Liberia’s justice minister has vowed the government of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf will push for reform of the jury system as part of overall efforts to fight corruption in the judiciary.
There have been numerous reports that the Liberian judicial system is being run like a marketplace where the person who spends the most money is usually acquitted or wins cases.
Christiana Tah was reacting to a judge’s decision to acquit former Information Minister Lawrence Bropleh, who had been accused by the government of stealing more than $200,000 while in office.
She told VOA the government has already filed an appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Court.
“I can say quite candidly that I was very shocked when I was told that the case was dismissed. I sent for the prosecutors to explain to me what was going on and whether it was true that they had not shown up in court, and they told me they had shown up in court.”
“They were there when the judge concluded his ruling and the clerk only indicated the exception and did not note on the record that they had taken an appeal. They told me that they were concerned about the improper behavior of the judge and they were taking recourse to the Supreme Court,” she said.
The government has lost a number corruption-related cases due to what some observers have called ineptitude and corruption in the judicial system.
Tah said the Sirleaf government has demonstrated its commitment to fight corruption.
“Everybody knows that Mrs. (Johnson) Sirleaf’s government has been very strong against corruption. I think the world also knows that we have won corruption cases. We carried two central bank cases to court and we won those cases. We won other cases for armed robbery and murder and bank fraud, and all of that. I think this idea that people think we have a system that requires that every case (be) won is unrealistic,” Tah said.
She said the court cases that the government has lost were due to what she called the many problems in the judicial system.
“Our challenge is going after people who violate the law outside, but the bigger challenge that we have is dealing with people in the system who are also corrupt, who are also inept and make it difficult for you to do your job. So, sometimes, when we lose cases and things don’t go the way they are supposed to go, it’s not because the prosecution did not do its job. It’s because it’s a manifestation of other problems in the system,” Tah said.
Tah said some of problems affecting the Liberian judicial system include the kind of jurors in some cases, the kind of judges presiding over some cases, and logistical problems.
There have been numerous accounts suggesting that the Liberian judicial system is being run like a marketplace where the person who spends the most money is usually acquitted or wins cases.
The justice minister said the government has heard complaints about the jurors taking bribes to decide cases most often in favor of the defendants.
“We are concerned about the jury system and some of the questions that the public has are not unfounded. We have heard of lot instances where jurors received bribes and voted in favor of the person, usually the defendant,” Tah said.
Liberia’s Constitution provides for trial by jury. Tah said the government intends to work with the judicial and legislative branches in the very near future for a new jury reform law.
“We are concerned with jury tampering and all kinds of things. So, what we decided to do, I spoke with one of the justices a couple of weeks ago and we decided to have a retreat on jury reform to see how we can reform the jury law. We’ve been talking about this a long time and I think it’s time that we take action so that, when the legislature comes back in January, we will have the opportunity to submit a new jury law to them, something that will really transform the system, maybe not necessarily doing away with the jury system, but at least revising it in such a way that will reduce the likelihood of corruption,” she said.
Minister Tah admits that reforming the jury system alone may not be the panacea to the many problems afflicting the judicial system. She said Liberians also must change their attitudes.
She said she will not hesitate to fire any prosecutor who, it has been proven, is corrupt.
As for former minister Bropleh, he told VOA the judge’s decision to dismiss his corruption case proves that he did not steal over $200,000 as alleged by the government.
“This has been 14 months of agony for me, agony because I had believed all along that these were allegations that I was completely innocent of and, I think, in the wisdom of the court dismissing these charges against me was the right thing to do,” Bropleh said.
He said the government has no legal ground on which to appeal to appeal his acquittal to the Supreme Court.
“You cannot file an appeal in this process when the court has dismissed the case with prejudice. When the court dismisses a case with prejudice, that’s the idea of what they call double jeopardy. The government cannot reopen this case because the government has not been prepared to move forward simply because I believe the government does not have the evidence and has dragged its feet,” Bropleh said.
He said the Johnson-Sirleaf government’s fight against corruption “cannot be realized when there is an apparent process of selective prosecution.”