Enemies of State?
Ivorian Refugees in Harper Central Prison Crave Freedom from the Liberian Government. Lack of food, sleeping place, and sickness mar imprisonment.
Gboko John Stewart, Gboko.firstname.lastname@example.org
Zulu Gaye, and 86 other Ivoirians accused by Liberian border agents of bringing munitions into the country spend their time sitting idly in the compound of the Harper Central Prison.
For more than a month now, they have been sitting on this rocky ground pondering their fate, which lies in the hands of the Liberian Government.
Looking bewildered, Gaye says he has no idea why he is in prison. He claims to have fled his native Ivory Coast for Liberia in order to escape the crisis which had engulfed it.
Says Gaye: “I crossed on April 1st. I came alone. At the border we were many. There were many Ivoirians when I was crossing. They [Liberian officers] told me they were carrying us to refugee camp. I’m not expecting myself to be here. I entered here [the prison] by UNHCR vehicle. When we reached to the border, we were mixed up with Liberians. They had few vehicles among us—cars that came from Ivory Coast. All these vehicles had owners...They made search on us and nothing they could see, nothing was on us. Later on, the vehicles we met there, we don’t know what going on, the security, carrying on their job, group us together and start bringing us in here.”
According to Gaye, he and others tried fruitlessly to explain to the authorities that everyone did not come together. “What did we do which you brought us inside here today?” he asked.
Protective Custody/Security Protection
The administrative assistant to the superintendent of Maryland County, Daniel Williams says the Ivoirians are not detainees but rather refugees who are under security protection. According to Williams they are “armed elements”, who pose threat to society and are not free to leave.
Says Williams: “If a criminal is arrested and we feel that it’s not safe, we can keep him somewhere. And that is not being detained; he’s being protected by the state.”
Williams says the arrest of the Ivoirians signals that people of Maryland does not want their county to be used as a resting ground for combatants. People, he claims that, once rested, will return to fight.
When quizzed by FPA on the basis for the Ivoirians’ arrest, Williams says they consulted their partners and acted within the framework of international law. “We consulted UNHCR and were told they could be held. In situations like these, the armed elements have to be separated from the civilians.”
Williams reveals that plans are underway to transfer the detainees to Grand Cape Mount County “where government is preparing a place for them”.
UNHCR’ Maryland head, Musa Konneh says as far as he is concerned, those that are detained are ‘armed elements’.
According to Konneh, arms are not allowed on the territory of Liberia and if any refugee is found with arms, they are separated from the rest of the group. He explained that his entity’s vehicle was used to transport the ‘armed elements’ based on a request from the border agents.
Countering Williams’ claim, Zulu Gaye wonders why they were brought to prison in the name of “security protection”. “What did we do before y’all brought us inside here? ...This is prison. This is no refugee area. Secondly they told us that their bringing of us here is to take the Liberians from among us.”
Six Liberians, out of the initial 93 detained were charged with being mercenaries but were later freed by the court when the state failed to produce sufficient evidence to proceed with the trial.
The county attorney for Maryland County, Aloysius Allison could not provide any information to FPA because, according to him, he has been out of the county and has no knowledge of the case.
Gaye doesn't understand how the Liberians among them could be let go for insufficient evidence and not the Ivorians. “…we are still kept here; we don’t know the reason. They are still telling us they are protecting our life—in jail,” he intones.
The freeing of the six Liberians caused discontent among the refugees as they also wanted out.
Their discontent led to a riot on April 20, 2011 that saw a corrections officer being injured. Meeting stiff resistance from the UNMIL Pakistani contingent and the Emergency Response Unit (ERU), the riot was quelled.
The Ivoirians want to know why, as “non-detainees,” they are they being entitled to have cell phones yet they languish in a crowded prison manned by heavy security presence--one which led to another colleague, Beh Paulett, to suffer from high blood pressure. As the prison has no vehicle assigned to it, Paulett was walked to the hospital that night by a corrections officer.
At the hospital, nurses told Paulett that had he made one more day, he would have died. Confiding in a visitor, he said the presence of armed men greatly disturbs him. Moreover, he said, he misses his wife and family whom he was separated from at the border during his arrest.
Food and Shelter Brouhaha
Beh laments that since their incarceration, they are not being fed properly. According to him, they eat only one time per day.
Beh's claims were evident to a visitor when a female corrections officer brought food from the market. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, she said the government has totally abandoned the refugees. According to her, the food or money that is given to her, $40 USD per day, cannot cater to the eighty-seven Ivoirians at the prison.
Beh also mentioned that because they have nowhere to sleep, they usually sleep on the bare floor in the hallways of the prison or the rocky ground outside. Such treatment, he says, has led to the contracting of cold and pneumonia by his colleagues.
Vasco Monboe, correction officer and acting superintendent at the Harper Central Prison corroborated many of the Ivoirians’ claims. According to Monboe, upon their arrival in Liberia, they were screened by the joint security, which is headed by the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization (BIN). Monboe, however, could not confirm the veracity of the joint security claims.
Said Monboe: “There were ninety-three persons that were brought in, six were Liberians and were charged for mercenarism. Balance of eighty-seven Ivoirians are here.”
Monboe complained that they are facing logistical problem at the prison. Before the Ivoirians came the prison struggled to accommodate 40 fulltime inmates. The latrines were full. Ninety three more men added, has made life much harder for everyone.
Monboe is not the only one crying for logistical support. At the Pedebo International border in Maryland, officers of the Bureau of Immigration and Naturalization are also bearing the brunt.
The officers complained that they have no office and lack of communication gadgets, terming such a major setback to their work.
The officers explained that the tight building that houses them serves as offices for other government agencies including National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), National Security Agency (NSA), Ministry of National Security, Liberia National Police (LNP) and the custom department of the Ministry of Finance.
Quizzed by FrontPage Africa about the eighty seven Ivoirians that are in the compound of the Harper Central Prison, they asserted that they were found with ammunition and combat uniforms while trying to cross the border. The officers announced that they found the arms in the baggage of the Ivoirians while doing their normal routine search.
“They came in with few vehicles. When they entered here, we decided to do our registration. When we registered them and charged their loads, we suspected there was ammunition in some of the bags,” said one of officers who preferred not to be named.
The officer said that after the search, the men were turned over to the government’s joint security team.
For Gaye, Beh and the rest of their colleagues, they have been sitting waiting for a month without any clear information. They are not aware of any plans to take them to Grand Cape Mount County. Their fate is in the hands of the Liberian government as they look forward to reuniting with their families.