(A Commentary by Bill K. Jarkloh)
The observations of the delegation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights which has ended a two-week visit to Liberia with a call on the government to address the question of speedy trial of accused are not only legitimate, they are really inevitable in their entirety. Amongst its observations, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights delegation pointed to the congestion of the Monrovia Prison while prisons of the other counties are almost empty. Besides, the Commission would not suggest speedy trial if it has observed that the overcrowdedness of the Monrovia Prison borders on delay in cases. During its departure press conference at the Royal Hotel, the delegation said it observes poor and humiliation condition of the prisons especially in Monrovia, including congestion of inmates and filthiness at the prisons.
In its position to the press, the delegation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights a called on the government to address the question of speedy trial of accused. Apparently the African Union Commission on rights and justice issues have seen miscarriage of justice in Liberia. At a departure conference held at the Royal Hotel, the a member of the delegation of the African Commission was categorical in pointing out the deplorable and humiliating conditions of the prisons they visited, especially the Monrovia Central Prison otherwise known as South Beach. After a week-long assessment of prison conditions and visitations and meetings with relevant Liberian officials, a Commissioner on the delegation who is also a rapporteur, Mr. Mumba Malila said the conditions of prisons are ‘terrible’ and need serious attention.
Liberian prisons below standards
The commissioner who spoke to journalists on Saturday said in confirmation to observation made earlier by the Chairperson of the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, Justice Sanji Mnasenong Monageng, that during their visit to Liberia’s prison facilities in Monrovia, Margibi (Kakata) and Grand Gedeh, most of the prison centers visited are filthy and put the health of inmates at risk. Mr. Malila further noted that the delegation observed the inmates have no access to medication and trade, calling on the government to give the criminal justice system attention if Liberia must move forward amongst civilized nations
Mr. Malila indicated to journalists that the Monrovia Central Prison in particular is congested with inmates, and noted that the facilities are poorly handle. This assessment is true. Our own assessment of the prison situation is such that condition at the Monrovia central Prison is not of standard. A visit at the South Beach, as the Central Prison is called, would provide the observation that bulgur wheat and cornmeal (dust) are supplied with vegetable oil. But the service of these food items are in appropriate and condition to which detainees and prisoners are subjected are inhumane. Besides the filths in the prison cells, feeding in not much. For instance at least three cook spoons of cornmeal dust is supplied for each morning after 10 hours GMT and that by 14 hrs to 15 hrs, a plate of bulgur wheat with vegetable oil sprinkled over it served. Even at this the plates and condition of service of this food is not hygienic.
The Temple of Justice Building: This is the Headquarters of the Liberian Judiciary on the Capitol Hill in Central Monrovia. Can justice be found here?
Besides, there is less attention paid to inmates most of whom are mere detainees accused without the slightest opportunity to court hearings; who have also overstayed due to negligence on the part of the court system. The room provided for health attention and services to inmate is not even opened often for service; if it does, it is not on time while inmates to a larger extent are denied treatment in spite of complaint of poor health. On a whole, the facility itself lacks basic medical supplies including medicine and drugs.
One inmate told me that prison authorities are doing this because of pecuniary gains made from government coffers for burial expenses of deceased inmates, which the inmates suspected are pocketed by the prison authorities.
The AU commissioner also said the delegation has observed that most of the prison centers visited are filthy and put the health of inmates at risk. Mr. Malila further noted that the delegation observed the inmates have no access to medication and trade, calling on the government to give the criminal justice system attention if Liberia must move forward amongst civilized nations.
The Commission’s Chairperson, Justice Sanji Mnasenong Monageng who headed the delegation to Liberia was the first to speak. She, in principle agrees with Malila. She said also spoke of overcrowdedness of the Monrovia Central Prison whereas prisons in other parts of the country are virtually empty. Justice Monageng explained that the visit to Liberia was overdue since 2006 because of breaches in communication, adding that they are thankful that have finally come and assessed the Liberian justice system.
During the visit, she said, they met with the President of Liberia, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of Justice and the Chief Justice of Liberia. She also said the delegation have visited other areas including correction centers (prison facilities). Commenting on their visits to correctional facilities around Liberia, the Justice said: “One thing that cannot escape our attention and comment is the prison facility in Grand Gedeh. It is a facility that meets acceptable standards established internationally and by the African Commission on Human and People’s Right.” This Grand Gedean Center for Correction has been completed sometime ago now, and we have been hearing that they would transfer convicts there. But this seems to be a matter of lip-service.
According to Justice Monageng, the visit of the delegation give them the general impression that the Liberian Government is doing, well, but added that a lot more needs to be done to ensure justice in the country. She told reporters in an answer to a question of against the backdrop of vercrowdedness of the Monrovia central Prison that what need to be done is to ensure the Courts periodic review their dockets or registry of cases to ensure that those accused are given speedy trial.
“Besides, the need for an improved magistracy should not be over emphasized if there should be proper carriage of justice in the criminal justice system” she said. According to her, both the indigent and the affluent people need justice equally; this is why justice should be at the disposal of all no matter the class or status of litigants.
The Photo above is that of some Liberians who gathered at the Temple Justice ground in search for justice. Justice for them is dependent on improved magistracy and a developed and impartial criminal justice system.
The delegation could not address reporter’s questions entirely because of concern that they would be preempting their formal report by so doing. However, the Justice said the delegation’s report would detail their observations and make recommendation, saying that the Liberia justice system has improved than before on the overall note. On the question of death penalty, she expressed the need for countries to abolish death penalty law. But she added that it is not automatic because it hinges on the question of constitutions. She said constitutions of some countries provide for death penalty.
The head and chairperson of the Commission, Justice Monageng mentioned that the delegation’s visit to Liberia demonstrates the Commission’s readiness to work with this country, which has already ratified the African Charter on the Abolishment of Torture. This statement should have greater meaning than it could ordinarily be comprehended, for torture should not only be construed as the physical violence exerted on individuals neither should it be view only from the stand point of the tormenting of individuals by security forces. But torture should also be looked at from the mental anguish or agony caused people who were taken to court or had gone to court in search for either freedom (justice), but were denied justice because of connection, class or affluence.
It is my observation that many a time, people take cases to court because they want someone tortured psychologically behind bars. On these occasions, the complainants go to court and moved the court to issue arrest warrants on the accused with one motive of seeing the defendant languish behind bars – to see the accused psychologically tortured while behind bars.
As soon as these warrants are out and the accused are apprehended, the case will never again be heard and the victim of falsehood and treachery will at that behind bars in perpetuity. As though the court and or prosecutors enjoy send people to jail innocently, they will never assign the case or call attention of complainant to the case, or will make no move to adjudicate the case to establish guilt or innocence.
The result is that people run to the court not because they have matters to look into, but because they want someone detained. Conclusively, this kind of judicial system is trading justice for money and/or status of affluence or connection in society. This to is our observation which is supportive and in line with observation made by the visiting African Commission of Human and Peoples’ Rights.
In these circumstances, we solely agree with the delegation on a question f overcrowdedness of the Monrovia Central Prison, especially so when the delegation suggests Courts’ periodic review of their dockets or case files to ensure that those accused are given speedy trial. We also agree with Commission on the need for an improved magistracy for proper carriage of justice in the criminal justice system, where in both the indigent and the affluent people are in before the law in a way, manner and form that justice will be at the disposal of all no matter their class or status.
While I remain unaware of how the Commission would structure its formal report on Liberia’s court system, we are hopeful that the visit of the delegation to Liberia will bring hope of free, fair and speedy trial to the justice-hungered people of Liberia. We are equally advising the government to move the courts to reduce the congestion which is already exposed to this regional body. Liberians should not be carried by the surface praise of the government by the Commission when commission’s chairperson and head of delegation said the general impression of the delegation is an indication that the Liberian Government is doing. The underlying attachment in which the Justice said “… a lot more needs to be done to ensure justice in the country,” should become the overriding statement that move the government to address the congestion problem by calling the cases of those who are packed into cells of the Monrovia central prison like sardines.
I therefore entreat the courts, especially the magistrates and the city solicitors to be judicially prudent, ensure the periodic review case files, remind private prosecutors of their responsibility to prove their cases as speedily as possible or to set free those accused without proof. This kind of practice will definitely reduce the prison congestion that was detected by the visiting delegation of the regional body – the African Commission on Human & People’s Rights. It will also deter people running to court without proof or to settle scores with people they are opposed to for no genuine reason.
It will further boost the Ellen Sirleaf administration’s desire for real reform which will not be achieve in a kingdom of jungle justice or commercial justice. All we are saying is: Please heed the suggestions by the African Commission on Human & People’s Rights and restore transparent justice to Liberians.