Monrovia — Lawyers for Rodney Sieh have filed a petition in the Supreme Court of Liberia challenging the constitutionality of his imprisonment under Section 44.71 of the Liberian Civil Procedure Law and calling for his immediate release.
In particular, Sieh's lawyers argue in the petition that his imprisonment violates various provisions of the Liberian Constitution, including (1) the prohibition against debt bondage in Article 12 of the Constitution; (2) the Equal Protection Clause of Article 11 of the Constitution; (3) the Due Process Clause of Article 20 of the Constitution; and (4) the directive against excessive punishment in Article 21 of the Constitution.
Speaking to journalists in Monrovia, Counsellor Frank Musah Dean, whose law firm, Dean and Associates, filed the petition on behalf of Mr. Sieh, said because the matter was now sub judice (or before the Court) he could not comment on the substance of the case, except to note that the petition raises novel and serious issues of constitutional law and that he was convinced it would get a fair hearing from Court.
He particularly thanked Counsellor Kwame Clement who he said worked on a pro bono basis with the Dean Law Firm in crafting the legal arguments presented in the petition. Sieh's lawyers argue in the petition that Sieh's imprisonment amounts to debt bondage in plain contravention of the express prohibition against subjecting anyone to "debt bondage" in Article 12 of the Constitution.
They note that "debt bondage manifests itself in various forms, but its defining characteristic is the use of an indigent's personal liberty and freedom as collateral for a debt, compelling his labor in service to creditors or confining him to jail and literally holding him in bondage by requiring that he remains incarcerated for a period deemed sufficient to liquidate his debt obligations."
The lawyers contend that under the law, a judgment is defined to be a debt. In fact, they point out in the petition that Section 44.71, the statute under which Sieh is detained, defines a person against whom judgment is entered as a "judgment debtor."
They further note that the statute requires that a person like Sieh who does not have the assets to satisfy a judgment against him, must be arrested and "imprisoned for a period sufficiently long to liquidate the full amount of judgment, interest and costs at the rate of twenty-five dollars per month."
The lawyers maintain that, at that rate, Sieh would be in imprisoned for more than 5,000 years, and literally held in bondage until he has served time in jail deemed sufficient to liquidate the judgment debt of $1.6 million he owes former Agricultural Minister Chris Toe by virtue of the judgment entered against him on Toe's libel claim.
This, they contend, represents one of the worst forms of debt bondage and is in plain violation of the Constitution. With respect to the equal protection argument, the lawyers point out that the Equal Protection Clause in Article 11(c) of the Liberian Constitution provides that "all persons are equal before the law and are therefore entitled to the equal protection of the law."
They contend that the Clause contemplates that "all persons be treated alike under like circumstances" and that "similarly situated persons are treated similarly."
According to the Petition, under Section 44.71, similarly situated persons--i.e., persons who have been found liable of libel--are not treated similarly because those who can afford to pay the resulting judgment against them and are willing to pay remain free, whereas those, like Sieh, who may be equally willing to pay but cannot afford to do so are imprisoned.
This, the lawyers argue, is discrimination based on "ability to pay" that impermissibly intrudes on the liberty interest of Sieh and other indigent persons who may be unable to satisfy a judgment against them in a libel case.
They further argue that such "disparate treatment of similarly situated persons is the hallmark of equal protection violations" and is inconsistent with the constitutional provision that "all persons are equal before the law and are therefore entitled to the equal protection of the law." Accordingly, the lawyers ask the Court to strike down the statute as violative of the Equal Protection Clause.
As it pertains to the due process argument, the lawyers note that the Due Process Clause of Article 20 of the Constitution provides that "no person shall be denied life [or] liberty . . . except as the outcome of a hearing judgment consistent with the provisions laid down in this Constitution and in accordance with due process of law."
They further make the point that due process requires that a person be accorded the procedural protections of a criminal trial, including application of the beyond a reasonable doubt standard, where he or she would be imprisoned if found culpable of the offense alleged against him.
They note that although Sieh is imprisoned as a direct result his inability to satisfy the judgment in the case brought against him by Toe, the court that heard the case applied the preponderance of the evidence standard, typically applied in civil cases, in determining whether he libeled Toe, and not the more exacting proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard as required by the Due Process Clause. Accordingly, they argue Sieh was denied his right to due process in plain violation of the Constitution.
Finally, the lawyers maintain in the petition that Sieh's imprisonment violates the directive against "excessive punishment" set forth in Article 21(d) of the Constitution. They argue that a sentence to 5,000 years in jail "is rarely, if ever, imposed on individuals in the Republic, including those convicted of some of the worst crimes."
Accordingly, the imposition of such a sentence on Sieh for a finding of liability in a civil case between him and another individual amounts to excessive punishment.