News / Africa

Lawyer Says Life Threatened Over Liberian Candidate Residency Court Challenge

Syrenius Cephus says the actions of the ruling Unity Party chairman might have instigated the alleged threats on his life


James Butty

The Liberian Supreme Court will hear arguments Tuesday on a lawsuit challenging the decision of the National Elections Commission to certify 16 presidential candidates, including President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for next month’s elections.

The Liberian Constitution states that “no person shall be eligible to hold the office of president or vice president unless that person is resident in the Republic ten years prior to his election.”

Last month’s constitutional referendum to change the requirement to five years failed.  The lawyer for the group Concerned Citizens of Liberia that filed the suit has asked the court to withdraw his name because his life has been threatened.

Sayma Syrenius Cephus said the actions of the national chairman and lawyer for the ruling Unity Party, Varney Sherman, might have instigated the threats.

“Apparently those who believe that their candidate will not have the opportunity to participate in the election decided to engage in phone calls by threatening me and saying that, if any of their candidates loses the opportunity to contest the ensuing election on October 11, 2011, I will have to use [a] helicopter to go to work or [a] helicopter to go home, and I became so frightened because of the personal safety of my family and myself,” he said.

Cephus accused Sherman of organizing a “cheering squad” after the Supreme Court ruled to lift the stay it had previously ordered on the political parties.

“I’m sending this message directly to Counselor Varney Sherman. He brought [a] cheering squad [to] the ground floor of the Supreme Court.  I’m not sure if he has full control over their actions or not, but whether it is they or somebody else who decided to engage in such a mischief, I certainly would not know. But, he was the one who instigated the presence of such [a] cheering squad on the grounds of the Supreme Court,” Cephus said.

Sherman said supporters of the ruling party have no reason to threaten Cephus.

“Counselor Cephus said I brought in the cheering squad.  You should get a copy of our returns and see the citation that we made. You have a petition for the writ of prohibition [and] not a single citation of law that the gentleman relied on except for the residency clause.  Why would Unity Party partisans want to threaten Counselor Cephus?  This [he] is not one of the outstanding lawyers in this country. This is not one case that we have any reason to believe that he will win,” he said.

Sherman said his party is confident that the court will rule that President Sirleaf has met the constitutional requirement to seek re-election.

“I said that months, months and months ago; I said that on radio interviews in this country that [President] Ellen Sirleaf is not barred by the 10-year residency clause.  The thing about the residency clause is that the ordinary man interprets it in keeping with his knowledge of the English language. This requirement of the constitution is a legal issue.  Residency is defined by [the] law,” Sherman said.

Cephus said he has been directed by the court to appear on Tuesday and that, in the event the petitioners cannot find a lawyer, he will have to represent the petitioners.

He said he did not report the alleged threat against him to the Justice Ministry because, according to him, he does not trust it.

“It would be a waste of time on two basic fundamental grounds.  Ground number one, there are too many murder cases in this country that are unsolved.  For somebody threatening me using phone calls, the Justice Ministry is a respondent in the case.  It’s like a complainer asking an armed robber for personal security in a trial in which the very armed robber is on trial,” Cephus said.

Cephus dismissed speculation by some that he had been paid off to withdraw from the case.

“I will never ever do that.  First, I have a fiduciary responsibility with my client and that relationship should be completely strong in every case, and I don’t have any reason to trade off,” Cephus said.

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