A senior Liberian official said the West African country has made significant progress in rooting out corruption and improving the justice system.
Justice Minister Christian Tah was reacting to the most recent U.S. State Department human rights report that criticized Liberia for judicial inefficiency and corruption, lengthy pretrial detention, denial of due process and harsh prison conditions.
The report said government officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity, and said judges, magistrates, and jurors were subject to influence and corruption.
Tah and Anti-Corruption Commission Chairperson Frances Johnson-Morris both agree that corruption remains a menace in Liberia.
But, Tah said Liberia, having inherited a completely dismantled social and justice system as a post-war country, is determined to continue the improvements.
“In the first place, I have not read this report. I was only told about it this morning. I can only say, generally, that our people know where we have come from and our people know in the last six or seven years where we were and what we have done to come from where we were to where we are, and that well-meaning Liberians and foreigners partners know that we have improved significantly,” she said.
The report said an estimated 78 percent of prisoners in Liberia were pretrial detainees, despite the release of hundreds (710) by the “Fast Track Court and 26 by the probation program to reduce overcrowding.”
It said, “Judges were susceptible to bribes for awarding damages in civil cases; judges sometimes requested bribes to try cases, released detainees from prison, or found defendants not guilty in criminal cases.”
Tah said it’s difficult to run a post-war country with all its social institutions dismantled due to civil war. But, she said the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been working to improve the justice system, including reducing the number of pretrial detentions.
“One of the things we identified right away was that the system was operating in a disjointed fashion. It had to be operated holistically; that means that all the justice actors - the police, the court house, the prosecution, and the prison system - all of those institutions had to operate interdependently. And, fortunately for us, the judiciary has agreed to collaborate with us, and, because of that, we’ve been able to make a lot of improvement,” Tah said.
She said the government has begun to decentralize the system by embarking on building five justice hubs around the country so that every Liberian will have access to the justice system.
“That shows that we are really determined to improve the system. Right now, we are revamping the entire prosecution team; we have [a] new Solicitor General. We meet every day looking at the cases we have to prioritize,” she said.
Tah said the government is equally concerned about other issues such as the sexual exploitation of children, human trafficking, and fraudulent sale of land, and has begun to train prosecutors to handle specific criminal areas.
The report said government “officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.” It said low pay levels for the civil service, minimal job training, and few court convictions exacerbated official corruption and encouraged a culture of impunity.
It said the Ministry of Justice and the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) are two agencies responsible for exposing and combating official corruption.
The report said the LACC investigated 16 cases and recommended eight for prosecutions resulting in one conviction.
It said, over the LACC’s objections, the Justice Ministry dropped charges against the former Inspector General of police, Beatrice Munah Sieh, for irregularities in the procurement of uniforms.
Tah said her ministry has been aggressive in prosecuting corrupt officials given the resources at its disposal.
She said her ministry dropped charges against Sieh because of lack of sufficient evidence.
“I would like to address [the] Munah Sieh case because it comes up a lot, and I think it is only fair for [the] public to know the facts. I will not prosecute any Liberian citizen on insufficient evidence. It’s not fair for taxpayers to pay for a case that we know will not be successfully prosecuted,” Tah said.
Johnson-Morris said her commission has been unable to get a strong commitment from the judicial branch with regards to the prosecution of corrupt officials.
She confirmed that the Justice Ministry dropped charges against former police Inspector General Sieh for lack of sufficient evidence. But, Johnson-Morris said her commission is now prosecuting that case.
“It will interest [you] to know that that same case that they dropped for lack of sufficient evidence is being prosecuted by the LACC. The jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty against the former police chief and her collaborators. We filed the motion for a new trial and the process is on,” Johnson-Morris said.
Johnson-Morris also said “cultural factor” is another aspect hampering her commission’s fight against corruption, whereby the society glorifies corrupt individuals more than those trying to earn an honest living.