Liberia: Human Rights Commission’s Internal Rift Intensifies Ahead of Crucial S/Court Decision

INCHR Chairperson, Dempster Brown  

 

— Files two different responses on behalf of the commission, in a stay order proceedings before the highest court

The internal wrangling at the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR) is reaching an all-time high just days before the Supreme  Court decides whether or not to remove a stay order on the alleged illegal removal of  Cllr. Charles K. Harris, the vice chair of the commission.

The commission has been facing the issue of a power struggle between its chairperson, Cllr. Dempster Brown, and five of the other commissioners.

The ongoing crisis was triggered when Cllr.  Brown, on January 5, 2023, replied to Cllr. Harris' petition for an alternative writ of prohibition to be issued against the commission, preventing his removal by five of the six commissioners, including Cllr. Pela Boker Wilson, Pindrous W. T. Allison, Atty. Mohammed E. Fahnbulleh, Atty. Patmilla Paivey, and Cllr. Dr. Niveda Ricks Onuoha.

Meanwhile, Associate Justice Joseph Nagbe, Chamber Justice of the Supreme Court, has ordered the reinstatement of Commissioner Harris as vice chairperson until the outcome of the hearing and determination of the petition for a writ of prohibition. Brown, as the spokesman of the commission, was mandated by the Chamber of Justice to respond on behalf of the commission before January 6, 2023, which he did a day early.

Surprisingly, a week after Cllr. Brown submitted the commission response; his rivals (the five commissioners) asked the highest court not to accept the chairman's reply, because it indicted them.

Chairman Brown in his January 6, 2023 reply to the Justice in Chamber claimed that the five commissioners acted illegally when they, on July 8, 2022, endorsed a declaration of vote of non-confidence in the vice chair of the board, Charles K. Harris.

Cllr. Brown recounted how he continues to advise the commissioners to operate and respect the Act that created the Commission. But the commissioners, who are co-respondents in the proceedings, refused to respect the rule of law and operate in accordance with the mandate of the Act that created the Commission, he said.

However, the five commissioners in the application for joinder, filed on January 13 to the Supreme Court, argued that that considering the judgment of the highest court will affect their rights, because they were the ones who took the decision to declare a vote of non-confidence in the vice chair.

"We are compelled to file this application for joiner in this manner. More so, the vote of non-confidence was affected and executed subsequently in a board meeting, converted and presided over by the chairman, in whom the vice chair participated, and so, the decision should not be disturbed," the commissioners further argued.

According to them, before Chairman Brown could file the commission response, they met with him to discuss the filing of the document, which bordered on a decision made by the five commissioners, which led to the vice chair instituting the lawsuit. They also claimed that the chairman at first told them that he was not interested.

"This action by the chairman necessitated us to do the response on behalf of the commission," the five commissioners argued.

Based on that, they went ahead to hire the legal services of Cllr. Eugene L. Massaquoi to file their response.

Unfortunately, after Cllr. Massaquoi filed the commission response, it was when they were informed about the chairman's response, which led to Massaquoi withdrawing their response. 

Later, according to them, after the withdrawal, they went ahead to replace Cllr. Massaquoi with Cllr. Jimmy Saah Bombo, who filed the application for joiner.

Counter responding to the application, Cllr. Harris argued that the document should be dismissed because the writ of prohibition against the commission currently pending before the court is undetermined and therefore presents no traversable issue.

Harris further argued that, for the commissioners to say they hired Cllr. Massaquoi to respond on their behalf is egregious, and it means they do not understand how a group of commissioners can hire a lawyer on behalf of the commission when the chairperson is present and has exhibited no incapability of doing his official duties and responsibilities.

Harris also said Cllr Massaquoi withdrew his response filed on behalf of the commission because he realized that the chairman had already filed on behalf of the commission. 

"What is the basis for hiring another lawyer to refile the response when they noticed that Massaquoi withdrew his response because the chairman had already filed it," Harris wondered. 

"Your Honor and this Honorable Court should dismiss, reject, deny and overrule the application for joiner," Harris said.

Meanwhile, there is no date yet set for the hearing of the application for joiner. 

On December 12, 2022, Cllr. Harris filed before Associate Justice Yussif D. Kaba to issue an alternative writ of prohibition, placing a stay order on his illegal removal as vice chairperson by the three commissioners. Cllr. Brown, as chairperson of the Commission, was included in the suit due to what the petitioner said was his refusal to intervene and stop his colleagues from carrying out that arbitrary action.

Harris in his petition claimed that his majority colleagues were in error when they on October 25, 2022 held a purported meeting to elect a presidential nominee, who has not been confirmed by the Senate to replace him as vice chairperson in violation of the Article 9 section 5 of the INCHR Act.

The Act provides that "the commissioners shall elect a vice chairperson for the commission from among themselves by a two-thirds majority vote." 

Consequently, Cllr Harris alleged that in August 2021, he was elected as a vice chairperson consistent with the act. “The election was held after my confirmation by the Senate," Harris's petition argued.

According to him, a review of the act does not show that the Legislature contemplated the removal of the vice chairperson as there is no provision within the act that provides how the vice chairperson should be removed.

Accordingly, Harris said, he made several attempts to resolve the matter short of litigation, "but the respondents failed to reverse its so-called decision and continue to flout the law."