Friday, 15 April 2011


Will the United States of America’s Damning Indictment of Liberia’s Judicial branch Change the way judges, jurors and lawyers approach cases on the docket?

ilkins Wright was disappointed and frustrated in the aftermath of yet another loss by government prosecutors in what was previously believed to be a slam dunk case against Tokpah Mulbah, the deputy speaker of the House of Representatives.
Charges against the deputy speaker were brought in the aftermath of the alleged beating and brutalization of a police officer who refused to release a truck he had seized for operating without a license and headlights. Government prosecutors were found to have failed to produce sufficient evidence to convince the jury of a guilty verdict.
Mulbah’s acquittal was the latest in a series of judicial nightmare for the government, prompting Wright to declare that he was a strong advocate of having the juror system in Liberia abolished. Said Wright: “I am one of those who hold the view that the jury system should be abolished because our jury system is not serving the purpose and I believe it is undermining the criminal justice system and is sending the wrong message to the international community.”
Interestingly, Judge James Zota, who presided over the case had cautioned jurors against the potential influence of cash to decide cases but in the end, the government failed to win a favorable verdict.

Wright’s points have been validated with the findings of the latest United States of America Human Rights report which declared that the judicial system in Liberia is corrupt with notable mention of the Civil Law Court where judges are said to be demanding bribes to share damages awarded in civil cases. The reported added that even judges sometimes request bribes to try cases, release detainees from prison, or find defendants not guilty in criminal cases.
This was evident recently in the case involving FrontPageAfrica and former Agriculture Minister Dr. J. Chris Toe. The newspaper was found liable for $US1.5 Million in damages even though one of the jurors Genevieve Mateh came forward to say that she and other jurors were paid $US50 each to taint the verdict. Also during the trial, one of the jurors was seen in discussion with a lawyer for the plaintiff shortly before a court date in front of the court.
In recent years, two newspapers, FrontPageAfrica and the New Democrat have lost jury cases after being sued for libel. In the case of FrontPageAfrica at least one of the jurors acknowledged that they she and others were paid $US50 to influence the case against FrontPageAfrica. Similar reports about jury tampering were alleged in the case of the New Democrat. FrontPageAfrica had initially toyed with the idea of seeking an appeal to the high court but has since decided against fearing it will not get a fair hearing before the highest judicial decision making body in Liberia.
Prior to the civil case, the Supreme Court had sentenced the publisher for 30 days on contempt charges for publishing a reader’s letter to the editor in its 25th October 2010 print edition critical of one of the court's justices. The court said it would reduce Mr. Sieh’s sentence from 30 to 15 days if he agreed to pay $300 and apologize to the court. An agreement was later reached in principle between the FPA editor and the court leading to his release.
Ironically, allegations of foul play has dealt massive blow to government prosecutors who have lost a string of cases which drew public scrutiny. Two glaring examples were exhibited in the case of the Liberian government versus the Bropleh brothers. Lawrence Bropleh, a former Minister of Information, Culture Affairs and Tourism was acquitted after he was accused of embezzling several thousand dollars at his ministry. His brother, Albert Bropleh also walked on a technicality count.
The glaring acquittal in the case of the former information minister drew angry reaction from Justice Minister Christiana Tah, who told a  Voice of America interview that she was shocked when she was told  that the case was dismissed. “I sent for the prosecutors to explain to me what was going on and whether it was true that they had not shown up in court, and they told me they had shown up in court.”
Continued Tah: They were there when the judge concluded his ruling and the clerk only indicated the exception and did not note the record that they had taken an appeal. They told me that they were concerned about the improper behavior of the judge and they were taking recourse to the Supreme Court.”
What all the cases have in common was the belief that the justice system could work if a mountain of evidence availed itself. But in a post-war nation bruising a battered judicial system were, according to the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Report, judges are subjected to political, social, family and financial pressures, the quest for justice could come at a high price and is most times costly for those on the short end of the stick.
The high-profile rebuke from the U.S. is already spurring debates on both sides of the aisle. On the one hand, some Liberians like Joseph Nimley of Claratown believes the report could signal a wave of change in the judicial branch but others like Sarah Weebo, who sells waiter market on the Bushrod Island, doubt that the report will make any impact. “This is Liberia, people talk about things and it goes away.” My sister lost her land case in the civil law court even though she had the deeds. I doubt the court system here will ever change.”
Key among the concerns for many Liberians is the fact that the judicial branch of government is intertwined with the most pressing problems facing Liberia to date: the issue of corruption. Amid allegations of corruption in the courts, faith in the justice system remains lacking for many with many believing that the justice system is only favorable to those who can afford the money to influence the outcome of cases.