Belgian Citizen’s Murder Suspects’ Fate Decided Today

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Fifteen persons accused of killing a Belgian national, Michael Bruno, referred to in court document as “Bruno Nicholas,” may likely not  go free today, Tuesday, March 18,  if their pleas to drop murder  charges against them is rejected by Criminal Court ‘A’ at the Temple of Justice.

Following the killing of Bruno, who was the general manager of the Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC) in Grand Bassa County, the then US Ambassador to Liberia, Donald Booth, had sent a “classified document,” exclusively on Bruno’s death to Washington. Thanks to Wikileaks, the “classified document” is attached below.

However, the Criminal Court A’s position to decide the fate of the accused was announced by Judge Yussif Kaba, following final legal arguments on Friday, March 14 in a “Motion to Dismiss and for Acquittal of the Defendants” filed by the defense team. However, the prosecution has argued that the Court denied the motion filed by the defense team.

In their counter arguments on Friday, the defense team explained that defendants were tried in 2008, at the Second Judicial Circuit Court for Grand Bassa County by Judge Benedict Holt.

They argued that Judge Holt was forced to “terminate” the matter based on revelations of jury tampering from then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Cllr. Johnnie N.N. Lewis.

“As a result, no other courts, including Criminal Court ‘A’ has the lawful authority to try the defendants for the same crime, since it was terminated for political interference,” the defense team argued.

They further stated that the only reason to retry a defendant should be based on circumstances over which the court has no control, citing illness of jurors, the judge, the defendants or any person whose present and participation is indispensible to a fair and impartial trial, as examples.

According to them, the trial has progressed to the point where both state and defense team rested production of both oral and documentary evidence before it was terminated by the state, something, they alleged is “double jeopardy.”

The defense said Article 21 (b) of the 1986 Constitution provides that no person should be subject to double jeopardy, meaning being prosecuted or sentenced twice for the same offense.

“Therefore, our clients should be discharged from having to answer for the same crime again, and for matter which was terminated by Judge Holt,” the defense team insisted to the court.

Prosecution for their part, argued that any decision to accept the motion means reviewing the action of Judge Holt, which will be a violation of the law that states, “Judges of concurrence jurisdiction cannot review the acts of their predecessor. Only the Supreme Court of Liberia has the sole authority to review judge’s decision.”

According to them, Judge Holt did not disband the jury upon ordered of Chief Justice Lewis, but rather conducted an investigation of jury’s tempering.

At the conclusion of said investigation it was then he ruled that there was indeed jury tampering.

 “We all accepted the Judge’s disbandment of the jury and ordering of a new trial, therefore the allegation that the original trial was ‘terminated’ because of political interference has no basis and it should be ignored.”

“Therefore, the ruling of Judge Holt and ordering of a new trial is conclusive and binding on all parties,” the prosecution team also insisted.

The defendants were charged of the crime “murder” in 2008 for allegedly using a single barrel gun to shoot and kill Michael Bruno on November 17, 2007, at the extension site of the Liberia Agriculture Company (LAC) in District #3, Grand Bassa County.

A claim they denied when they were first tried in 2008, by Judge Benedict Holt of the Second Judicial Circuit Court for Grand Bassa County.

However, under the law a defendant charged with the commission of the crime murder is not entitled to a bail, but all of the defendants are currently placed on a bail bond, meaning they are not in jail. 

Surprisingly, Judge Holt suspended the case and transferred it to the First Judicial Circuit Criminal Court ‘A’ for Montserrado County, following allegation of jury’s tempering.

Under the law a court can acquired jurisdiction by virtue of a transferred of a case.

That allegation was brought to the attention of Judge Holt by then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Liberia, Johnnie N.N. Lewis.

Chief Justice Lewis further alleged he received the jury’s tempering complaint from somebody he described as “Higher up.”

Based on that complaint, Judge Holt disbanded the jury team and awarded a new-trial, according to him, his investigation established that senior court’s staff was involved in the acts.

Classified By: AMBASSADOR DONALD E. BOOTH FOR REASONS 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. (C) SUMMARY. The Executive Mansion has called the murder of Liberian Agriculture Company (LAC) General Manager Michael Bruno "unacceptable" and vowed to find and prosecute the perpetrators as soon as possible in order to protect Liberia's investment climate. The Mansion also expressed concern that the murder may have political implications and vowed to bring any politicians involved to justice. The Liberty Party told Embassy PolOff its top officials are being monitored by the Government of Liberia (GOL) and may be prohibited from leaving the country. The Liberian National Police (LNP) sent its Director along with a team of its best investigators to Grand Bassa County and have detained twenty persons of interest. No official arrests have been made. The United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) has secured the LAC rubber plantation and is providing support to the LNP. END SUMMARY.

GOL RESPONSE TO MURDER OF MICHAEL BRUNO

2. (C) President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf publicly expressed sympathy for the loss of Michael Bruno and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice as soon as possible. She called the act "unacceptable" and denounced those "wishing to create unnecessary tension and terror in the country, with the objective to undermine efforts of the government to secure a peaceful and stable environment for all of its people and foreign residents." Vice President Joseph Boakai said that the GOL would work to increase security while helping LAC to bring development and jobs to the area as planned. Executive Mansion Press Secretary Cyrus Badio, however, was more pointed. He said that Bruno's death had political implications and was not an isolated event. Minister of Justice Philip Banks vowed to act swiftly on the case and went personally to witness the autopsy of Michael Bruno.

LNP SENDS DIRECTOR AND TOP INVESTIGATORS, UNMIL SECURES LAC PLANTATION

3. (U) LNP sent its Director and a top team from the Criminal Investigations Unit to Grand Bassa County to investigate. UNMIL has deployed extra troops to the area and secured the surrounding area of the LAC rubber plantation. United Nations Police (UNPOL) officers are assisting the LNP with all parts of the investigation.

ADDITIONAL FACTS ABOUT THE LAC MURDER CASE

4. (C) LNP Chief of Criminal Investigations Steven Zargo clarified a few facts for us on the case November 20. The victim was a 36-year-old Belgian named Michael Bruno (press reports have called him Bruneo Michel, Bruno Michiel, and other incorrect variations), General Manager of the Liberian Agriculture Company (LAC). Bruno was driving in Grand Bassa County November 17 with three African LAC employees (Liberian and Ghanaian) on the land LAC obtained through its November 15 plantation expansion agreement with the GOL. Between 0800 and 0830 the car was ambushed by villagers and Bruno was shot dead. The three African employees fled the scene immediately. They were not harmed. Zargo could not confirm whether LNP knew of their whereabouts or whether or not they were involved in the crime. Rumors that Bruno's body was mutilated are not true. Zargo was present at the post-mortem investigation and said that Bruno suffered a gunshot wound to the head.

TWENTY "PERSONS OF INTEREST" DETAINED, NO ARRESTS

5. (C) Though the press reported that twenty people were arrested as suspects for the murder, Zargo clarified that no official arrests have been made. He confirmed that "twenty persons of interest" from surrounding villages have been detained in a non-prison compound. Zargo said that most of the detainees were "known troublemakers from the area" and that several were cooperating with information. He said that as Liberian law requires that all arrested persons be charged or released in 48 hours, the LNP would wait to make any official arrest until they have enough evidence to file any charges. 6. (C) Zargo emphasized that the investigation was still in its early stages but vowed that the LNP would leave no stone unturned in the case. He expressed confidence that the murder was not linked to the bank truck robbery, but could not rule out that the incident was premeditated nor that the MONROVIA 00001359 002 OF 002 three LAC African employees in the car were involved. His biggest concern was keeping the general peace in Grand Bassa County. He said that local population could become violent easily and worried that they may turn against the police for investigating the crime.

EXECUTIVE MANSION PRESS SECRETARY WARNS OF POLITICAL TIES TO MURDER

7. (C) Executive Mansion Press Secretary Cyrus Badio said at a press conference November 19 that the murder "had political implications" and "wasn't isolated." He vowed that any politicians found to have ties to the murder would face justice. As of November 20, no political party in country had yet issued a statement expressing condolences, including the Liberty Party, which controls five of the six seats in Grand Bassa County. Senator Nathaniel Innis of the Grand Bassa County Liberty Party expressed condolences for Bruno's death in a radio interview but then continued on to say that the murder could have been avoided if local people had been included in the LAC expansion negotiations.

LIBERTY PARTY FACES SCRUTINY, POSSIBLE TRAVEL BAN

8. (C) The Chairman of the Liberty Party Israel Akinsanya told us that the GOL was actively trying to link his party to the murder and worried that party officials would soon be threatened. He said that GOL security forces had been ordered to monitor the movement of all senior Liberty party officials and prohibit them from exiting Liberia through all border crossings, airports and sea ports. There have been no official announcements, however, that Liberty Party personnel are considered suspects or are subject to any travel ban.

9. (C) COMMENT: There is no evidence yet directly linking the Liberty Party to the murder of Michael Bruno. However, because it is considered the most serious opposition to the ruling Unity Party, and its popular base has always been Grand Bassa County, the Liberty Party has been implicated in the public eye. After Edwin Snowe, who was maneuvered out of the House Speakership earlier this year, Liberty Party standard bearer (and 2005 Presidential candidate) Charles Brumskine is the leading political opponent of President Sirleaf and her Unity Party. In is quite possible Unity Party statements are using the murder as a convenient excuse to undermine Brumskine's and the Liberty Party's ability to function as an effective opposition.

10. (C) Comment (Cont.): Protection of ancestral land has been one of the most prominent issues of the Liberty Party's local campaign. While they may not have ordered the murder directly, the Party was certainly active in getting the local population to oppose LAC's expansion. The underlying land issues that ultimately lead to the murder of Michael Bruno illustrate exactly why it is so important to Liberia's development to harmonize the traditional tribal land certificates with a formal deed system. END COMMENT. Booth

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