Gongloe Breaks Silence on his Detention and Human Rights in Liberia

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

October 4, 2002

Cllr. Tiawan Saye Gongloe
A Liberian Human Rights Lawyer, Tiawan Saye Gongloe was detained by police officers on the evening of April 24, 2002 and held without warrant or charge in Monrovia. As a result of beatings during the night, he had to be carried out of the cell the next morning and taken to the S.D.A hospital. At the hospital, government intensified security while Gongloe was being treated for injuries sustained during the night in detention at the headquarters of the Liberian National Police. Gongloe has been out of Liberia and is presently in the USA for further medical treatment.

To get a clearer understanding of what really happened in prison that night, the prevailing human rights situation and prospects for 2003 elections in Liberia, Musue Noha Haddad spoke to Tiawan Saye Gongloe. Below is excerpt.

Musue Noha Haddad: Security officers of the Liberian government detained you for one night- April 24th. In detention you were mercilessly beaten and had to be taken to the SDA hospital where you were on the critical list for almost a week. Are you fully recovered from the injuries sustained from that detention?

Tiawan S. Gongloe: No. Even though, I received medical treatments in Liberia and Ghana, I still feel pain in my back and my right knee. This is the main reason that I am here in the United States.

Through the help of my friends in the human rights community, I was able to travel to this country for the purpose of getting a thorough medical examination. Already, the Physicians for Human Rights have made an appointment through the efforts of Binaifer Nowrogee of the Human Rights Watch, for me to see a doctor in Philadelphia.

You have handled cases for several persons; some were arbitrarily detained, tortured and never charged. You were also never charged. The world is anxious to hear your story. What really happened in prison that night?

I think I should just tell the story of what happened to me on April 24, 2002. At mid-morning on that day, I drove my wife to the Roberts International Airport to get on Ghana Airways for Accra, Ghana.

I returned to Monrovia at 3pm and went to my house in Chugbor, Sinkor, and Old Road, the same day. I then decided to go to my office.

While on my way from the house I met one Major Nathaniel Dolo commonly referred to as "Dolo Mark" of the Criminal Investigation Division of the Liberia National Police. He was waiting opposite a police station located in an abandoned building formerly used by the Liberia Institute of Public Administration. Major Nathaniel Dolo asked me to go with him to his office at the National Headquarters of the Liberia National Police to make some clarifications that he needed from me. I asked him to explain to me the nature of the clarification he needed and on what matter. But he refused and maintained that I will get to know when I get to his office. I asked him whether I was under arrest and he told me " No".

I then told him that I would see him in his office in 30 minutes after I visited my office but he insisted that I go with him. I said since I was not under arrest and I had not violated the law I would first go to my office before going to his. At that point he announced to me that I was under arrest. I followed him to his office.

At his office, the Maj. asked me one question: "Counselor, What did you say in Guinea?"

I said to him, "Sir I delivered a six page paper in Guinea at the conference of the Civil Society Movement of the Mano River Union. I cannot recite what I wrote. Since my presentation was published by the Analyst Newspaper, you can find a copy, read it and if you have a question on any portion, we can discuss that portion".

He told me "I will do that but I will detain you first." When I asked him on what charge, he said "we will find the charge later". I was then detained.

At 10:30pm three security officers who were placed in the cell on the same day that I was detained were called up to the office of Saa Gbollie, the Deputy Director of Police for operations. According to them, they were detained because they were falsely accused of theft. When they returned from Saa Gbollie's office they became aggressive towards me. They angrily told me to undress myself and I did.

I was ordered to squat and stand up at an unending rhythm two thousand times (in local Liberian parlance, it is called pumping tire). I was also physically abused in other manners, including fist punches in diverse parts of my body that left me with a bruised left eye, right ear and inflamed kidneys.

After that one night in detention, I urinated with black blood continuously for a week. This is in short what happened to me on April 24, 2002.

During the hours of torture in police cell, what was running through your mind?

The possibility of my death was the first thought that crossed my mind when I was arrested; therefore, when my torturers started to carry out their orders, I felt, like many innocent Liberians who had gone before me, that my hour had arrived.

I was helpless and hopeless at that moment as it was during the middle of the night. I started to reflect on the situation of many innocent Liberians who were killed during the early part of the Liberian civil war. I also thought of some of the prominent Liberians who were also killed during the war, including Jackson F. Doe, D. Gborboe Dwayen, David Toweh, Stephen Daniels, Alfred Flomo, G. Moses Duopu and Lewis Bailey. My mind drifted to Samuel Dokie and some members of his family who were killed in November 1997, three months after President Charles Taylor's inaugural ceremony.

I also reflected on the late grassroots politician Gabriel Kpolleh and well-known student leaders, Tonia Richardson, Wuo Garbbie Tappia, Wewe Debbah and thousands of other innocent Liberians who were deliberately killed by some cruel Liberians for no justifiable reason. I remembered how former Interim President, Dr. Amos C. Sawyer and Mr. Conmany Wesseh were nearly killed at late morning hours in Monrovia in the year 2000 by over seventy- five men believed to be members of the security forces of the Government of Liberia.

I, therefore, had no doubt that my end had come. But I was not afraid because I had done nothing to warrant my death and to bring shame upon my family. I regretted that I was leaving a young family behind without a provider, but took solace in the fact that God would provide for them. As a catholic I started to recite the rosary and the prayer for forgiveness.

Many who saw you after the one night in detention said you were "lifeless." How then did you reach the hospital?

I was taken to hospital in an ambulance upon the insistence of many of my colleagues of the Liberia National Bar Association and scores of my clients who had thronged the vicinity of the headquarters of the Liberia Police where I was detained.

The situation was that the police started to question me about various aspects of the speech that I delivered in Guinea, although, I was brought (bodily) from the police cell to the investigation room on the back of one of my colleagues, Cllr. James Zotaa, because I could not walk. This attitude of the police caused my colleagues to remind the officer in charge of the investigation, Col. John Yelegon, that the proper and first thing to do, given my condition, was to take me to a hospital.

You have been out of the country for about two months. How do you see the response of Liberians outside, especially, opposition contenders on the detention of Hassan Bility and other human rights abuses in Liberia?

Musue, except for a very few of them, the response of those who have declared their intentions to contest for the presidency of Liberia to the detention of Hassan Bility, a leading critical Liberian journalist, and to the generally poor human rights situation in Liberia is very disappointing and disheartening.

Either those contenders are playing it safe or they are not aware that the main issue of interest to every Liberian today, particularly, those who currently live in Liberia, is the issue of the lack of respect for human rights. In fact by being silent on the question of the massive violation of human rights in Liberia, some of our contenders for power make us suspicious of their motives for seeking the presidency of Liberia. Perhaps they too intend to violate our rights when we give them power.

I was disappointed, for example, for the way some of the opposition politicians viewed my recent arrest by the government.

Following my release and the government's statement that I would be charged, a group of politicians at a meeting with the President at the mansion appealed to the president for forgiveness, as if I had done something wrong. Instead of appealing, serious politicians who try to study facts and the legal framework within wish they intend to govern would have questioned the president to explain to them the reason for my arrest. Only one politician in that meeting attempted to do so. This kind of behavior on the part of our contenders for power is worrying. They should not be afraid to raise sticky issues.

The government has indicated that it will release Hassan Bility as a sign of its commitment to the peace process. You were detained, tortured and up to this point never charged. Hassan Bility has been in an unknown detention center for almost three months without charge. There are also several other persons who have been taken without warrant or charge. Are Liberians to rejoice because government released you and says it will release Hassan Bility? Politically and legally, how do you view government's action?

No, I do not think that people should rejoice at all. People normally rejoice for something good as when a dear one goes through a difficult surgery, or survives a terrible accident or when a person facing a death penalty as result of a fair trial is pardoned.

These examples are in sharp contrast to situations where individuals are arbitrarily arrested, mistreated by government and released. Instead of rejoicing the Liberian people should be demanding answers from their government for these glaring abuses.

The government of Liberia is operating upon an oath taken by its functionaries to govern the country in accordance with the law written by the people themselves, the constitution of Liberia. The violation of the rights of the individual is a violation of the constitution; therefore, it cannot be a reason for jubilation. The Government of Liberia's continuous arbitrary arrest of individuals is a violation of the constitution of Liberia.

For me this is a matter on which the Liberian people should unite, irrespective of their political affiliations, because even some officials of the current government including legislators, ministers, amongst others, who believed that they were insulated from human rights abuse, fled Liberia and are now residing in the United States for fear of persecution. Interestingly, almost all of these exiled officials are members of the ruling National Patriotic Party, with some of them being friends of the president and others sharing blood relationship with him.

These are people who referred to human rights advocates in Liberia as troublemakers when they were enjoying good relations with the president of Liberia. As my friend, Mohamedu F. Jones, said at the program marking our admission to the Liberian bar as attorneys-at-law in 1988," the violation of the rights of one person is the beginning of the violation of the rights of all", therefore, people should not wait until their rights are abused before they can act.

Finally, as I have always said I believe that no nation can prosper if it departs from the dream upon which it was established. The dream upon which Liberia was established is that it would be a land where each person's dignity as a human being would be respected. The realization of this noble dream is what all Liberians should unite to achieve. Therefore, Liberians should stand up together against human rights abuse in Liberia.

National and international groups have described the human rights situation in Liberia as grim. Individuals who have fled and those in the country have said there is a general state of 'Terror.' What is your view?

I agree with that conclusion. The combined activities of the LURD rebels and government security personnel have placed the Liberian people in a state of terror.

In a situation where anyone perceived as an enemy of the state can be arrested without a warrant, detained, mistreated and discharged, if fortunate, like me or declared "unlawful combatant" (a charge that does not exist under the penal law of Liberia) not entitled to the protection of the Constitution of Liberia, as in the case of journalist Hassan Bility, or even found dead as in the case Samuel Dokie, his wife and relatives, if unfortunate, there is bound to be a general atmosphere of fear.

In this respect, Liberia has been in a state of emergency for a long time and continues to be, despite the formal announcement of its imposition and lifting by the Government of Liberia. For example, it is meaningless to me that the Government of Liberia has lifted the state of emergency, given the fact that Hassan Bility and others arrested under the said state of emergency are still in detention. In other words, there is nothing for Liberians to celebrate about.

How can you describe the current state of justice system with respect to human rights in Liberia?

Bad. There is no respect for human rights and the rule of law by the government of Liberia. The situation has degenerated to the extent that the government does not obey the writ of habeas corpus anymore, as in the case of journalist Hassan Bility and others, where several writs of habeas corpus have been disobeyed without any legal justification. The court has been made weak and virtually irrevellent as tribunal for peaceful resolution of disputes and for the protection of human rights by the government of Liberia. Where there is an attempt to do justice it becomes selective if it involves someone connected to the center of power as in the case of Bedell Fahn, a deputy minister of labor who was charged with murder along with others and found guilty but only sentenced to ten months imprisonment, while the others were sentenced to life imprisonment, inconsistent with what the Liberian law provides. Under the law of Liberia the punishment for murder is death by hanging. I am opposed to death penalty but this is the law. And the president may commute a death sentence but the proper sentence must be pronounced.

There is also the case of the President's brother-in-law who, a few years ago, killed a taxi driver for over-taking his car. Henri Cassell, the President's brother-in-law, who was also deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Immigration and Nationalization, stopped the taxi driver to question him for over-taking his car. The taxi driver upon realizing that he had offended a person with close ties to the center of power in Liberia, knelt down before Mr. Cassell and cried for mercy, but that did not help him. Mr. Cassell shot the driver in the head while he was still kneeling before him. Mr. Cassell was tried and found guilty, but he was sentenced to life imprisonment instead of death, as required by the Liberian law on murder.

You have been in Liberia throughout especially since the 1997 election where Charles Taylor was declared President. Generally, what's your analysis of the conduct of the various security and military agencies under the administration of the present government?

Generally the security agencies are professionally poor in the performance of their duties. Except for the National Security Agency and the Bureau of National Investigation who are headed by individuals, who in some cases tend to demonstrate respect for the rule of law, the police and other security agencies arrest individuals without informing them of charges against them and employ brutalities in the process of investigation. Recorded human rights abuses in Liberia are, generally traceable to the security agencies.

Lets focus on next year's presidential and parliamentary elections. Would you mind describing government's commitment towards elections 2003?

Yes, I will want to dwell a bit on the issue of elections as regards this government's commitment to the holding of elections next year.

Even if the LURD rebellion were to end today, I am not convinced that the NPP government is prepared to hold elections next year. I am saying this against the background that the 1997 general and presidential elections remain incomplete. Local elections have been held in only three of the thirteen counties that existed at the time of elections, namely, Nimba, Bassa and Margibi counties.

In view of the fact that the current government has created two more counties, there are twelve counties in which local elections have not been held. The government's excuse is that it has no money to conduct elections for mayors and chiefs. Therefore, the president has found it convenient to appoint people to these vacant electoral seats. Even the mayor of Monrovia was appointed by the President. If the government of Liberia has no money to conduct local government elections, will it have money to conduct presidential election?

The truth is that if the government truly wants local government elections it will find the money to conduct local government elections as it is finding money for security. But, in my view, the government prefers to appoint local government officials because these appointments are based upon high degree of loyalty to the NPP or the President.

With a situation like this the ruling party can rest assured that things are under control in the rural areas. This means that there is not much space for opposition political activities in the rural areas. Yet, the opposition is not raising the issue of government's failure to hold election for local authorities, the ones in charge of public buildings and facilities that are suitable for political rallies. I think the opposition needs to pay more attention to this issue and other issues that relate to creating an appropriate environment for the holding of elections. Without paying attention to creating a level playing field they should know that their participation in any presidential election will be an effort at extending the rule of the NPP.

I also believe that all Liberians should make all efforts at ending the current war in Liberia. Our recent experience as a people has shown that war is not good and is not a suitable means of ensuring peace, happiness and security for all. Those who seek power by the use of arms will use force of arms to govern. The Liberian people should know this by now.

The use of force may be an appropriate avenue for revenge and expression of anger, but it is certainly not an acceptable way to settle a national political problem such as ours in Liberia. War, at first thought, is always is emotionally perceived as a shortcut to dealing with a bad government, but experience in Liberia has shown that this is an illusion. Therefore, as I have repeatedly said before in Liberia, the best way forward is for the Liberian people to stand up together for their rights. There are many ways for the Liberian people to change the situation in Liberia without war. The key to successful non-violent action, however, is collective resolve.

Is there an environment for the right to freedom of expression or political campaign especially criticism of policies of the present leadership?

The answer is no, Musue.

Why do you think I was detained and tortured by government without any charge? It was for a speech that I made in Conakry, Guinea, which the Government of Liberia did not like. Hassan Bility is in detention because the Government of Liberia is unhappy with what and how he writes.

If the Government can respond to our exercise of freedom of expression in this way then anyone should be able to predict what will happen to Liberians who intend to contest for the presidency of Liberia.

Let's get away from Monrovia, where the government is seated, to the rural area. Is it a secure thing to engage in political campaign in the rural areas?

It is secure only for the ruling National Patriotic Party, but certainly not for the opposition parties.

Think about it! If security agents of government with impunity can arbitrarily arrest lawyers, human rights advocates and journalists in Monrovia, the seat of government, what do you think will occur in the rural areas of Liberia to opposition candidates? I am not putting fear in opposition candidates. I just think it is good for them to know the security environment in the country so that they can fully be aware of the task before them.

If the current situation of terror continues, the result of any election will be in favor of the ruling National Patriotic Party.

The environment in Liberia currently is not appropriate for the holding of free and fair elections. Something has to be done about providing equal security protection for all voters and candidates and something must be done about the composition of the elections commission.

Thank you for your time,Tiawan Gongloe.

Thanks a lot, Musue.

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