7 August 2008

Liberia: Death Penalty Under Fire

The short-circuiting of the DDRR programme on the alibi of donor fatigue, according to observers, saw the spiraling upsurge in armed robbery, rape, and bushwhacking.

As the victims list grew, the government of Liberia and UNMIL found themselves increasingly on the defense, hard put to respond criticisms of neglect of responsibility and also to respond to distress calls from scenes of ongoing crimes.

Operations spider-web and sweeping wave were jointly launched by UNMIL and LNP without bringing the situation under control - Monrovia remained scary and dangerous at night.

This must have forced the Sirleaf administration to amend the New Penal Laws of Liberia making rape and armed robbery punishable by death through hanging or life imprisonment.

But the law has come under intense fire from notable international and domestic quarters even before the ink with which it was signed dried. Critics variously call it cruel, inhumane, political, and emotional.

"But is the criticism just?" seems the vital question. The Analyst Staff Writer, reports.

One domestic and two international groups, one of them a recovery partner of Liberia, have vehemently denounced the reintroduction of death penalty in the Liberian penal code and have called for the review of the bill President Sirleaf signed into law recently to legally reinforce it.

In separate statements released globally at separately time, the groups - Amnesty International (AI), the European Union, and US-based Association of Liberian Lawyers in the Americas (ALLA) - accused the administration of going back on the commitment Liberia had made to international efforts to abolish the death penalty.

Incidentally, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, July 22, 2008, signed into law an Act making armed robbery, terrorism and hijacking capital offenses.

The Act to amend "chapters 14 and 15 sub-chapter (c), titled 26," known as the new penal law of 1976, was revised by adding thereto four new sections thereby making the crimes of armed robbery, terrorism and hijacking, respectively, capitol offences and providing punishment therein, a government release said at the time.

The ALLA Paradox

In a statement released by the group early this week titled, "The Death Penalty Standing Alone Is Not The Answer To Crime Prevention And Effective Law Enforcement In Liberia" ALLA said it was appalled and downhearted to read and learn that the government of the Republic of Liberia and the National Legislature have reinstated the death penalty after committing itself to International Humanitarian Law on the abolition of the death penalty.

The statement was signed August 5, 2008 by group's Executive Director, Cllr. Frederick A.B. Jayweh of Denver, Colorado, in the United States.

It then accused the government of enacting ineffectual punitive laws when it should be taking appropriate steps to rehabilitate traumatized Liberians and empower them economically.

But when observers thought ALLA was making a case for the inadequacy of the new act vis-à-vis crime prevention and law enforcement, the group turned from the point and plunged headlong into arguments that brought into question the entire court system and jury selection in particular.

The group went ahead to vilify the law, presenting it as more harmful to present-day Liberia than the insecurity brought on by spiraling crime rates in Liberia's large cities and highways thereby undermining economic recovery by forcing investors to think twice about investing in Liberia.

It notes, "Just like murder, this law and all other death penalty laws found on the books of Liberia are cruel, inhumane, and unjust for the Republic of Liberia and its citizenry.

Forcefully and vehemently ALLA is articulating and asserting that because under this law, an accused indicted, tried, and found guilty could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment, it sees the need for legislative review and evaluation in Liberia."

It is not clear whether ALLA values more the life of a convicted murderer over the lives of innocent Liberians that are being taken in cold blood almost on the daily basis or whether it is concerned with preserving Liberia's international image, but it noted that it was important that the Sirleaf Administration review the law forthwith.

"Since such death could be carried out by hanging for the alleged commission of the crimes of armed robbery, hijacking, or terrorism, ALLA is calling on the government of Liberia to rescind and repeal this law, honor its international obligation as to respecting the right to life and to immediately proceed to encourage modern legislative review and reform in Liberia," ALLA said.

The international obligation in question, according to the legal advocates, is the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was signed by transitional head of state Charles Gyude Bryant and ratified by the NTLA on September 16, 2005. This international covenant or treaty aims at totally abolishing the death penalty in all members and ratifying states.

The Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, aimed at the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989. Many democratic countries, including the United States of America are yet to submit to that protocol which some say is actually optional and not mandatory.

Signing and ratifying it voluntarily though, makes it mandatory, according to campaigners for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.

The protocol provides for the total abolition of the death penalty but allows states parties to retain the death penalty in time of war if they make a reservation to that effect at the time of ratifying or acceding.

It is not known what reservation Liberia made or if it made any reservation at all during the signing and ratification of the protocol, a knowledge that many say is crucial to deciding whether or not the Sirleaf Administration is right in its action.

The Liberian government has not said what the restoration of the death penalty would mean to the protocol the Bryant transitional government signed and ratified on behalf of Liberia, but deputy Information Minister Gabriel Williams defended the reintroduction on the basis that armed crimes had dehumanized the Liberian people after the brutal civil war.

He argued that the new death penalty law was in response to public outcry over the growing crime rate, suggesting that it is prudent to make law for the general good of the people.

But ALLA said such argument cannot lie comfortably where human life is involved: "any law that sanctions and respects the death penalty or the killing of a fellow human being is truly distressing and unrealistic to fighting crimes.

In these modern days, re-instituting and restoring the death penalty as an answer to effective law enforcement and prevention of crimes is clearly repugnant and counterproductive."

It is not death penalty but effective law enforcement and crime prevention that makes a country successful, ALLA said, and then proceeded to introduce another twist to the argument.

"The prevention of crimes and the enforcement of law and order will be successful when the criminal justice system is wholeheartedly and financially supported by a government and its people," it said.

In the view of the group, the death penalty, whether it represents putting a fellow Liberian to death by hanging, firing, or by injection, is cruel, inhumane, and is psychologically painful.

Then it took the argument against death penalty to another controversial level by claiming that in Liberia the death penalty whether for rape, terrorism, or armed robbery would be inappropriate as punitive measure.

This is because, according to ALLA, "Liberia lacks the appropriate method and mechanism to transparently investigate charge, indict, try and convict an accused without actual and undue interference by powerful governmental officials or wealthy litigants."

It said cases leading to the use of the death penalty may therefore not establish proof beyond all reasonable doubts because jury selection and juror deliberations were characterized by intimidation and bribery by powerful people.

It said those who serve on the jury were not elite and highly educated Liberians but often poor, illiterate, and jobless Liberians who are open to bribery and brow-beating and some of whom serve the court system fulltime as jurors.

"In other words and in some cases, he who pays the highest amount of bribes during a jury trial in Liberia is more likely than not to get the verdict. Many poor and financially underserved citizens of Liberia usually make the sitting as grand or petite jury a permanent job.

At times, the grand jury will indict an accused without finding a presentment or a true bill," ALLA said.

"But do these points argue the cruelty and inhumanity of the introduction of the death penalty cruel or do they simply present that the reintroduction is premature and/or inadequate?" is the question observers are asking.

Answer to that question may be crucial to the overall debate, observers say, but ALLA is not in the business of reviewing its own argument for balance. It pressed forward.

"ALLA is therefore calling on the government of Liberia and its operatives to put its money where its mouth is.

"To effectively curtail and prevent armed robbery, hijacking, terrorism, and killings for land in Liberia, the government of Liberia needs to re-examine its 2008 to 2009 budget and lineup more money to support and strengthen law and order in Liberia. Let law and order be prioritized by the government of Liberia. This is what a country returning from war to peace should and must do," the group said.

It though did not bother to say what effect a horde of free killers would have on budget financing, investment climate enabling, and communities struggling to piece their shattered lives together after a devastating civil war and years of hardship in refugee and displaced people's camps.

Besides the point that the current judicial system is incapable of proving the accused guilty beyond reasonable, ALLA said the proportionality of crime to punishment seemed a mismatch in the current situation.

It then wondered whether death was proportionate as punitive measure to the commission of rape.

"But, the issue that is controlling under this rape law is, is the death penalty or life imprisonment, appropriate and proportionate to the crime of rape as charged?" it wondered.

ALLA described the new act as typical of some politically and emotionally charged laws on the books that would do nothing but to embarrass and bring shame to a nation and its people.

"In the name of human rights and social justice, the rape law needs to be revisited to create its proportionate effect and appropriate impact in Liberia.

Perhaps, the government of Liberia could work harder and harder to rehabilitate and recreate the method to support the employment needs of its people instead of singing into law bills that are intended to execute more and more of its traumatized citizens," ALLA said.

ALLA may not follow one line of argument in its rejection of the reintroduction of the death penalty by the government of Liberia, but it is not alone in its attack; the European Union and AI do.

EU and Amnesty

"Death penalty in Liberia is a cruel punishment and a breach of the right to life," announced an August 1, 2008 media report quoting the European Union. EU said given that Liberia has not executed anyone since 2000, death penalty may not be justified or required, making its signing unnecessary.

It is unclear why the EU chose 2000 instead of 1981 when some PRC members were publicly executed for alleged attempt to overthrow the government, but it noted that the dissuasive character of this penalty is not proven, and its enforcement makes judicial mistakes irreparable.

"The European Union expresses great concern for Liberia's promulgation of a law that reinstates death penalty for some crimes. The decision to reinstate death penalty is an extremely disturbing sign that goes against the trend that has been observed in the last few years in Africa and across the world," the media report quoted the EU presidency as saying.

It said because of this, the EU "reasserts again its opposition to the use of death penalty in any circumstance", noting that the repeal of such law "contributes to strengthening of human dignity and the development of human rights".

The twenty-seven member states consider any form of execution a "cruel, inhumane punishment and a breach of the right to life.

Amnesty International, which was part of the debate that preceded the signing of the death penalty Act on July 22, 2008, joined the condemnation last month on the argument that Liberia has reneged on its commitment to the international community and then called for review.

"Amnesty International condemned the signing by Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of a law calling for the death penalty for anyone convicted of armed robbery, terrorism or hijacking offences if these crimes result in death," an AI statement dated July 25, 2008 said.

It then called on President Johnson-Sirleaf to repeal the law, arguing that the law "directly violates Liberia's obligations under the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Liberia acceded to.

According to the AI, the Liberian law already included the possibility of the death penalty, but that in 2005, the Liberia should have incorporated into law the Second Optional Protocol, thereby abolishing the death penalty for all crimes.

"Under customary international law, as reflected in Article 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which Liberia ratified on 29 August 1985, a state 'may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as a justification for its failure to perform a treaty'," AI noted.

Mixed Public Reaction

Meanwhile, the public seems evenly divided over the reintroduction of the death penalty in the Liberian penal code.

Some say the government was forced by evolving insecurity to enact the legislation while others countered that whatever the situation, the reintroduction of death penalty was wrong because neither the government nor the UN did anything to rehabilitate and reintegrate so 39,000 ex-fighters who were lured into demobilization and disarmament without adequate compensation and/or training to prepare them for civilian life.

"It may be argued that ex-combatants are the only group involved in armed crimes, but it is the neglect of this group that gives rise to violent crimes in Liberia. Consider the pattern:

The DDRR failed in 2004; elections took placed in 2005; and after that, as soon as the civilian government took charge, rape and armed robbery became rampant.

This is how some of these people live. You think you can stop these poor fellows from earning their livelihood by using the only instruments available to them simply by saying you will hang them? You will do well to kill 39,000 or more traumatized Liberians," said Daniel Solo who claimed to be an ex-combatant himself.

He said while the current wave of violent crimes is making things difficult for the government's recovery program, relying on the death penalty is not only wrong, but that it is also cruel.

"But is it?" is what analysts say is the crucial and critical question.

"No. The death penalty is not cruel; it an antidote to cruelty perpetrated by people who have no respect for human life, who are so blinded by the greed for material things to be all too ready to take life without giving the idea a second thought. It is matches cruelty with the ultimate deterrent that will allow for the restoration of security to Liberia.

Remember, the international community, including AI and EU brands Liberia 'fragile'. How else can our communities and highways be made secure so that investors will feel free to invest in this country?

How else will this nation be made solid and not fragile?" said Adolphus V. Ballah who also claimed to be an ex-combatant.

Ballah said while good law enforcement methods and the strengthening of court arbitration are critical additions the death penalty law, the government acted appropriately by introducing it first.

"Don't we have law enforcers and law enforcement methods that are on par with those standards approved by the international community? Isn't the government conducting major reforms in the criminal justice system?

These efforts must be reinforced by a strong punitive law or they would be meaningless," he said.

"So, should the law be abrogated or allowed to stand as is?"

Solo: "It could stand provided the government move immediately to reactivate the remaining RR portion of the DDRR Programme."

Ballah: "Sure; there is no reason why it cannot or should not stand. The Legislature that represents the people thinks it is a good idea, the government says it is; and many farsighted Liberians agreed. Nothing is wrong with death penalty; even the great U.S. practices it despite the clever arguments against it.

The point is bad sore requires strong medicine. It is not respect for human rights to have some citizens killings others while the government stands by, held down by so-called international protocols that only poor Africans countries are mandated to obey.

So, why not? But like Solo said, it should not be an end in itself, lest a situation arise in which a convicted felon appears too poor, too frail, and too pathetic to face public execution."

Interesting arguments typical of what many Liberian believe; but will the international community listen and see things Liberia's way by offering to represent indicted armed criminals for the purpose of establishing "proof beyond all reasonable doubts"?

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