A prominent Liberian human rights lawyer and former Minister of Works in the Sirleaf Unity Party (UP) led administration has accused the Liberian government of being behind the incarceration of FrontPage Africa editor Rodney Sieh. Samuel Kofi woods spoke recently when Justice Minister Christina Tah and Liberia Solicitor General Cllr. Betty Larmie Blamo rubbished attempts by Woods to represent Sieh at the ECOWAS Human Rights Court in Abuja Nigeria. The libel case which has drawn international disapproval from Roy Gutterman, Director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, The World Newspapers Association, the World Editor Forum and the Committer to Protect Journalist, pundits say shows the UP led administration intolerance towards the free press in Liberia.
Sieh was arrested on the 21 of August and is currently under heavy security guards at the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Medical Hospital in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Sieh began a hunger strike about a week ago at the Monrovia Central Prison before he was admitted at the sanatorium for malaria.
The Liberian human rights lawyer remarks comes in the wake of Justice Minister Christina Tah comments that the legal team representing the Front page Africa editor needed to do proper research before approaching the ECOWAS Human Rights Court to seek redress in the current Libel case against the FPA and Rodney Sieh, in which former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe won an unprecedented 1.5 million U.S. dollars award from a lower court, a decision the Supreme Court affirmed. Sieh say he was unable to continue his appeal, because an appeal under Liberian Laws must be equal to a judgment, meaning he needed about 2millions dollars to continue the court process, besides that he cited clear conflict of interest both from the Supreme court bench and jurors who testified that they received money in the verdict that indicted him.
Reports say the ECOWAS Human Rights court based in Abuja has jurisdiction over the 16 countries within the sub region. The court according to reports hears cases when ECOWAS citizens seek “relief for violation of their human rights.” The court was established in 1991. “In past cases, remedies ordered by the Court included both awards of damages, as well as specific orders such as an order for the immediate release of an illegally detained journalist,” in the Gambia.
The Liberian Justice Minister said the legal team representing Mr. Sieh, of which Cllr wood is a lead counsel would be wasting their time if they approach the court, instructing them to do more research, and this drew a furious reaction from the lawyer. “I want to say in short that this is no longer a matter between two private citizens. It has gone beyond that and we will begin to take it at such and with comments made; it has become very clear that government is a party to this case, Wood stated… My representation of Mr. Sieh must not be seen as a way of undermining the decision of the Supreme Court of Liberia. We are going to continue our representation in line with the due process of the law,” he said, adding, that there were “hidden and invisible actors behind the shadow.”
The comments by Minister Tah, Woods said were unfortunate because all along the government of Liberia has said that the matter were between two private citizens: former Agriculture Minister Chris Toe and the FPA Editor Rodney Sieh.
The prominent human rights advocate and lawyer said he was taken aback by the high official of government comments indicating, “But this shows that there are hidden and invisible hands playing behind the scenes hiding in the shadows. They have been exposed, we know who the real enemies are and we will begin to address that in the context of what we want to do and we know now that there are other interested parties in this case as demonstrated by the public comments they made.”
Cllr Woods also said the free press was under attack in Liberia, “Laws that exist and contravene our constitution and violates free speech are laws that we must seek to reform. The situation with Rodney Sieh provides us an opportunity to start that reform process. I have often said it is not only Rodney Sieh today that is being attacked; it is the media that is under attack.”
He narrated that he would not yield to pressure and threats from the higher ups in the government, because he was determined to representing his client, “no one will discourage us; when the need be, we will approach ECOWAS (Court); If anyone think they can tie us into submission they are mistaken. The ECOWAS laws are very clear on violation of human rights against ECOWAS citizens and if any portion of our constitution violates the African charter on human rights or if any ECOWAS citizens suffer and is been held because of an outdated law we will result to the ECOWAS Court.”
He further accused the government and Minister Tah of not doing much to addressing the many problems that should claimed the immediate immediate attention of national government, saying “Cllr. Tah will do well to begin to show compassion and will do well to begin to address the case of our young girls who are being raped and video-taped by men, visit our prisons and see how to improve it from a state of human dungeon. The case with Rodney Sieh is not her business, if she wants to represent the other party she is welcome to do so.”
The comments coming from Cllr Woods reports say illustrates that the Rodney Sieh case underlines the determination of the legal team to see that the case is persecuted to its logical conclusion. Liberia is an emerging post war democracy and president Sirleaf enjoys unfettered international support from western countries. Her critics says she is practicing nepotism by placing three of her sons in key government positions while she has done little in persecuting corrupt government officials.