‘Belated and Unconstitutional’

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Constitutional and Human Rights lawyer Counselor Tiawan Gongloe has described President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s power request to the National Legislature as “belated and unconstitutional.”

He described her request as  “worrisome and scary.”

Speaking in an exclusive interview with the Daily Observer Wednesday, October 8, Cllr. Gongloe said Article 88 of the 1986 Constitution has a  specific provision  that says following a declaration of a state of emergency,  “The President shall within seven days, not later than, put before the Legislature in regular session the facts and circumstances associated with such declaration.”

Going further, he said “The Legislature in 72 hours shall have joint resolution voted by 2 1/3 members of both Houses to declare whether the state of emergency is justified or whether the measures taken are appropriate.”

He noted that the President declared the state of emergency in August; and she is now requesting for additional powers in October, something Cllr. Gongloe said should not be given because the statute of limitation is wrong and unconstitutional.

In a letter to Speaker Alex Tyler dated October 1, 2014, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said that as a follow up to her communication dated August 7, 2014 laying the facts and circumstances necessitating the declaration of a state of emergency, she was asking for legislative approval of some measures that will suspend or restrict certain rights in some provisions in the Constitution.

Among the provisions, President Sirleaf is seeking for restrictions of rights of Liberians in Articles 1, 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, and 21.

In Cllr. Gongloe’s argument on Article 1, he said the President’s request is in contravention of Article 87 of the Constitution which provides that during a state of emergency the Constitution cannot be suspended, amended or abrogated.

Article 1 provides that all power is inherent in the people, giving the Human Rights lawyer the ground to argue that this article sums up the entire constitution.

He added that the Constitution did not mention pestilence under Emergency Powers but military attack and civil unrest, and therefore Ebola is not a condition to suspend the Constitution or any part thereof.

On Article 12, which protects Liberians from being subjected to forced labor, Cllr. Gongloe said the President needs no power to seek from the Legislature because the Constitution is clear that during emergency people can be asked to help solve a prevailing disaster caused either by flood or fire, and that no one will complain of abuse of his/her right.

He said Liberians having seen and felt the negative impacts of Ebola, are conscious now to follow all pieces of hygienic advice and abide by established measures to prevent Ebola. “The President’s request for additional powers in the Ebola crisis makes it suspect, leading the people to ask what really does she want to do.”

“Future constitutional amendments should look at pestilence in the future, but for the President to look at Article 1 and suspend it for Ebola, I am worried by that  this is arbitrary governance,” Cllr. Gongloe added.

On Article 14 which talks about freedom of religion, Cllr. Gongloe intoned that the President seeking power to stop religious practices would be like finding a solution to solve one problem and at the same time creating another problem.

The President stopping people from practicing their religions will surely create public uprising, noting, “We do not want any religion problem in this country, considering our past.  And I don’t know who advises the President, but she is ill advised.

On Article 15, which talks about freedom of movement, Cllr. Gongloe said the request for its suspension is broad, and he worried about prohibiting  travel by “certain individuals,”  as mentioned in the President’s request.

He argued that the President failed to define the category of people whose movements would be restricted, and she can explain it in her own way to suit her power when that power is given.

“Who are the people to be restricted and why?  This looms fear that any of us here can be restricted from traveling.”

On the issue of freedom of speech, Cllr. Gongloe said the President’s request to restrict this basic constitutional right  could lead to what obtained during the Tubman, Doe and Taylor regimes—shutting  down of newspapers and radio stations.  He cited the recent closure of the National Chronicles Newspaper, which was shut down in the first days of the state of emergency.

He said if such meets legislative approval and the President restricts people from speaking their minds, this could immediately plunge  Liberia into her version of the “Arab Spring.”  He reminded the President that communication  is more easily and readily available today than at any time in history.  “We now live in the Information Age,” he averred. 

“Free speech should be open  to get the people speak out so that Government may be informed about what can be done for their safety. 

The Legislature should not approve the request because the people will surely resist it and it will undermine the peace we have,” he maintained.

As for the freedom of assembly, Cllr. Gongloe indicated that he would agree for video clubs and other businesses that bring people into close contact to be shut down under the state of emergency, since coming in contact with one another could help to spread the virus.

However, he said this should be in conformity with expert advice and not done because the President wants it to be done.

He also argued that the portion of the President’s request to expropriate any private property is broad and undefined, raising doubts as to whose property and what kind of property is to be expropriated.

He said the timing for the requested actions is null and void and cannot work, and that any attempt on the part of the Legislature to approve that will lead to the filing of writs of prohibition before the Supreme Court of Liberia.

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