begin any discussions under the gun. Those that are fighting in Liberia are fighting illegally, they entered this country illegally and they must come to the peace conference to resolve their differences," the president frantically said, and warned his political opponents that “over the last several days or weeks individual Liberians that government knows are involved with the war, have traveled in and out of Monrovia, and that Government has maintained its policy of reconciliation and dialogue, and those individuals that are interested in peace must come to Monrovia. ...The Liberian people must know, each day of this war the formula changes, each day of the war a lot of things will change . . . We must bring to an end this cycle of violence."
But in spite of efforts by both the government and the rebels to present a public image as the good guys, the human catastrophe of the war is rapidly escalating. The United Nations Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN) reported May 10 that at least 40,000 people have been displaced in Liberia by the latest fighting between government troops and rebels in central Bong County. (The Liberian defense ministry estimated the displaced at 60,000 people)
IRIN quoting humanitarian sources in Monrovia said more displacement was expected as the fighting intensified around Gbarnga, 160 km north of Monrovia, and that the majority of the displaced were moving south to Margibi County, and a few north to Nimba County. “ The agency also quoted news agency reports as saying by Friday the fighting had reportedly spread to several areas on the outskirts of Gbarnga, while a government military camp housing the engineering and artillery base was overrun by the rebels. At least 900 students and teachers from Cuttington University College, the second largest University in Liberia, were evacuated by a police convoy to Monrovia on Tuesday", IRIN said.
Also, Human Rights Watch, in a 23-page report issued May 1, and titled "Back to the Brink: War Crimes by Liberian Government and Rebels, A Call for Greater International Attention to Liberia and the Sub Region" in support of continued U.N. sanctions on Liberia said there was compelling evidence that Liberian government forces fighting against the LURD were committing war crimes and other serious human rights abuses against civilians in the northwest of the country.
"Liberian civilians are once again bearing the brunt of a brutal war," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Africa division. "If the international community does not prevent further bloodshed, Liberia's war will destabilize the wider region."
“The Liberian army and government militias have executed scores of civilians, including dozens whom they confined to houses and later burned to death. They have also carried out widespread rape of women and girls, some as young as twelve, and systematically looted and burned villages.
“Hundreds of men and some boys have been forcibly conscripted and sent to the battlefront in an arbitrary manner, often without proper training. LURD forces, which first attacked in July 2000, have also carried out serious abuses, although to a lesser extent, including summary executions of alleged government collaborators, rape, and forced recruitment, including of children” the Human Rights Watch report said.
In the meantime, the Liberian government of President Charles Taylor has continued its assault on human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe as a prelude that the government will not take kindly criticisms by opposition politicians and civil rights leaders in the country for any potential rights violations under the state of emergency. Latest reports from Monrovia say Tiawan Gongloe was arrested by Liberian Immigration authorities at the Roberts International Airport (RIA) Sunday afternoon while enroute to Sierra Leone as a member of the Carter Foundation Elections Observer Team, to observe the Sierra Leonean national elections.
The reports said Lawyer Gongloe completed departure formality at the Airport, including payment of the $10 airport tax before being approached by two immigration officers who informed him that he was not permitted to leave Liberia. Mr. Gongloe was reportedly taken to the National Security Agency (NSA) in Monrovia for questioning, detained and later released after the intervention of Archbishop Francis.
Recently, Lawyer Gongloe was arrested and detained at the police station in Monrovia upon his return from Guinea where he gave a speech that the government deemed to be offensive. He was beaten and tortured in prison and had to be hospitalized. He was later released into the custody of. Catholic Archbishop Michael Francis as the government threatened to formally charge him, though the government failed to appear in court twice to respond to the writ of habeas corpus filed earlier in favor of Mr. Gongloe.
In the meantime, the This Day newspaper in Nigeria reported that African Bar Association (ABA) at the weekend condemned the spate of repression in Liberia in which citizens were indiscriminately arrested and maltreated in police stations. The bar specifically complained over the April 24 arrest of a Monrovia based lawyer, Mr. Tiawan Gongloe, by a police team led by Mr. Mark Dolo, the paper said.
In the statement issued by the secretary-general, Mr. Femi Falana the ABA alleged that Gongloe was brutalized in detention on the orders of Mr. Saah Gbollie, the deputy director of police for operations. "Mr. Gongloe was stripped naked and severely beaten by 3 armed security agents on the orders of Mr. Saah Gbollie, the deputy director of police for operations. The next day Mr. Gongloe who could hardly walk was carried to the S.D.A. Cooper Clinic at Sinkor, Monrovia with a blooded face, a bleeding right eye and an injured ear"
The ABA said while it awaits the charges to be preferred against the human rights lawyer, it suspected that his arrest was as a result of a speech he delivered at a conference in neighboring Guinea on Democracy and Peace in the Mano River Union, and added that the Liberian government has also carried out its threat to close down any media house that publishes news stories on the treatment meted out to Gongloe by closing down a newspaper called "The Analyst" for Publishing the text of Gongloe’s controversial speech.
“The Director of Police, Mr. Paul Mulbah had defended the clampdown on The Analyst which was characterized as being pro-opposition” This Day reported. It also cited the arrest and detention October 2001 of Messrs. Emmanuel Wurah and Marcus Jones, the national president and vice president respectively of the Montserrado County chapter of the Liberia Bar Association (LBA) at the Monrovia Central Prison several weeks as part of the gross violations of human rights., as well as similar arrest and detention of Mr. Francis Johnson Morris, Executive Director of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission and former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia was arrested by the police and detained without trial.