Lawyers Fight to Dismiss FDA’s US$6M PUP Case

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Lawyers for four dismissed Frostery Development Authority (FDA) managers and a senior surveyor from the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy are fighting to convince Judge Peter Gbeneweleh of Criminal Court “C” to drop the US$6m case against their clients.

Judge Gbeneweleh is serving as both the judge and jury, because the defense team chose to wave their rights for a jury.
The judge will decide on Wednesday whether or not he will drop the charges against the defendants.

Their clients are being tried for their alleged individual roles in the illegal issuing of up to 61 Private Use Permits (PUPs) that authorized commercial logging operations on nearly 2.5 million hectares of farmland in the country when they were serving in their respective positions.
They were charged based on the report of a Special Independent Investigative Body (SIIB) setup by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to inquire about the issuance of the 61 PUPs by the defendants.

The report is vital to the case but this is a claim the accused have denied and are yet to take the witness stand to testify in their own behalf. Their lawyers are petitioning Judge Gbeneweleh not to allow them to testify.

Surprisingly, the defense team is pushing this argument after the prosecution had rested with the production of witnesses and documentary evidences.

In their argument last Wednesday before Judge Gbeneweleh, a defense lawyer, Cllr. Albert Sim, said prosecutors’ witnesses failed to prove the guilt of the defendants beyond a reasonable doubt.

According to a judicial expert, a burden of proof means the prosecutors must present evidence at the trial that proves beyond any doubt that the accused person committed the crimes for which he or she is being tried.
The expert further said if the prosecution has not presented any evidence on a necessary fact then the case could be dismissed without the defendants having to put on any evidence, meaning that the defendants can’t take the stand.

Further to the argument, Cllr. Sim explained that James Dorbor Jallah, who chaired the Special Independent Investigative Body (SIIB), charged that their clients failed to investigate one of the defendants, David Blayee, former County Surveyor of the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, assigned in Grand Bassa County.

Unfortunately, he contended, the Jallah Committee’s final report submitted to President Sirleaf recommended that Blayee be prosecuted along with the other defendants.

During his testimony, Jallah admitted that his committee did not investigate Blayee. Instead, he was charged based on interviews they held with residents in those PUP areas.
“They did not give him the due process under our law. He was not investigated, but indicted,” Cllr. Sim explained.

According to him, the report was selective, which may cause it to lose its credibility.
“The report recommended one month suspension for the board of Director of the FDA, Dr. Florence Chenoweth, who is the Minister of Agriculture,” he stated.

He also added that Chenoweth was one of those who signed and approved the issuance of the PUPs to most of the logging companies, but unfortunately she is not being prosecuted.”
He continued, “They are not schooled in the area of criminal investigation so how do they arrive at the US$6m. It was based on speculation.”

Based on these, the defense team asked the court not to allow the defendants to testify, but to drop the case against them.

In counter argument, a member of the prosecution team, Atty. Abraham Sillah, contended that they proved their case beyond reasonable doubt.
”All of the witnesses we presented testified about each of the defendants’ role in the issuance of the PUPs,” he further argued.

He admitted that the Jallah Committee did not investigate David Blayee, because, according to him, when Blayee heard that the group was going to his county for investigation, he fled the area.
“We do not even need his investigation before we can indict him, because the committee visited most of the communities where they had issued the PUPs and collected information there, so they did not have to ask him for his side of the story, after he had fled,” Atty.

Sillah explained, supporting the Jallah Committee’s decision not to investigating Blayee.

According to him, during the investigation, nobody was arrested by the police, but it was after the committee presented its findings to President Sirleaf that she recommended that the defendants be prosecuted.

Dismissed FDA Managing Director Moses Diakpo Wogbeh, along with other managers, including a surveyor at the Ministry of Lands, Mines and Energy, are charged with eeconomic sabotage, criminal conspiracy, forgery or counterfeiting obtaining and deceptive writings, obstruction of government by public servant in connection with the much publicized Private Use Permits (PUPs) saga.

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