Associate Justice Banks Reveals
Associate Justice Philip A.Z. Banks, who served the 1986 Constitution Committee as director of its legal department, last Friday publicly confessed that members of the commission, including its chairman, Dr. Amos C. Sawyer, inserted certain provisions into the document to favor the People’s Redemption Council (PRC).
On April 12, 1980, Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe led a military coup that killed President William R. Tolbert, Jr., in the Executive Mansion and twenty-six of the president’s supporters, including his cabinet ministers who were made to walk publicly around Monrovia in the nude and then summarily executed by a firing squad on the beach, near the Barclay Training Center (BTC).
Before their execution, the men were put on trial without lawyers to plead their case, and there was no right to appeal the verdict when they were sentenced to death.
Justice Banks, who served as a keynote speaker at the celebration of the recent Law Day, said despite what were clearly human rights abuses committed by the military, the Commission placed into the document Article 97, which was referred to as “Transitional Provisions.”
“We call those provisions transitional so that no PRC member could be held liable for all that was done during that period and they were some of the conditions set forth by the PRC in order to return the country to civilian rule,” Banks emphasized.
CHAPTER XIII TRANSITIONAL PROVISIONS provide that Article 97
a) No executive, legislative, judicial or administrative action taken by the People’s Redemption Council or by any persons, whether military or civilian, in the name of that Council pursuant to any of its decrees shall be questioned in any proceedings whatsoever; and, accordingly, it shall not be lawful for any court or another tribunal to make any order or grant any remedy or relief in respect or any such act.
b) No court or other tribunal shall entertain any action whatsoever instituted against the Government of Liberia, whether before or after the coming into force of this Constitution or against any person or persons who assisted in any manner whatsoever in bringing about the change of Government of Liberia on the 12th day of April, 1980, in respect of any act or commission relating to or consequent upon:
(i) The overthrow of the government in power in Liberia before the establishment of the government of the People’s Redemption Council;
(ii) The suspension of the Constitution of Liberia of July 26, 1847;
(iii) The establishment, functioning and other organs established by the People’s Redemption Council;
(iv) The imposition of any penalties, including the death penalty, or the confiscation of any property by or under the authority of the People’s Redemption Council under a decree made by the Council in pursuance of but not limited to the measures undertaken by the Council to punish persons guilty of crimes and malpractices to the detriment of the Liberian nation, the people, the economy, or the public interest; and (v) The establishment of this Constitution.
Justice Banks said though the people at that time did not know how bad those provisions were, they overwhelmingly voted for their passage, “just so we could see the transition of the country from military to civilian rule.”
He said he played a major role in the crafting of the Constitution, although, according to official records, he was neither a member of the Constitutional Commission nor a member of the 59-member Constitutional Advisory Assembly which military strongman Doe had personally appointed to review the draft Constitution. Banks however served as a resource person and administrative head of the Commission but that did not necessarily mean that he was party to decisions taken by the Commission which were made by consensus or by voting, according to sources.
“We were not satisfied with the composition of the document and though we were under military the ideas that we taught should have been there but did not find their way into the document because we were under obligation to please the military,” he said. But it can however be recalled that the displayed reluctance of military strongman Doe to return to civilian rule led him to set up a hand-picked Constitutional Advisory Assembly to remove what was considered by the military, detestable provisions from the draft Constitution.
Thus for instance, provisions for the establishment of an Ombudsman Commission amongst others, were removed to correct what the late Dr. Edward Binyan Kesselly referred to as “Sawyer’s bloody surgery” on the Constitution. Kesselly’s strong rhetoric, in the eyes of many Liberians Kesselly’s comments were unfounded considering that the Constitutional Commission counted in its ranks eminent individuals and lawyers including former Secretary of State J. Rudolph Grimes, Cllr. J. Emmanuel Berry, University of Liberia law professor, David Kpomakpor, former Supreme Court Justice Robert Azango, Albert Porte, Episcopal Bishop George D.Browne, amongst others.
And according to observers at the time, Kesselly’s harsh rhetoric was clearly intended to appease military strongman Doe whose intentions to contest the 1985 elections were hidden in plain open view. It was during this period of review that the impunity clause for members of the Peoples Redemption Council was entrenched in the document, according to sources close to the Commission at the time.
Justice Banks also claimed that they agreed to reform the constitution in the future to have make what he described as the necessary correction. He also said since 1986 there has not been any effort by the government to make the necessary amendment. In the view of a prominent Liberian lawyer, the facts bear Banks out in this case especially considering the fact that the Gloria Scott led Constitutional Review Commission did not even list amongst its propositions for change, the scrapping of the immunity clause barring accountability for members of the Peoples Redemption Council.
Banks said he was mentioning the issue because that was the same problem that they have with the Circuit Courts that needs urgent reform.
“The assistance from our international partners is, in most cases, not what we want and because we are unable to make the necessary reform we have to use what our partners give us,” Banks stated. “They don’t understand the issue confronting our legal system.”