Author: BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR
Site of publication: U.S Department of State
Type of publication: Report
Date of publication: 2020
Liberia is a constitutional republic with a bicameral national assembly and a democratically elected government. The country held presidential and legislative elections in 2017, which domestic and international observers deemed generally free and fair. In December the country held midterm senatorial elections which observers deemed largely peaceful, although there were some reported instances of vote tampering, intimidation, harassment of female candidates, and election violence. Opposition candidates won 11 of the 15 Senate seats contested, according to election results announced by the National Election Commission on December 21. The Liberia National Police maintain internal security, with assistance from the Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency and other civilian security forces. The Armed Forces of Liberia are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities if called upon. The Liberia National Police and Liberia Drug Enforcement Agency report to the Ministry of Justice, while the Armed Forces of Liberia report to the Ministry of National Defense. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses. Significant human rights issues included: arbitrary killings by police; cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police; harsh and life threatening prison conditions; arbitrary detention by government officials; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on freedom of the press, including violence and threats of violence against journalists; official corruption; lack of investigation and accountability for violence against women; the existence or use of laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults; and the worst forms of child labor. Impunity for individuals who committed human rights abuses, including atrocities, during the Liberian civil wars that ended in 2003, remained a serious problem, although the government cooperated with war crimes investigations in third countries. The government made intermittent but limited attempts to investigate and prosecute officials accused of current abuses, whether in the security forces or elsewhere in the government.
Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were occasional reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On January 26, bodyguards of President George Weah assaulted Zenu Koboi Miller, a local broadcast journalist, as he was leaving the Samuel Kanyon Doe Sport Stadium in Monrovia. On January 27, the case was highlighted in a statement by the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), an independent organization for media professionals, and later by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Miller wrote in a Facebook post that he had seen a doctor and was suffering from pains in his legs and chest after the “brutal attack.” Miller filed a complaint with the PUL, which met with police leadership on January 30 and called for a transparent investigation, according to a PUL statement. Miller died in a local hospital on February 15, after complaining of numbness in his left arm and legs, according to local news reports. While a direct link between the assault and death was never established, since an autopsy was not conducted, the family issued a statement saying Miller had died of hypertension and stroke. On March 8, off-duty Liberia National Police (LNP) Sergeant Sensee Kowo, who was also the deputy commander of LNP Ganta City Detachment in Nimba County, allegedly flogged and choked 18-year-old motorcyclist Samuel Selleh after an argument; Selleh died shortly thereafter. Authorities fired Kowo and opened an investigation into the death. One account of the events suggested Selleh died as a result of stones thrown by friends who came to his defense. Sergeant Kowo (who originally fled the scene) was arrested and charged with murder. At the first hearing of the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court in Sanniquellie, Nimba County, during the August Term of Court, the former sergeant’s plea for a change of venue was granted, and the case was pending transfer to Grand Bassa County at year’s end. In June the Civilian Complaints Review Board, an independent body mandated by law to investigate police acts of violence against innocent persons, began an investigation into circumstances that resulted in the death of a three-year-old child, Francis Mensah, in the Township of West Point. The child died on April 20, reportedly as a result of an injury he sustained after six LNP officers allegedly kicked over a pot of hot water that fell on him. According to a press release issued by the review board chairman, Councilor Tiawan Gongloe, the officers were suspended.
In December the country held midterm senatorial elections which observers deemed largely peaceful, although there were some reported instances of vote tampering, intimidation, harassment of female candidates, and election violence
Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices; however, there were reports that government authorities allegedly abused, harassed, and intimidated persons in custody as well as those seeking protection. On April 23, Mohammed Komara, a man reportedly suffering from mental illness, breached the perimeter of the president’s private residence in Paynesville, outside Monrovia. LNP officers and agents of the Executive Protection Service kicked and used sticks to prod the individual while he lay prostrate, shirtless, and handcuffed, according to a widely circulated video of the incident. The Office of the President announced the launch of an investigation into the case. Impunity was a problem in the security forces. Police and other security officers allegedly abused, harassed, and intimidated persons in police custody, as well as those seeking police protection. The penal code provides criminal penalties for excessive use of force by law enforcement officers and addresses permissible uses of force during arrest or while preventing the escape of a prisoner from custody. An armed forces disciplinary board investigates alleged misconduct and abuses by military personnel. The armed forces administer nonjudicial punishment. As of August the disciplinary board had three active cases. In accordance with a memorandum of understanding between the Ministries of Justice and Defense, the armed forces refer capital cases to the civil court system for adjudication.
Prison and Detention Center
Conditions Prison conditions were at times harsh and life threatening due to food shortages, gross overcrowding, inadequate sanitary conditions, and poor medical care. Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding continued to be a problem. The Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported the prison population in the country’s facilities was almost twice the planned capacity. Approximately one-half of the country’s 2,572 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison, which was originally built for 374 detainees but as of December held 1,230. The local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Prison Fellowship Liberia reported that overcrowding in Block D of the Monrovia Central Prison required prisoners to sleep in shifts. The majority of juveniles were in pretrial detention. Pretrial detainees and convicted prisoners were held together. In some cases men and women were held together, and juveniles were held with adults. According to the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation, from January through September, there were 23 prison deaths in the country, including 13 deaths at the Monrovia Central Prison, four deaths each at the Gbarnga Central Prison and the Harper Central Prison, and one death each at the Tubmanburg Central Prison and the Buchanan Central Prison. According to the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation, none of the deaths in prisons during the year resulted from prison violence or mistreatment of prisoners.
The constitution and law prohibit such practices; however, there were reports that government authorities allegedly abused, harassed, and intimidated persons in custody as well as those seeking protection
The bureau attributed the deaths to medical reasons–other than COVID-19–including anemia, heart conditions, and infectious diseases. According to Prison Fellowship Liberia, however, Ministry of Health officials working in the prisons did not test the bodies of deceased prisoners for signs of COVID-19 infection. Access to food and medical care was inadequate, according to the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners that “[e]very prisoner shall be provided by the prison administration at the usual hours with food of nutritional value adequate for health and strength, of wholesome quality and well prepared and served,” but improved, relative to the preceding year. Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation administrators acknowledged interruptions to the food supply during the year and blamed poor road conditions and delayed budgetary allotments. Prison Fellowship Liberia reported prisoner diets overall remained poor even though rations had improved from the prior year. The Monrovia Central Prison sometimes served rice alone, with prisoners purchasing oil from vendors at the prison to supplement their diet.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits. Freedom of Speech: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but government officials used civil libel and slander laws to place limits on freedom of speech, and self-censorship was widespread. Some media outlets avoided criticizing government officials due to fears of legal sanction and potential loss of government advertising, which, according to the PUL, was the largest source of media revenue. Other outlets avoided addressing sensitive human rights issues such as female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Court decisions against journalists sometimes involved exorbitant fines. Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. According to the PUL, civil suits relating to libel, slander, and defamation were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. The PUL also expressed concern that media outlets owned directly by politicians and government officials were crowding out privately owned media and advocated for legislation to prohibit ownership of media by public officials.
The Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported the prison population in the country’s facilities was almost twice the planned capacity. Approximately one-half of the country’s 2,572 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison, which was originally built for 374 detainees but as of December held 1,230
Violence and Harassment: Government officials occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners, as well as individual journalists, because of their political opinions and reporting. On January 23, Police assaulted journalist Christopher Walker, a sports editor for Front Page Africa, at a soccer stadium, according to the PUL. Walker told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that he was standing with other journalists in the assigned media area when two police officers approached him and demanded he leave the area despite having the proper press accreditation. The two officers then grabbed and shoved Walker while several other officers, including members of the Police Support Unit wearing helmets and body armor, pushed and shoved him to the ground. According to some media sources, Walker was targeted because of an article he wrote that accused the Youth and Sports Ministry of fixing a soccer match to favor the team from Grand Kru County, President George Weah’s home county. Walker’s article alleged Weah had requested the fix. In February, LNP spokesperson Moses Carter told the CPJ that the names of three implicated officers had been forwarded to the police force’s professional standards division for investigation.
Unlike in the previous year, the government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet during the year. In July 2019 in the lead-up to and during a planned protest, the government blocked usage of both Orange and Lonestar Cell MTN, the two mobile networks in the country. When protesters dispersed, access was restored. There were no additional reports the government censored online content, and there were no credible reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits in attempts to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
A variety of civil society groups conducted demonstrations throughout the year, including outside the legislature and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In some cases the Ministry of Justice requested that organizers of mass protests apply for permits before assembling in areas that would block traffic. The LNBA and INCHR stated the constitution and law requires prior notification, not application for a permit, to allow the government time to provide sufficient security to protect free assembly, and that a permitting process could restrict freedom of assembly. Many observers said the relevant laws and regulations required clarification. On January 6, the Council of Patriots, an unregistered political opposition group, led a demonstration of approximately 1,500 supporters in Monrovia to protest poor economic conditions. The Ministry of Justice had denied the protest organizers a permit to hold the demonstration after the organizers refused to change the venue from the main road through the government quarter to a nearby stadium. Although the protest was peaceful, police used a water cannon and tear gas to disperse protesters at the end of the day when they attempted to set up a cookstove and pledged to camp overnight.
According to the PUL, civil suits relating to libel, slander, and defamation were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. The PUL also expressed concern that media outlets owned directly by politicians and government officials were crowding out privately owned media and advocated for legislation to prohibit ownership of media by public officials
Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with UNHCR, other humanitarian organizations, and donor countries in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Refoulement: The LRRRC and UNHCR reported seven Ivorian refugees remained in custody in the Monrovia Central Prison, pursuant to a 2013 request for extradition from the government of Cote d’Ivoire that alleged their involvement in “mercenary activities.” The case began in 2013, and bail requests were denied. Three of the seven refugees were brothers, the youngest 16 years old at the time of arrest. The LRRRC and UNHCR continued to provide subsistence allowances, legal support, and medical and psychosocial support to refugees in custody. Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. The law forbids the forced return of refugees, their families, or other persons who may be subjected to persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and the government generally respected those rights for refugees. The government provided a prima facie mode of recognition for Ivorian refugees, meaning Ivorian refugees who arrived in Liberia because of the 2011 post electoral violence in Cote d’Ivoire did not have to appear before an asylum committee to gain refugee status; the status was granted automatically. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2019 Liberia was host to 8,101 refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and 98 others of diverse nationalities. As of December 23, UNHCR reported the arrival of 22,989 new Ivorian refugees who fled anticipated violence following Cote d’Ivoire’s October 31 election. According to the Liberia Refugee Repatriation Resettlement Commission (LRRRC), the prima facie status continued to be automatic for Ivorian refugees. Any (non-Ivoirian) refugees denied asylum may submit their case to the appeals committee of the LRRRC. Asylum seekers unsatisfied with the appeals committee ruling may seek judicial review at the Supreme Court. The Alien and Nationality Law of 1974, however, specifically denies many of the safeguards for those wishing to seek asylum in the country under the Refugee Convention.