3 February 2013

Liberia: Absolve Amb. Gbedze -Legal Counsels Pray Government, UN Panel

Reflecting the unspeakable vice to which unscrupulous Liberians and their foreign vultures of partners subjected Liberia's forest industry for nearly 14 years, the international community assisted Liberia to pass protective legislations for the nation's forest products. Seven years after the legislations came into full force, however, the United Nations Panel of Experts and the Liberian government empanelled Special Independent Investigative Body (SIIB) discovered that the spectre of uncontrollable rip has not passed from the industry – that mainly the issuance and application of private use permits (PUPs) are still subject to corrupt manipulation by criminal elements. Both reports refrained from issuing indictments on suspected wrongdoers perhaps for lack of legal powers. But the SIIB, in its haste to recommend prosecution, has prescribed the barring of three persons, among them, Ambassador John Walter Gbedze – without recourse to law. Now the ambassador's legal counsels are citing legal grounds to absolve him of guilt and to exclude him from extra-legal punishments. The Analyst, reports.

The legal counsels of Amb John Gbedze are praying the Liberian government and the UN Panel of Experts to absolve him of blame and exclude him from summary indictment and punishment as the Special Independent Investigative Body (SIIB) has recommended.

In the counsels' request for vindication, which was contained in a "legal response" it issued over the weekend in Monrovia, it noted that it was not seeking special treatment for the ambassador. Instead, they said, legal and constitutional flaws contained in the SIIB and UN Panel's reports, mainly in the former's report, prompted its response for justice.

"[W]e are concerned that implications made in that report about companies or businesses in which Ambassador Gbedze has interest have the tendency to impugn his reputation and place him in a false light," the counsels said regarding the UN Panel's report, which they note does not hold their client culpable for any wrongdoing.

The counsels nevertheless hoped that their response would lead the Panel to reexamine and expunge the innuendos of wrongdoing contained in its report.

The counsels' bone of contention, however, concerns what they called the SIIB's "sweeping indictment against Ambassador John Gbedze" without considering the legal implications.

The counsels accused the special investigative body of assuming unto itself legal powers, which it does not have. For instance, they insisted, a portion of the body's report that relates to the Ambassador Gbedze "raises the specter of a rush to indict rather than a serious and sober attempt to derive at the commission's objectives".

Another cause for major concern about the report, the counsels argued, was that besides recommending the prosecution of the ambassador by the Ministry of Justice for fraud, violation of Section 20.6(a) of the NFRL. Ibid at p. 49, it called for the summary barring of the ambassador from engaging in commercial forestry activities in Liberia.

By this utterly contradictory action, according to the counsels, SIIB swept aside the sacred and relieving pledge that it would not play the courts because its probe did not include criminal investigations into the actions of individuals or entities, and chose to issue indictment against their client, whom they described as an "innocent", law-abiding business person.

'We have made no conclusions as to the criminality of individual conduct,' the counsels quoted the SIIB report as as saying.

The counsels surmised that it was because SIIB conducted no criminal probes but supposedly accrued sufficient criminal evidence regarding the use of private use permits during the reviews it conducted that it resolved to recommend prosecution through the Ministry of Justice and the and Liberia Anti-corruption Commission (LACC)'.

But the counsels said the report's contravention and contradiction of SIIB's objective and processes, through the issuance of extra-judicial indictment, left no room for law-abiding Liberians to establish trust in the review process.

"This indictment, trial, and punishment are as astounding as it is grossly illegal and unconstitutional," the counsels said of SIIB's report.

The counsel said the third surprising element of SIIB's report was that it indicted the ambassador for wrongdoing  even though it conceded that he was not one of the 38 persons interviewed during the investigation.

"The constitution and case law of Liberia frown vehemently on this kind of tactic by government or by extension," the counsels said.

They counsels, for legal grounds, cited Article 20 of the Constitution of Liberia and the cases, Archie Williams vs. Republic of Liberia regarding TRC recommendation to bar prominent Liberians from politics and Wolo v. Wolo (1937) in which the Supreme Court ruled that government must "adhere to the due process of law principle" without exception.

This is why, they say, it is imperative that the Liberian government act appropriately to ensure that the laws of Liberia remain inviolable.

"The rights of life, liberty, security of person, property, and employment are fundamental rights protected by the Constitution of Liberia. To bar Ambassador Gbedze from engaging in the business or profession and pursuit of his happiness, without due process of law is a gross constitutional violation. Moreover, the Supreme Court of Liberia has specifically expounded on this issue," they said.

If the ambassador must be held liable, the counsels said, it was incumbent the government to ensure that he is granted the 'opportunity to appear and cross-examine witnesses adduced against him, to produce witnesses in his own behalf, and to be heard in person, by counsel or both" in keeping with the constitution'.

In the interim, the counsels said it calls on the "President of Liberia, through the Minister of Justice, to expunge that offensive section of the report which deals with Ambassador John Gbedze and clear the good name of this outstanding citizen of Liberia".

But just who is Ambassador Gbedze?

Who is Ambassador Gbedze

According to his counsels, Mr. John Walter Gbedze is a Liberia citizen who holds a Master of Science Degree in Agriculture from the West Virginia University in Charleston, West Virginia, USA. Before then, he had obtained a Bachelors of Agriculture from the University of Liberia.

After completing his education he worked as a public servant at the Liberia Produce Marketing Company (LPMC) in various capacities including Manager responsible of cocoa, coffee and oil palm development and Director of Planning, Evaluation and Monitoring for cocoa, coffee and oil palm.

In 1995 he joined the private sector as CEO/Chairman of the Board of the Liberian British and Malaysian Concession Company, a logging concessionaire which provided employment for over 1,000 Liberians.

The activities of this company were soon interrupted by the civil crisis. Since 1996 he has served as Ambassador at Large, assisting in fostering new diplomatic and business relationships for Liberia and serving on government delegations to the United States, Europe, the Far East and Africa. He has also served as consultant to various international logging conglomerates.

Ambassador John Gbedze is unarguably the foremost Liberian expert in the private sector on logging and forestry and is recognized in the international community as such.

His relationship to the forest industry

In 2009,  the counsels revealed, Ambassador Gbedze and several Liberian partners formed Forest Ventures, Inc. with the objective to recruit international investors willing to develop the timber industry where value added goods were being produced. This approach would provide improvement for Liberian skill labor and provide local content for in an area of the economic heavily dominated by foreign interest.

Unable to meet this objective, Ambassador Gbedze sold majority of his shares in Forest Venture for a nominal fee, retaining five (5) per cent of the shares and a contract as a consultant for the company. He briefly served as CEO of another Forest Venture affiliate, Atlantic Resources, where he served as consultant. During his 2-month stint as CEO, he presided of the transfer of Atlantic's PUP permit to Forest Venture.

At all relevant times herein, Ambassador Gbedze acted as a technical consultant and never engaged in the practice of law nor usurp any power of Government officials.

Like any innocent business person and professional he fully abide by the laws and relied on the actions of the government to enforce its regulations and ensure that companies licensed to do business in Liberia were complying with the Laws of Liberia, the counsels concluded.

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