Liberia is a constitutional republic with a bicameral national assembly. The country held presidential and legislative elections in 2017 that domestic and international observers deemed generally free and fair; the first round of voting for the presidency and 73 seats in the House of Representatives occurred in October followed by a presidential runoff election in December. Days after the presidential runoff election, the National Elections Commission (NEC) declared the Coalition for Democratic Change candidates George Weah president and Jewel Howard-Taylor vice president for a six-year term. Vacated Senate seats held by the president and vice president prompted by-elections on July 31 that were peaceful and credible. Likewise, on November 20, by-elections to fill two other vacated seats were peaceful and credible.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, although lapses occurred.
Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings by police; arbitrary and prolonged detention by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; undue restrictions on the press; criminal libel despite progress to enact legislation decriminalizing press offenses; official corruption; lack of accountability in cases of violence against women due to government inaction in some instances, including rape, domestic violence, and female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C); trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and child labor, including its worst forms.
Impunity for individuals who committed atrocities during the civil wars, as well as for those responsible for current and continuing crimes, remained a serious problem; 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. Corruption at all levels of government continued to undermine public trust in state institutions.
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 several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On April 29, a zone commander for the Liberia National Police (LNP), Roosevelt Demann, shot and killed an unarmed civilian, Beyan Lamie, when Lamie attempted to flee after a confrontation. An LNP investigation determined that Lamie posed no danger to Demann at the time. In September, Demann was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 25 years in prison. Demann’s legal counsel filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. The case is reportedly on the docket for March 2019.
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 prohibits practices such as torture and inhuman treatment. Sections 5.1 and 5.6 of the penal code provide criminal penalties for excessive use of force by law enforcement officers and address permissible uses of force during arrest or while preventing the escape of a prisoner from custody. Nonetheless, police and other security officers allegedly abused, harassed, and intimidated persons in police custody, as well as those seeking police protection. Unlike previous years, the LNP did not report any cases of rape or sexual assault by police officers.
In a report released in August, the Liberian Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) reported that in August 2017, a corrections officer at Harper Central Prison severely beat a pretrial detainee for refusing to get the officer water from a nearby creek. After an internal investigation, the Bureau of Corrections and Rehabilitation (BCR) suspended the officer for one month.
The UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), which closed its mission in March, had received four reports of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse for the year. All incidents reported during the year occurred in 2016 or earlier, and all investigations were pending. Three reports of sexual exploitation were filed against a military contingent member from Namibia, a member of the UN police from Gambia, and a military observer from Ethiopia. The fourth report implicated four individuals from Nigeria; three military contingent members for alleged sexual exploitation and one military contingent member for rape. The United Nations substantiated three of the six cases from the previous year and repatriated the accused individuals, including one report against a military contingent member from Nepal accused of sexual assault, one report against a military contingent member from Nigeria accused of a sexually exploitative relationship, and one report against a military contingent member from Ghana accused of sexual exploitation. The remaining reports were still under investigation as of November.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and at times life threatening due to overcrowding, failing infrastructure, and inadequate medical care. Prisoners and independent prison monitors often noted that prisons had inadequate food.
Physical Conditions: Inadequate space, bedding and mosquito netting, food, sanitation, ventilation, cooling, lighting, basic and emergency medical care, and potable water contributed to harsh and sometimes life-threatening conditions in the 15 prisons and one detention center. Many prisoners supplemented their meals by purchasing food at the prison or receiving food from visitors in accordance with the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The BCR sometimes used farming to supplement food rations. According to the BCR, the government’s food allocation is sufficient to meet daily calorie requirements, and both the allocation to prisons and distribution to prisoners were tracked by the BCR and were available upon request. The BCR reported that poor road conditions during the rainy season frequently delayed food delivery in the southeast, during which time prison superintendents supplemented normal rations with locally grown food and donations from family and friends of inmates.
The BCR reported six prisoner deaths through August 29. According to the BCR, the deaths were due to medical reasons, like tuberculosis or malaria, and none resulted from prison violence or mistreatment of prisoners.
Gross overcrowding continued to be a problem. The BCR reported the prison population in the country was almost twice the planned capacity. In seven of the 16 BCR facilities, detention figures were 100 to 450 percent more than planned capacity. According to the BCR, approximately one-half of the country’s 2,426 prisoners were at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP). MCP’s official capacity is 374 detainees, but the prison held 1,180 in December, of whom 76 percent (901) were pretrial detainees. As of August 29, the prison population countrywide included 60 women, of whom 21 were assigned to the MCP, which also held 10 male juveniles, all of whom were in pretrial detention. The BCR administration complained of understaffing. No comprehensive staffing document existed to verify BCR staffing claims.
In some locations, the BCR relied on the LNP to provide court and medical escorts; other locations relied on court officers to transport prisoners to court; still other locations reportedly called the county ambulance to transport prisoners and escorts to the hospital or placed prisoners on the back of motorcycles. There were reports that the BCR also used the superintendent or the county attorney’s vehicle to transport prisoners. The MCP lacked adequate vehicles and fuel for its needs; some staff reportedly paid for fuel themselves.
The Ministry of Justice funded the BCR, which did not have a specific funding allocation beyond those funds under the national budget. The BCR lacked funds for the maintenance of prison facilities, fuel, vehicle maintenance, cellular or internet communications, and regular and timely payment of employees, which remained a government-wide problem. According to the INCHR, prison conditions were not in compliance with the country’s own legal standards for prisons. According to Prison Fellowship Liberia (PFL), most prisons and detention facilities were in unacceptable condition and often had leaking roofs, cracks in the walls, limited or no lighting, and in some cases lacked septic tanks or electricity.
Medical services were available at most of the prisons but not on a daily or 24-hour basis. The only location where medical staff was available Monday through Friday was at the MCP. Medical staff at the MCP only worked during the day. Health-care workers visited most other prisons and detention centers one to two times per week; they were not always timely, and facilities could go weeks without medical staff.
The Ministry of Health and county health teams had primary responsibility for the provision of medicines. The budget of the Ministry of Justice included a small line item to supplement medicines to cover those that the Ministry of Health could not provide. The Carter Center and Don Bosco Catholic Services provided some medical services, medicines, nutritional supplements, food, and related training to improve basic conditions at the MCP. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Partners in Health and the Ministry of Health generally provided health services to facilities. The supply chain for medicines was weak throughout the country; prison medical staff often did not have access to necessary medicines. NGOs and community groups also provided medicines to treat seizures, skin infections, and mental health conditions. The ministry and county health teams replenished medications to treat malaria and tuberculosis only when stocks were exhausted. Since replenishment sometimes took weeks or months, inmates often went without medication for lengthy periods.
There were reports of inadequate treatment for ailing inmates and inmates with disabilities. At the MCP the BCR worked to identify individuals with special needs, including those with tuberculosis, through screening provided by the Ministry of Health and Partners in Health. Although the law provides for compassionate release of prisoners who are ill, such release was uncommon. By law prisoners must be extremely ill for authorities to take up the request for release on compassionate grounds; prisoners sometimes died waiting for authorities to review their cases. Authorities determined whether to release an ill prisoner on an ad hoc basis, and most were quarantined after presenting symptoms rather than being released. As a result inmate health in prisons and the BCR’s ability to respond and contain diseases among the prison population was poor.
Authorities held men and women in separate cellblocks at the MCP, but in counties with smaller detention facilities, authorities designated a single cell for female prisoners and held juveniles in the same cellblock with adults. In Barclayville police manage one cell and the BCR manage another, as there are only two cells in the station; there is no designated cell for females or juveniles. Except at the MCP, which had a juvenile cellblock, children were mostly held in separate cells within adult cellblocks. Because many minors did not have identity documents at the time the court issued commitment orders, they were sometimes misidentified as adults by the courts, issued confinement orders as adults, and therefore held in adult cellblocks. There were also reports by NGOs and observers of inmates in the juvenile facility reaching age 18 who were not transferred to the adult population. According to the PFL, prison staff sometimes held adults with juveniles in the juveniles’ smaller cells. Pretrial detainees were generally held with convicted prisoners.
Conditions for women prisoners were somewhat better than for men; women inmates were less likely to suffer from overcrowding and had more freedom to move within the women’s section of facilities. According to the INCHR female inmates’ personal hygiene needs were often not addressed. Many female detainees lacked sanitary items unless provided by family; occasionally NGOs donated these items, but stocks ran out quickly.
Administration: The BCR has its own training staff, which as of September conducted one in-service training and five specialized training sessions for a small number of officers. The BCR increased use of its own data collections and systems. Intake reporting expanded to capture data regarding prisoners with mental and physical disabilities. National records officers communicated (via telephone) weekly with facility records officers to collect updated information, and share a monthly roll with county attorneys; however, the transfer of records to Monrovia remained inadequate.
The PFL stated that prison staff sometimes misappropriated food intended for prisoners. Unlike in 2017 the BCR did not report investigations of staff for corruption in the distribution of food.
Independent prison monitors sent complaints of prison conditions and allegations of staff misconduct to the BCR. The BCR stated it would conduct internal investigations into each complaint, but it was unclear if the BCR actually did so.
Authorities sometimes used alternatives to prison sentencing for nonviolent offenders, but courts failed to make adequate efforts to employ alternatives to incarceration at the pretrial stages of criminal proceedings. Courts issued probationary sentences in some cases for nonviolent offenders. Magistrates, however, continued to sentence prisoners convicted of minor offenses to long terms, for cases in which probation prisoner rights advocates believed might have been more appropriate. Public defenders continued to use a plea-bargaining system in some courts. The law provides for bail, including release on the detainee’s own recognizance. The bail system, however, was inefficient and susceptible to corruption. No ombudsman system operated on behalf of prisoners and detainees.
The government did not make public internal reports and investigations into allegations of inhuman conditions in prisons. The BCR sometimes made prison statistics publicly available. Although not systematically implemented, BCR media policy dictated release of information, including in response to requests from the public.
The BCR removed a corrections officer and a nurse from their positions after they were caught stealing from a prison pharmacy in July; as of September the BCR turned over the nurse’s case to the Ministry of Health and the officer was suspended pending termination.
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 MCP. The INCHR had unfettered access to and visited all facilities. The PFL also had unfettered access to facilities.
Improvements: During the year the BCR reorganized its gender unit so that it was directly involved in the recruitment and training of corrections officers. The BCR reorganized the centralized investigation unit, an independent unit that investigates allegations against corrections staff and recommends disciplinary action, so that investigative officers no longer perform corrections duties. It also expanded the probation department by adding 25 probation officers. The Robertsport Central Prison facility opened in May, with a cellblock for female inmates and a greater number of cells.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and the law provides for the right of any person to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention, but the government did not always observe these prohibitions and rights. The arbitrary arrest, assault, and detention of citizens continued.
Police officers or magistrates frequently detained citizens for owing money to a complainant. During site visits to the nine operating magistrate courts in Montserrado County, several city solicitors reported that magistrate court judges unilaterally issued writs of arrest without approval or submission by the city solicitors. The court administrative assistants reported this issue to the solicitor general for further action. At the opening of the October term of the Supreme Court, the minister of justice announced that one of the government’s top priorities for judicial reform was the curtailment of magistrate judges’ ability to arrest persons independently, without involvement or investigation by the LNP or other organs of government.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Justice has responsibility for enforcing laws and maintaining order through supervision of the LNP and other law enforcement agencies. The armed forces, under the Ministry of National Defense, provide external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities, specifically coastal patrolling by the Coast Guard.
Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, although lapses occurred. The government has mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. The INCHR reported that violent police action and harassment during arrests were the most common complaints of misconduct. The LNP’s Professional Standards Division (PSD) is responsible for investigating allegations of police misconduct and referring cases for prosecution. There were instances during the year in which civilian security forces acted with impunity. A 2016 police act mandates establishment of a civilian complaints review board to improve accountability and oversight, but as of December, the board had not been constituted.
An armed forces disciplinary board investigates alleged misconduct and abuses by military personnel. The armed forces administer nonjudicial punishment. In accordance with a memorandum of understanding between the ministries of Justice and National Defense, the armed forces refer capital cases to the civil court system for adjudication. In 2017 the legislature passed the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but as of November the armed forces had not set up courts of inquiry or military tribunals.
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 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.
The law provides that authorities either charge or release detainees within 48 hours. Detainees generally were informed of the charges against them upon arrest and sometimes brought before a judge for arraignment within 48 hours. A detainee’s access to a hearing before a judge sometimes depended on whether there was a functioning court 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 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.
In 2016, the Ministry of Justice established a public defender’s office at the MCP and subsequently deployed additional public defenders to courts around the country. There are 33 public defenders across the country; the Ministry of Justice assigned 12 public defenders to Montserrado County and one or two public defenders for each of the other counties. Under the public defender program, each police station maintains an office of court liaison that works with the public defenders’ office in each county. Magistrates or police officers are responsible for contacting the public defender in cases where individuals are arrested on a warrant, whereas the court liaison officer is responsible for contacting the public defender when warrantless arrests are made.
The law provides for bail for all noncapital or 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, insurance, or be granted on personal recognizance. The bail system was inefficient and susceptible to corruption. 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. The government frequently did not respect these rights, and indigent defendants appearing in magistrate courts–the venues in which most cases are initiated–were rarely provided state-funded counsel. Public defender offices remained understaffed and underfunded, and some allegedly charged indigent clients for their services. 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. House arrest was rarely used.
Arbitrary Arrest: Security forces continued to make arbitrary arrests. In September the deputy minister for information ordered the arrest of a media liaison officer in the Legislative Budget Office for allegedly video recording the deputy minister dancing at a local bar. He was released without charge less than a day later.
Pretrial Detention: Although the law provides for a defendant to receive an expeditious trial, lengthy pretrial and prearraignment detention remained serious problems. Pretrial detainees accounted for approximately 63 percent of the prison population across the country. As of August, those arrested for sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) crimes and armed robbery constituted the fastest-growing categories of pretrial detainees.
Ineffective management of court schedules, lack of fully implemented plea bargaining, insufficient resources for preparation, hearings, and trials, unavailability of counsel at the early stages of proceedings, and detainee lack of understanding of the law all contributed to prolonged pretrial detention. As of December 19, data provided by the BCR showed a pretrial detainee population of 1,664. According to law pretrial detainees should not be held for more than two successive terms in court without a trial. Approximately 25 percent of detainees were held longer than two terms in court; at the MCP approximately 38 percent of detainees were held longer than two terms.
Circuit courts used supervised pretrial release programs in conjunction with the Magistrate Sitting Program (MSP) to help reduce the number of pretrial detainees in the prison system. The MSP was established to expedite the trials of persons detained at the MCP, but was not widely used outside Monrovia. The MSP also suffered from poor coordination among judges, prosecutors, defense counsels, and corrections personnel; deficient docket management; inappropriate involvement of extrajudicial actors; and a lack of logistical support. From January to December, the MSP dismissed the cases of and released 509 of 568 pretrial detainees.
The corrections system continued to develop its capacity to implement probation. In some cases, the length of pretrial detention exceeded the maximum length of sentence that could be imposed for the alleged crime. A shortage of trained prosecutors and public defenders, poor court administration and file management, inadequate police investigation and evidence collection, and judicial corruption exacerbated the incidence and duration of pretrial detention.
With UNICEF support, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Gender, Children, and Social Protection (MGCSP) established procedures to divert many juvenile offenders from the formal criminal justice system and place them in a variety of safe homes and “kinship” care situations. The program has dramatically decreased the number of minors in detention. From January to July, the program released 83 children from detention and an additional 331 cases were mediated to avoid confinement.
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 obtain prompt release. The government frequently did not respect these rights, and the court system lacked the capacity to process promptly most cases. Additionally, many clients lacked the means to hire private attorneys.
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. Uneven application of the law, limited and unequal distribution of personnel and resources, lack of training, the small number of courts in rural counties, and a poor road network remained problems throughout the judicial system. Advocacy groups often reported that some judges only appear for a fraction of a court term, limiting the number of adjudicated cases per term.
Corruption persisted in the legal system. Some judges accepted bribes to award damages in civil cases. Judges sometimes solicited bribes to try cases, grant bail to detainees, 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.
While the Supreme Court has made provision through the establishment of the Grievance and Ethics Committee for the review of unethical conduct of lawyers and has suspended some lawyers from legal practice for up to five years, the public has brought few cases due to fear of retribution. Complaints of corruption and malpractice involving judges’ conduct may be brought to the Judicial Inquiry Commission. Both the Grievance and Ethics Committee and the Judicial Inquiry Commission lacked appropriate guidelines to deliver their mandates effectively.
The government continued efforts to harmonize the formal and traditional customary justice systems, in particular through campaigns to encourage trial of criminal cases in formal courts. Traditional leaders were encouraged to defer to police investigators and prosecutors in cases involving murder, rape, and human trafficking, as well as some civil cases that could be resolved in either formal or traditional systems. The Carter Center ran a program that seeks to strengthen access to justice for historically marginalized rural citizens with the goal of creating a functional and responsive justice system consistent with local needs, practices, and human rights standards. From January to June, the center trained 942 traditional leaders on the law, dispute resolution, and good governance practices.
By law trials are public. Circuit court proceedings, but not magistrate court proceedings, may be by jury. In some cases, defendants may select a bench trial. Jurors were sometimes subject to influence and corrupt practices that undermined their neutrality. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney 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 provides an interpreter for the trial. The justice system does not provide interpreters throughout the legal process. For example, there are no sign-language interpreters or other accommodations provided for the deaf, 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 presumed innocent, and they have the right to confront and question prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, present their own evidence and witnesses, and appeal adverse decisions. The law extends the above rights to all defendants; however, 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. In February the Association of Female Lawyers of Liberia launched a legal aid project to promote and protect the rights of women, children, and indigent persons in two counties. The Liberian National Bar Association also continued to offer pro bono legal services to the indigent through legal aid clinics.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
No specialized court exists to address lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Individuals or organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts or through administrative mechanisms, which include out-of-court conferences, hearings concerning labor disputes at the Ministry of Labor for workers’ rights, and other grievance hearings at the Civil Service Agency of Liberia. While there are civil remedies for human rights violations through domestic courts and adverse decisions in human rights cases may be appealed, the majority of human rights cases are brought against nonstate actors. 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 could afford to access this court. In May a group from Nimba County reportedly filed a human rights lawsuit before the ECOWAS court on behalf of the Mandingo ethnic group. The $500 million suit reportedly stemmed from a long-standing land dispute.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, and the government generally respected these rights, although with some unofficial limits.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could generally criticize the government publicly or privately, but criminal libel and slander laws and national security laws placed limits on freedom of speech.
Press and Media Freedom: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, but due to a lack of funding, they were often overshadowed by privately owned media outlets with partisan leanings. Some media outlets and journalists allegedly charged fees to publish some articles. According to the Press Union of Liberia (PUL), laws prohibiting criminal libel against the president, sedition, and criminal malevolence as well as high fines associated with civil suits were sometimes used to curtail freedom of expression and intimidate the press. Self-censorship was widespread, and some media outlets avoided addressing subjects like government corruption both due to fear of legal sanction and in order to retain government advertising revenue. Court decisions against journalists often involved exorbitant fines, and authorities jailed journalists who did not pay the fines.
Violence and Harassment: Law enforcement officers occasionally harassed newspaper and radio station owners because of their political opinions and reporting, especially those that criticized government officials. Government officials also harassed and sometimes threatened media members for political or personal reasons. In February the legislative press pool stated that Sergeant-at-Arms of the Senate Toe C. Toe bit Austin Kawah of Prime FM during a disagreement regarding entering Senate chambers, and that Representative Munah Pelham-Youngblood assaulted FrontPage Africa journalist Henry Karmo during an open session at the Capitol. According to the press pool, Youngblood attacked Karmo for reporting a story that was critical of the lawmaker. On November 21, the Daily Observer reported that Representative Solomon George allegedly threatened to order the beating of two journalists from the legislative press pool for “insulting” the legislature.
During a joint press conference marking the conclusion of the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) with UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed on March 22, President Weah rebuked BBC and Associated Press journalist Jonathan Paye-Layleh for being “against him.” President Weah’s response followed a question from Paye-Layleh regarding whether he would support establishing a war crimes court. Days later the president’s press secretary released a statement to clarify that Weah’s remarks were a reminder that while Weah was advocating for human rights, Paye-Layleh and other journalists “were bent on undermining his [Weah’s] efforts by depicting a positive image of the carnage” during the country’s civil wars. PUL suggested that the president’s comments directed at Paye-Layleh could endanger journalists and promote self-censorship.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Although generally able to express a wide variety of views, some journalists practiced self-censorship to avoid possible criminal charges. Journalists and media directors also practiced self-censorship to maintain advertising revenue from the government, the largest advertiser in the country. There were several reports that politicians and government agencies offered “transportation fees” to journalists to secure coverage of events.
In June the government announced the suspension and review of all media licenses issued between January 1 and June 18. According to a press release from the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs, and Tourism, the reason for the suspension was to investigate irregularities such as the duplication of transmission frequencies to radio and television broadcasters. PUL stated that the move was meant to intimidate media and halt the opening of a radio station by a critic of the government.
Libel/Slander Laws: There were several reports that libel, slander, and defamation laws constrained the work of journalists and media outlets reporting on high-profile government or other public figures. On April 9, the Civil Law Court ordered staff from FrontPage Africato appear in court. The government then briefly detained at least seven journalists and forced the newspaper’s office to close temporarily. The court’s decision resulted from a $1.8 million civil defamation lawsuit filed against the newspaper for publishing a paid advertisement concerning the administrators of a deceased politician’s estate that it retracted before the suit.
PUL advocated for decriminalizing libel and slander and eliminating prison terms for persons unable to pay large fines. PUL also continued efforts to self-regulate the media and ensure adherence to standards including investigation and settlement of complaints against or by the press. PUL’s National Media Council, launched in 2017 to address court cases against the media, mediated six cases during the year.
On May 31, President Weah submitted a bill repealing sections of the penal law on criminal libel against the president and other government officials, sedition, and criminal malevolence. In July the House of Representatives unanimously approved the bill. As of November the bill was awaiting Senate review. This bill, if passed, would help bring the country into compliance with the Table Mountain Declaration, which calls for the repeal of criminal defamation and “insult” laws across the African continent.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content and there were no reports the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority. According to the International Telecommunication Union, 8 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
There were reports of government officials threatening legal action and filing civil lawsuits to censor protected internet-based speech and intimidate senders.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The Ministry of Justice required permits for public gatherings and obtaining a permit was relatively easy.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
According to Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the country was host to 9,149 refugees from Cote d’Ivoire and 71 others of diverse nationalities. July flooding in Montserrado, Margibi, and Grand Bassa counties affected more than 52,000 persons, but most internally displaced persons (IDPs) have since returned to their homes. The Liberia Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (LRRRC) and the National Disaster Commission in the Ministry of Internal Affairs are responsible for responding to natural disasters and supporting affected persons.
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 provides a prima facie mode of recognition for Ivoirian refugees, meaning Ivoirian refugees arriving in Liberia because of the 2011 postelectoral violence in Cote d’Ivoire do not have to appear before the asylum committee to gain refugee status; the status is granted automatically.
Those denied asylum may submit their case to the appeals committee of the LRRRC. Asylum seekers unsatisfied with the appeals committee ruling can 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.
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.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Unlike in previous years, officials did not receive reports of traditional practitioners targeting and discriminating against refugees. UNHCR reported improved relationships between refugees and the local population.
In-country Movement: Unlike previous years, there were no reports of LNP and Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization officers subjecting refugees to arbitrary searches and petty extortion at official and unofficial checkpoints.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Refoulement: The LRRRC and UNHCR reported that seven Ivoirian refugees were still in custody, pursuant to a request for extradition from the government of Cote d’Ivoire that alleged their involvement in “mercenary activities.” The case has continued since 2013, and bail requests have failed. The refugees’ lawyers were given access to only limited information on the case. Three of the seven refugees were brothers, the youngest only 16 years old at the time of arrest. UNHCR provides subsistence allowances, legal support, and medical and psychosocial support to refugees in custody.
Freedom of Movement: Refugees enjoyed freedom of movement, since the country did not have a mandatory encampment policy. Government policy stated refugees wishing to receive material assistance should move to one of the three refugee camp locations in Bahn Town, Nimba County; Zwedru, Grand Gedeh; and Harper, Maryland County.
Employment: The law prohibits non-Liberian citizens from obtaining work permits when Liberian citizens are available to perform the labor but this law was generally not enforced. Refugees seeking employment in the formal sector need a work permit from the Ministry of Labor. UNHCR paid the requisite fee.
Durable Solutions: During the year the government resettled, offered naturalization, and assisted in the voluntary return of refugees. Voluntary repatriation of Ivoirian refugees, which resumed in 2015 following a 16-month suspension due to Ebola concerns, continued. According to UNHCR, as of September approximately 7,638 Ivoirian refugees had voluntarily returned to Cote d’Ivoire; 849 were repatriated during the year. UNHCR and the LRRRC assisted those returning and supported 840 Ivoirian refugees who opted for local integration. In July the government naturalized 371 former Sierra Leonean refugees.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government, with UNHCR and other implementing partners, continued to provide protection to Ivoirian refugees who entered the country after November 2010. According to UNHCR, as of September 9,202 Ivoirian refugees remained in the country.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law calls for integrity in government service and enumerates multiple offenses related to corrupt acts by officials, including making false statements, tampering with public records, obstruction of justice, bribery, intimidation, and abuse of office. The law does not provide explicit criminal penalties for corruption by government officials, although criminal penalties exist for economic sabotage, abuse of office, bribery, obstruction of justice, and other corruption-related acts. The government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Corruption persisted throughout the government, and the World Bank’s most recent Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
The mandate of the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) is to prevent, investigate, and prosecute cases of corruption among public officials. On February 13, FrontPage Africa reported that LACC Commissioner Augustine Toe accused LACC Chairman James Verdier of financial impropriety and mismanagement of funds. In a press statement, Verdier denied the allegations. It is unclear if the allegations were investigated.
According to the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL), during the year President Weah appointed heads of the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and the Internal Audit Agency without the required recruitment and vetting processes. CENTAL also suggested the direct presidential appointments outside established procedures undermined the independence of those anticorruption agencies.
Corruption: Low pay for civil servants, minimal job training, and little judicial accountability exacerbated official corruption and contributed to a culture of impunity. The government dismissed or in some instances suspended officials for alleged corruption and recommended others for prosecution. The government generally failed to charge higher-ranking officials with corruption and tended to recommend prosecution against low-level civil servants, but there were some exceptions. In February the Rivercess County Circuit Court found Senator Milton Teahjay guilty of misappropriating development funds during his 2009-2014 tenure as superintendent of Sinoe County. The court ordered the senator to pay $50,000 in restitution within nine months or face imprisonment; the LACC confirmed that he paid. Prosecutors from the LACC expressed concern, however, that the judge did not rule on more serious crimes in the senator’s indictment, including charges of economic sabotage, criminal conspiracy, criminal facilitation, and misapplication of entrusted property. In November the government arrested and filed charges against senior officials at the National Housing Authority for allegedly extorting money from a Burkinabe company. As of December a court date had not yet been set.
On March 29, Global Witness released a report on Exxon Mobil’s 2013 purchase of an oil block off the country’s coast. The report called on the government to investigate several former and current officials involved in the $120 million purchase of Block 13 for corruption and wrongdoing. President Weah established a special presidential review committee to investigate the allegations in the Global Witness report and vowed that anyone involved in corruption “will be dealt with according to the law.” In May the House of Representatives endorsed the findings of the committee. The committee made several recommendations, including that those implicated be required to make restitutions to the government. As of September it was unknown if any of the committee’s recommendations were followed.
Police corruption remained a problem. The LNP investigated reports of police misconduct or corruption, and authorities suspended or dismissed several LNP officers. The most prevalent form of police corruption was the solicitation of “on the spot” fines at roadblocks for traffic offenses. The PSD reported cases of bribery for traffic offenses, and authorities suspended or dismissed several LNP officers for misconduct. On April 10, the LNP dismissed a LNP officer for tampering with a criminal investigation into the death of a woman. The LNP officer allegedly investigated the case without authority and then detained and extorted money from suspects in the case.
Financial Disclosure: By law senior political appointees must declare their assets to the LACC before taking office and upon leaving. There are administrative sanctions for noncompliance. Financial disclosures are not made public unless the official making the declaration chooses to release them. From January to June, only one government official filed an asset declaration. In July President Weah filed the asset declaration to the LACC and Vice President Howard-Taylor filed a week later. According to the LACC, approximately 56 percent of officials in the executive branch had declared their assets by the end of the year. On December 6, President Weah gave members of his cabinet a one-week deadline to file asset declarations or face punitive action. As of December the LACC reported that all cabinet-level officials had declared their assets, although some had declared after the deadline.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating, and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were generally cooperative and responsive to the views of these groups.
The government has not implemented the majority of the recommendations contained in the 2009 Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report. The law creating the commission requires that the president submit quarterly progress reports to the legislature on the implementation of TRC recommendations; however, since taking office in January, President Weah has failed to submit quarterly reports.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The Ministry of Justice, Human Rights Protection Unit convened coordination meetings that provided a forum for domestic and international human rights NGOs to present matters to the government, including proposed legislation. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights acted as an independent check on the actions of the government in line with its mission to monitor human rights violations in the country.
The INCHR has the mandate to promote and protect human rights, investigate and conduct hearings on human rights violations, propose changes to laws, policies, and administrative practices and regulations, and counsel the government on the implementation of national and international human rights standards.