A planned protest action demanding the unconditional release of political activist Vandalark Patricks from his cell at the Monrovia Central Prison (MCP) yesterday turned violent leading to the arrest of another activist, Archie Sarnor.
Patricks was sent to prison after he failed to secure a US$15,000 bond for his temporary release from jail and to enable him prepare for the sedition and criminal libel charges brought against him by the Government of Liberia.
It all started early Monday, Feb. 29, when Mr. Sarnor led a group of protesters, among them students that were dressed in military khaki uniform, as well as representatives of political parties and civil society organizations to the Temple of Justice to demand the immediate release of Patricks without posting a bond.
At the Temple of Justice, Sarnor and his group prevented the movement of people and vehicles in and out of the compound, thereby leading to the disruption of normal court activities.
They even stopped the convoy of Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor from entering the Temple of Justice compound, which led to the intervention of Liberia National Police (LNP) officers. The police, however, managed to successfully convince the organizers of the protest to allow the Chief Justice to enter his Temple of Justice office.
Minutes after Chief Justice Korkpor entered the compound, the protesters decided to force their way into the compound to continue with their protest; an action that was strongly resisted by the police, who were dressed and armed with riot gear.
In the process of containing the situation from escalating into further chaos, eyewitnesses said, the protesters starting throwing stones at the police who, without hesitation, responded with teargas, which scattered the protesters in all directions. The protesters then began setting roadblocks and vandalizing vehicles on Capitol Hill, the citadel of power.
Normal activities, including the free-flow of traffic, came to a standstill for at least three hours when students from the University of Liberia, dressed in military uniforms, marched to the Temple of Justice and reportedly joined the melee. There are reports that a related case concerning the expulsion from UL of their student-comrade, Alvin Wesseh, motivated their involvement in the protest at the Temple of Justice. The expulsion case against the UL administration is currently pending at the court.
Several others believed to be members of the opposition Congress for Democratic Change (CDC), led by Mulbah Morlu, joined them.
With batons in hand, police responded to the protest, making several arrests, including Archie Sarnor.
Some of the protesters, eyewitnesses said, were throwing stones at the police, while police sprayed teargas in return to disperse them. Some of the protesters reportedly incited groups of UL students to join the fray when they said, “Move on them! Move on them! Their teargas finished!”
The drama ensued when the CDC vice chair for mobilization, Mulbah Morlu, who was at the center of yesterday’s protest, escaped after encountering police head-on and leaving Sarnor at the mercy of the police. He told journalists that the police escalated the situation by brutalizing “peaceful protesters.”
He told reporters at a news conference shortly after the incident that an LNP officer hit him in his right knee with a baton as he was escaping the scene, causing him “some internal injuries”. Although there was no independent confirmation, a female eyewitness said Morlu “leapt from the police like frog from an advancing hunter.”
He however promised to create headache for the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Administration until Patricks is released from further detention.
“We will plan the next course of action to engage the government in street protests using elements of surprise to release Patricks,” Morlue told reporters at CDC headquarters.
Yesterday’s incident coincided with the university administering its final examinations for the first semester. As a result, academic activities came to a standstill, leaving other students expressing annoyance.
“This is complete rudeness these people are carrying on against state security. They have the advantage because the police are not armed,” a frustrated female student said from a distance.
A statement from the Government of Liberia late yesterday condemned what it described as “reckless and unlawful the action of some misguided elements of the society to storm the Temple of Justice when normal courts activities were in session, thus disturbing peaceful citizens transacting their judicial businesses.” The Government promised that, “strong security measures are being put in place to decisively deal with any other acts of violence.”
Vandalark Patricks, for whose cause the protest was held, was invited by the LNP on February 24 over remarks made by him insinuating that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf ordered the Police in 2011 to shoot CDC standard bearer, Winston Tubman, vice standard bearer, George Weah, and other citizens.
He also claimed that the government hired assassins to murder former LPRC Managing Director, Harry Greaves Jr. After Police preliminary investigations, Patricks was charged with sedition and criminal libel against the President and was subsequently incarcerated at the Monrovia Central Prison, where he could only be released on bail if he filed a US$15,000 bond.
As for student Alvin Wesseh, he was expelled from the UL for inciting violence, which led to his supporters dragging the UL administration to court with the hearing pending.
The MICAT statement said government “regrets that in the wake of the democratic atmosphere prevailing in the country, which ensures access to justice for all, it is unthinkable that some unscrupulous elements will once again use young people to create un-necessary tension in the society as a way of achieving their personal motives.”
According to the statement, few officers of the Liberia National Police were wounded in their bid to restore law and order. Police authorities are investigating three of those who participated in the disturbances, including Archie Sarnor, Emmanuel Payne and Wilmot Karngbe.
“Therefore,” the statement concluded, “the government assures everyone, Liberians and foreign nationals residing in the country that their security is guaranteed and that strong security measures are being put in place to decisively deal with any other acts of violence.”
Meanwhile, the US$15,000 bond for Vandalark Patricks could not be paid and therefore he was not released from further detention, despite the demands for his release by the protestors yesterday.