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 has 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.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. 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. An LNP investigation found the death was not caused intentionally, but some LNP officers involved received suspensions due to irregularities in reporting the event.
There were no new developments in the June 2019 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Abraham Tumay by police officers during a protest demanding justice for the mysterious killing of two minors in May 2019. Four police officers were charged with negligent homicide, aggravated assault, and criminal facilitation in connection with Tumay’s death. The officers allegedly fired live ammunition into the air in an attempt to disperse protesters, striking Tumay. The four officers were incarcerated at the Monrovia Central Prison awaiting trial.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. 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 16 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 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. In some locations prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors. Some prisoners grew their own rice and vegetables to supplement food rations.
Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials reported six of the country’s 16 prisons had medical clinics while the rest were visited by nurses. Nurses were scheduled to visit each of the prisons without a medical clinic once or twice a week but rarely adhered to the schedule, and facilities often went weeks without medical staff visits. The only location where medical staff was available Monday through Friday was the Monrovia Central Prison, from approximately 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The Ministry of Health and county health teams had primary responsibility for the provision of medicines, but the supply chain was weak throughout the country, and prison medical staff often did not have access to necessary medicines. Since replenishment sometimes took weeks or months, inmates often went without medication for lengthy periods. A variety of NGOs, including Serving Humanity for Empowerment and Development and the Rural Human Rights Activities Program, provided some medications for detainees. Prison Fellowship Liberia noted that in some instances family members were not notified when prisoners were seriously ill. There were reports of inadequate treatment for ailing inmates and inmates with disabilities. Authorities determined whether to release an ill prisoner on an ad hoc basis, and most were quarantined after presenting symptoms rather than being released. In June the newspaper Front Page Africa reported the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation had implemented measures, including requiring handwashing and temperature checks of visitors, to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to the prison population.
In some locations the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation lacked adequate vehicles and fuel and relied on the LNP to provide court and medical escorts.
Conditions for female prisoners were somewhat better than for males. Female inmates were less likely to suffer from overcrowding and had more freedom to move within the women’s section of facilities. According to the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), female detainees often lacked sanitary items unless provided by family; occasionally NGOs donated these items, but stocks ran out quickly.
Administration: The Bureau of Corrections and Administration noted the creation of an investigative board at Monrovia Central Prison to ensure reports of prisoner misconduct were reviewed for appropriate administrative action.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by local human rights groups, international NGOs, the United Nations, diplomatic personnel, and media. Some human rights groups, including domestic and international organizations, visited detainees at police headquarters and prisoners in the Monrovia Central Prison. The INCHR and Prison Fellowship Liberia had unfettered access to facilities. According to the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Liberian New Hope Foundation Center, Serving Humanity for Empowerment and Development, Finn Church Aid, Serving Humanity for Development, UN Development Program (UNDP), and Rural Human Rights Activities also visited prisons during the year.
Improvements: Early in the year, the government established the Human Rights in Prison Coordination Platform to ensure the human rights of inmates or persons deprived of their liberty were protected. The coordination platform comprised representatives of the Protection Unit of the Ministry of Justice, Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation, Ministry of Health, donor partners, and civil society organizations working on access to justice programs and on programs in education, agriculture, and health. The platform acquired and distributed COVID-19 materials and medicine to prisons, through funding from the UNDP and two civil society organizations, Serving Humanity for Empowerment and Dignity and the Rural Human Rights Activist Program.
During the year Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation administrators reported expanding a rehabilitation center in Gbarnga, expanding tailoring and soap-making programs at Monrovia Central Prison, and setting up an investigation board. Prison Fellowship Liberia noted improvements in the provision of psychological counseling for prisoners and the treatment of prisoners by corrections officers. Psychological counseling was extended to 10 prisons across the country.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government did not always observe these prohibitions and rights. Police officers and magistrates frequently detained citizens for owing money to a complainant. The INCHR reported magistrate court judges continued to issue writs of arrest unilaterally, without approval or submission by the city solicitors.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
In general police must have warrants issued by a magistrate to make arrests. The law allows for arrests without a warrant if the necessary paperwork is filed immediately afterwards for review by the appropriate authority. Nonetheless, arrests often were made without judicial authorization, and warrants were sometimes issued without sufficient evidence. Police sometimes requested money to effect arrests for prosecuting authorities.
The law provides that authorities either charge or release detainees within 48 hours. Detainees generally were informed of the charges against them upon arrest but not always brought before a judge for arraignment within 48 hours. According to the INCHR, a detainee’s access to a hearing before a judge sometimes depended on whether there was a functioning court or available transportation in the area. Those arraigned were often held in lengthy pretrial detention. Some detainees, particularly among the majority who lacked the means to hire a lawyer, were held for more than 48 hours without charge. The law also provides that, once detained, a criminal defendant must be indicted during the next succeeding 90-day term of court after arrest or, if the indicted defendant is not tried within the next succeeding court term and no cause is given, the case against the defendant is to be dismissed; nevertheless, cases were rarely dismissed on either ground. Approximately 50 percent of pretrial detainees nationwide had been incarcerated for more than two terms of court without a hearing.
There is a public defender’s office at the Monrovia Central Prison. The Ministry of Justice assigned 12 public defenders to Montserrado County where Monrovia is located and one or two for each of the other counties. Under the public defender program, each police station is required to maintain an office of court liaison that works with the public defender’s office in each county. According to the national coordinator of the program, the 41 public defenders, up from 39 in 2019, were insufficient to provide adequate access to justice for indigent persons across the country. Magistrates or police officers are responsible for contacting the public defender in cases where individuals are arrested on a warrant. In the instances when a warrantless arrest is made, the court liaison officer is responsible for contacting the public defender. In practice, however, some local public defenders relied on local jailers to provide notification of new arrestees. According to the INCHR, some jurisdictions occasionally lacked both a prosecutor and a public defender, and the magistrate judge proceeded without them.
The law provides for bail for all noncapital or non-drug-related criminal offenses; it severely limits bail for individuals charged with capital offenses or serious sexual crimes. Bail may be paid in cash, property, or insurance, or be granted on personal recognizance. The bail system was inefficient and susceptible to corruption. The INCHR reported judges misused the bail system, viewing it as punitive rather than a way to regulate appearance in court. Some judges used the possibility of bail as a way to solicit bribes. Aside from a few high-profile cases, house arrest was rarely used.
Detainees have the right to prompt access to counsel, visits from family members, and, if indigent, an attorney provided by the state in criminal cases. Public defender’s offices remained understaffed and underfunded, and some allegedly charged indigent clients for their services. The Liberia National Bar Association (LNBA) reported logistical support frequently was not provided to public defenders. In Lofa County, for example, there were two public defenders to cover eight court districts. In some cases courts permitted legal apprentices to represent defendants.
Although official policy allows detained suspects to communicate with others, including a lawyer or family member, inadequate provision of telephone services resulted in many inmates being unable to communicate with anyone outside of the detention facility. The Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation reported that Finn Church Aid provided cell phones to some prisons to allow detainees to contact their families and lawyers.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces and the LNP continued to make arbitrary arrests. The Press Union of Liberia reported radio journalist David K. Yango was unjustly arrested, beaten, and jailed while conducting interviews with market sellers on May 7. Yango relayed to the Media Foundation for West Africa through a messaging app that he was taken to the police station and detained on the orders of Elijah Baysah, whom he described as the commander of the LNP Red Light Zone 9 Depot No. 2. Yango reportedly suffered injuries after the police used force. “I lost my recorder during the assault, and the police deleted my videos before returning my seized phone,” Yango said, after his release.
On June 26, National Security Agency authorities arrested and detained the CEO of Orange Liberia, allegedly to investigate whether he was involved in a protest and accused him of “trying to destabilize the country.” Some business leaders viewed the arrest as an attempt to pressure the company to drop its litigation against the government pending before the Supreme Court regarding the imposition of surcharges to tariffs. The company issued a statement denying the CEO was involved in the protests and underscored its corporate policy against political participation. Authorities released the CEO shortly after detention, and he soon departed the country.
Pretrial Detention: Although the law provides for a defendant to receive an expeditious trial, lengthy pretrial and prearraignment detention remained serious problems. As of July pretrial detainees accounted for approximately 63 percent of the prison population across the country and 77 percent in the Monrovia Central Prison. In some cases the length of pretrial detention exceeded the maximum length of sentence that could be imposed for the alleged crime.
The use of detention as a punitive measure, failure to issue indictments in a timely manner, lack of a functioning bail system, poor court recordkeeping and missing files, failure of judges to assign court dates, failure of defense counsel to file motions to dismiss, and a lack of resources for public defenders all contributed to prolonged pretrial detention. For example, as of October the oldest pretrial detainee case dated to 2014.
In March as the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the country, the LNBA increased its efforts to secure the release of pretrial detainees in order to reduce overcrowding in prisons. Over a two-month period, 200 pretrial detainees were released from the Monrovia Central Prison.
In April, Front Page Africa reported eight pretrial detainees accused of rape and statutory rape, nonbailable offenses, in Bong County were released without trial after spending a year in detention. The court released the suspects to the defense attorney, who said the state failed to provide sufficient evidence against the suspects, so the court had the right to release them. The Bong County Chief Prosecutor was unsuccessful in his plea to the court that releasing the eight individuals violated the law. There was reportedly one individual accused in the case who remained in custody at year’s end on unrelated charges.
From January to July, 200 pretrial detainees had their cases dismissed and were released under the Magistrate Sitting Program.
The corrections system continued to develop its capacity to implement probation. During the year authorities doubled the number of probation officers to 50.
With UNICEF’s support and in coordination with the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection, the Child Justice Section of the Ministry of Justice worked to remove children from the criminal justice system. During the year 66 children were removed from detention. In addition, another 248 cases, consisting of 182 boys and 66 girls, were mediated to avoid their detention altogether.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and to request prompt release, although in reality few were able to do so because of inaction at the courts and because they lacked adequate counsel.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but judges and magistrates were subject to influence and engaged in corruption. Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, award damages in civil cases, or acquit defendants in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable decisions from judges, prosecutors, and jurors, or to have court staff place cases on the docket for trial.
In August the Global News Network reported that Eva Mappy Morgan, chief judge of the Commercial Court and president of the National Trial Judges of Liberia, was the subject of an investigation for alleged malpractice. Judge Morgan was linked to a 2013 communication in which it was alleged the Commercial Court authorized the withdrawal, without the consent of one of the litigating parties, of an amount of $3.4 million at the Liberian Bank for Development and Investment, which was being held in escrow pending final determination of a commercial dispute between Ducor Petroleum Inc. and the Monrovia Oil Trading Company. The court unilaterally ordered the withdrawal of more than three million dollars from the bank. The Judicial Inquiry Commission investigation of the case continued at year’s end. The commission is an auxiliary group established within the judiciary with the exclusive power and authority to receive and investigate complaints against judges for violation of any provision of the judicial canons.
Some judicial officials and prosecutors appeared subject to pressure, and the outcome of some trials appeared to be predetermined, especially when the accused persons were politically connected or socially prominent. In July, Criminal Court C dismissed indictment charges against suspended Andrew Wonplo, the director of passports and visas at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, after he was arrested in August 2019 for selling passports to foreign nationals from 2018 to 2019. The case was dismissed on a procedural ruling that the state did not proceed within the statutory period. On September 16, however, the government issued a second writ of arrest against Wonplo and 12 other suspects for fraudulent issuance of more than 4,000 passports, which the government alleged deprived it of more than $30,000 in revenue.
While the Supreme Court made provision through the establishment of the Grievance and Ethics Committee for the review of unethical conduct of lawyers and suspended some lawyers from legal practice for up to five years, the public brought few cases. Both the Grievance and Ethics Committee and the Judicial Inquiry Commission lacked appropriate guidelines to deliver their mandates effectively and were perceived as nontransparent and subject to influence.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, but judges and magistrates were subject to influence. By law defendants may opt for a jury trial or a trial by judge. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney (or be provided one at public expense) in a timely manner. Defendants have the right to be informed of charges promptly and in detail. If a defendant, complainant, or witness does not speak or understand English, the court is to provide an interpreter for the trial. The justice system does not provide interpreters throughout the legal process, however. For example, there were no sign language interpreters or other accommodations provided for deaf persons, and rarely is interpretation available unless paid for by the defendant.
Defendants also have the right to a trial without delay and to have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense, although these rights often were not observed. Defendants are generally presumed innocent under the law, and they have the right to confront and question prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, present their own evidence and witnesses, and appeal adverse decisions. These rights were often not observed and were rarely enforced.
Some local NGOs continued to provide legal services to indigent defendants and others who had no representation. The Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia continued to run a legal aid project supported by the UNDP to promote and protect the rights of women, children, and indigent persons in two counties. The LBNA expanded its legal services to the indigent through legal aid clinics in five counties, working on approximately 200 cases.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The constitution stipulates the creation of a claims court, but it had not occurred by year’s end. There was no specialized court to address lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Individuals or organizations may seek remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts or through administrative mechanisms. Human rights violations are generally reported to the INCHR, which refers cases to relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Justice. In some cases individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to regional human rights bodies after all domestic redress options have been exhausted. While there is an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Court of Justice to address human rights violations in member states, few citizens were aware of it or could afford to access this court. In 2019 the ECOWAS court heard a $500 million suit brought on behalf of 823 ethnic Mandingoes who alleged they were displaced from their lands in Nimba County during the civil wars. In June the court heard the case of former supreme court associate justice Kabineh Ja’neh, who asserted that he was wrongfully impeached and removed from office in March 2019. On November 10, the ECOWAS Court of Justice ordered the Republic of Liberia to pay former associate justice Ja’neh $200,000 as reparation for moral prejudice suffered for the violation of his rights. The court further ordered the judge’s reinstatement as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. The court gave the government six months to report on the enforcement of the judgment. At year’s end, however, it was unclear whether the government would choose to recognize the court ruling. In a November 17 statement, the Senate justified its decision to impeached Ja’neh.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.