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Liberia's Truth Commission Says President Must Testify Despite Legal Advice from Justice Minister

The Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) said President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will have to testify before it. The Commission was set up to investigate the root causes of the Liberian civil war and the subsequent human rights violations and corruption and economic crimes that might have been committed between 1979 and 2003.

It has been alleged by some who testified before the Commission that President Sirleaf, before she was elected president, played a role in the conduct of Charles Taylor’s war efforts. Last month, the president did not show up to testify before the commission as she had promised.

But Justice Minister Phillip Banks has written a legal opinion to President Sirleaf advising her not to testify on constitutional grounds.

John Stewart, a member of the Truth Commission told VOA the commission has made clear to Justice Minister Banks that the President Sirleaf must testify.

“He does cite constitutional provisions, but those constitutional provisions are irrelevant in the case on hand because those constitutional provisions he’s citing, Article 61of the Constitution talked about the incumbency of the president. But we are talking about a period of review that predates the ascendancy of President Sirleaf to the office of the president of the Republic of Liberia,” he said.

In his legal opinion to President Sirleaf, dated September 2, 2008, Justice Minister Banks cited Article 61 of the Liberian Constitution as a reason for which the president should not testify before the commission.

The Article states that “The President shall be immune from any suits, actions or proceedings, judicial or otherwise, and from arrest, detention or other actions on account of any act done by him while president of Liberia pursuant to any provision of this Constitution or any other laws of the Republic.”

In its response, the TRC told the justice minister, “We refute the substance of your communication, reject its premise, rationale and conclusion and all its legal, moral or political foundations. Your opinion, stretching the limits of Article 61 of the Constitution of Liberia to include the LTRC, a non-judicial, truth-seeking, reconciliation and peace building institution, advising the exclusion of the President of Liberia’s testimony from the LTRC process on matters unrelated to her presidency from 1979 to 2003, is, in the least, disappointing and appears analogous to and indistinguishable from dishonesty,” the Truth Commission said.

Stewart said the Commission also told the justice minister that President Sirleaf had earlier publically volunteered to testify before the commission, and that the President has again said she would testify before the commission.

“We said to him that President Sirleaf has not only on several occasions publically pledged her commitment of support to the Truth Commission but also her commitment to appear before the commission and testify. And even in the face his advisory opinion, the president did write a letter saying she would appear anyhow, meaning that she of course will not give heed to his persuasion. She was a player in the political life of this country, and we believe that she must appear to testify,” Stewart said.

Last month, President Sirleaf did not show up to testify before the commission as she had promised she would.

Stewart said this time around the Commission would determine when and how the President can appear to testify.

“What we have said is that we have extended our public hearings up to February in order to accommodate those who have not yet testified and who need to testify. Additionally, there is cut off period, and the President is fully aware that there is a cut off period, and any time between now and that cut off period she can select and we would be pleased to have her,” Stewart said.

In his legal advisory, Justice Minister Banks told President Sirleaf that some members of the Truth Commission would use her appearance before the commission to ridicule her and the office of the presidency.

Stewart said members of the commission were disappointed by the justice minister’s comments.

“I personally and my colleagues feel that the justice minister has made some allegations in his advisory opinion to the President, some of them are very serious, and we asked him to substantiate those allegations and the decent to do is to apologize,” Stewart said.

He said the justice minister’s comments reminded members of the commission of Liberia’s past during which individuals shielded the President from the public good with ill-conceived advice, illegal opinions that place the President above the law.