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Prisoners in Liberia Often Wait Years Before Seeing a Courtroom

Liberia's largest prison, Monrovia Central Prison, houses some prisoners who have waited years for a trial (2007 file photo)

Prisoners in Liberia's overcrowded detention centers can sometimes wait years before their cases go to trial. Now, a Catholic Church sponsored commission is demanding the government improve prison conditions.

Liberia's largest prison sits in the center of the capital, Monrovia. A cement-block fence runs along the perimeter, separating the prison's inmates from the vendors selling food outside its walls. Inside the prison, a 35-year-old inmate cries out for an immediate trial, as he sits inside a crowded cell.

"I have been in prison for more than one year, and I am [having a] hard time in prison," he said. "The government is delaying to come to prosecute us, and every day we are suffering and suffering in prison. We are wishing that we can go for trial soon. But we are not sure when that will happen. But I am tired of being in prison. I am worried about my family and just everybody."

The prisoner, who wished to remain anonymous, is not alone in his demands.

The Catholic Justice and Peace Commission, sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church, was set up to investigate human-rights abuses in the West African country. Executive Director for the commission Attorney Augustine Toe says prison conditions in Liberia are worse than others in the sub-Saharan region. His group is calling for the Liberian government to work for improvements.

"Our facilities in the central prison were built to accommodate 300 persons, and this facility has in excess of 800 persons," said Toe. "So it is true that that whole place is overpopulated and congested and poses health problems. We have got to do better. We have to work together to improve the situation."

Toe stressed that the justice system must be improved in Liberia. Currently, prisoners languish in prisons too long without a trial, and Toe said this present condition borders on a human-rights violation.

"We as an institution have been concerned with access to justice and protecting the fundamental rights of everybody," added Toe. "The issue of pretrial detention has been a long-standing issue with us. We have noticed that people spend days, weeks, months and even years in pretrial detention without trial. Contrary to provisions of our statute of our constitution, so we have been concerned we have been working with relevant institutions to see where we can address this kind of thing."

Toe said according to Liberia's laws, someone accused of a crime should go to court within 130 days of being indicted. But there are prisoners in Monrovia's largest facility who have waited two or three years without a trial.

"It is not a matter of the crime that is committed, on our laws, every accused person should be afforded opportunity for equal trial. It is during equal trial that the innocent or the guilt can be established," Toe Explained.

Toe added prisons should look toward taking on a role toward rehabilitation, rather than condemnation.