‘Judiciary Under Siege’

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Associate Justice Kabinah Ja’neh has said that access to justice in Liberia, especially in the criminal Justice sector, is illusive because the system is besieged by numerous complex challenges.
Speaking at a symposium at the Monrovia City Hall yesterday, organized in honor of Dr. Amos C. Sawyer’s 70th birth anniversary by a group known as the Well Wishers of Amos Claudius Sawyer (WACS), Justice Ja’neh said though the government has made tremendous investment in transforming the justice system since 2006, there are more problems that need to be addressed.

The event was held under the theme: “The State of Democratic Governance and Development in West Africa and Challenges of the Future.”

According to the Associate Justice, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Liberians to have access to justice because of the many flaws that exist in the system, some of which are outdated and have no place in the current dispensation.

“Among key problems that need transformation, Justice Ja’neh said, “are archaic habits by security officers to rush to arrest suspects without gathering relevant evidence that are adequate to ensure successful prosecution and failure of magistrates to properly exercise their authority to issue writ of arrest only upon determination that culpable cause exist as mandated by law.”

He discussed issues that related to access to justice with particular focus on the country’s criminal justice system. “Our goal here is to highlight the challenges faced by the system and to encourage a more robust national investment in the criminal justice sector, especially as the UNMIL drawdown process continues,” he noted.

He also noted further that the national legislature has also been contributing to the problem with the passage of barrage of laws not necessarily responsive to current realities.

Justice Ja’neh said pretrial detention, which is making prisons across the country overcrowded, is becoming a serious problem and needs to be addressed. “The Monrovia Central Prison has now become the home of many detainees because they have spent so many years there without being indicted.”

He admitted that some verdicts or court decisions are highly influence by judges or magistrates, though he did not indicate how these decisions are influenced.

“In some of the courts, especially in the leeward counties, the verdicts are determined by the magistrates and the grand jury is just there as their mouth pieces,” Justice Ja’neh said.

He said the failure of the Justice Ministry to prosecute people that have been charged, and have lingered in detention for longer periods of time, is making justice very unattainable in the country, while many have stayed longer in detention for unproved reasons.

He noted that there is no place for a jury system because it is contributing to a lot of unfair judicial decisions that sometimes allow the culprits to go scot-free while victims go with broken hearts because jurors have no knowledge on the law and most of them are asleep when proceedings are ongoing.

“The jury system is having little or no impact in the justice system,” he said, “but rather waste of money and time. We are paying a lot of money to jurors who have no impact on the system.”

Justice Ja’neh’s comments clearly validate the 2014 report of the US Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor which highlights corruption, an inefficient justice system, pretrial detentions and police harassment to be among many rights abuses in Liberia.

Some judges, according to the report, accepted bribes to award or avoid damages in civil cases, depending on the higher bidder.

“Judges sometimes requested bribes to try cases, release detainees from prison, or find defendants not guilty in criminal cases. Defense attorneys and prosecutors sometimes suggested defendants pay bribes to secure favorable rulings from or to appease judges, prosecutors, jurors, and police officers,” the report said.

The report also points out denial of due process and harsh prison conditions, violence, intimidation of detainees, official corruption and arbitrary arrests and detention as other abuses by the Liberian Government.

Providing another reason why Liberians have no access to justice, the Justice Ja’neh who also once served as Justice Minister in the erstwhile National Transitional Government of Liberia, noted that inverse relations between the number of magisterial courts and the population density are also major problems, indicating that some sparsely populated areas have more magisterial courts than counties that are densely populated.

“A case in point is Sinoe and Nimba counties,” Justice Ja’neh said, the latter with 34 Magisterial Courts, [compared to] the former, (less than 15), though the population of a single district in Nimba is more than the entire population of Sinoe.

There is a desperate need to look at the long detention issues, he said. “I’m not against people being charged when they are accused of crimes, but what I’m against is, when they are charged they should be prosecuted and not detained for longer time as it has become a tradition in our justice system.”

“When you go to rural parts of Liberia, sometimes the distance between one magisterial district and the other is anywhere between three to four hours walking. Interestingly most of the magisterial courts in this country are based in counties where there is hardly any population,” Justice Ja’neh stated.

Renowned Liberian Human Rights lawyer, Cllr. Tiawon Gongloe, said more need to be done because Liberian truly do not have access to justice, due process and fair trails.

Sometimes people are held in detention for no reason. “How can you put charges on people for things you cannot justify with law? I visit so many prisons across the country where people are charged for witchcraft activities. As a prosecutor, how can you justify that with the law?”

The other two presenters at the symposium were renowned Nigerian Professor of Political Science at Babcock University, Adele Jinadu and Lead Economist at the National Miillinium Challlenge Development Program, Samuuel Tweah.

The occasion was also graced by high level dignitaries including CBL Executive Governor, Dr. Joseph Mills Jones, Amb. Dew T. W. Mayson, former Grand Kru Senator, Cletus Wortorson and others. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attended the opening of the symposium but left before Justice Ja’neh made his remarks.

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