24 January 2014

Liberia: Justice Denied - Supreme Court Refuses to Hear Tah's Petition

Photo: Liberia Government
Justice Minister Christina Tah briefing the Cabinet Retreat(file photo)

Monrovia — A petition prepared by lawyers representing Justice Minister Christiana Tah seeking a re-argument of the recent contempt ruling, banning the minister from practicing law for six months, has been rejected by the Supreme Court of Liberia, dealing what could be a major constitutional dilemma for President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

Tah's lawyers, Cllr. Varney Sherman and Cllr. M. Wilkins Wright volunteered to represent the minister because they felt the punishment for whatever the court perceived she was guilty of was too harsh. The punishment meted against the minister is usually given to lawyers who are cited for professional misconduct. Tah's lawyers were seeking reconsideration and reargument of the ruling in keeping with the law.

"She took all the abuses, did not publicly attack the court and respected their decision, but this is a really sad day for justice in Liberia," noted a source close to the Justice Ministry Thursday.

The source who preferred anonymity, fearing backlash from the Supreme Court, said Minister Tah maintains her position that she acted within the scope of the law and exhausted all remedies under the law. It is not good for the country and it sends a bad message for the rule of law in Liberia."

Volume I of the Liberia Code Revised Criminal Procedure law supports the minister:

Section 34.20 of the code states that:

"The Minister of Justice Shall formulate rules of regulations governing compassionate leave from institution and, in accordance with such rules and regulations, may permit any prisoner to leave his institution for short periods of time, either by himself or in the custody of an officer, to visit a close relative who is seriously ill, to attend the funeral of a close relative, to return to his home during what appears to be his own last illness, or to return to his home for compelling reasons which strongly appeal to compassion. The rules or regulations shall provide for the manner in which compassionate leave shall be granted, for its duration, and for the custody, transportation, and care of the prisoner during his leave. They shall also provide for the manner in which the expense connected with such leave shall be borne, and may allow the prisoner, or anyone in his behalf, to reimburse the state for such expense."

The court came down with a ruling last week suspending Justice Minister Tah from practicing law in Liberia for six months. The Supreme Court also suspended for three months, Beyan Howard, a member of FrontPageAfrica's legal team in its Toe libel case. The decision was based on the argument of the "Friends of Court" that the law minister Tah relied on to take action was not supported by the criminal procedure law. However, 34.2 (d) of the Criminal Procedure Law that talks about "Segregation of Prisoners", include prisoners who are under "Civil Commitment". Therefore, many are at a loss as to the interpretation of the court.

It may be recalled that immediately following the initial decision on January 10, 2014, the Executive Mansion announced that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had taken note of the decision, putting the career of her Attorney General and key legal advisor on hold.

Legal observers remain baffled at how Sirleaf continues to keep allowing the powers of the Executive Branch to be eroded by the other two branches of government. It can be recalled that the President was forced to let go of former Acting Monrovia City Mayor Mary Broh who was on the scene during an attempt to imprison former Montserrado County Superintendent Grace Kpaan after the national legislature forced her hand. Now the judicial branch is on the verge of forcing the hand of the executive, an act, observers say is unprecedented in the country's history.

Last week, Sirleaf said she would hold consultations with eminent lawyers and legal professionals, including former Chief Justices and former Associate Justices of the Supreme Court, to fully comprehend the implications of the Court's decision, especially as it relates to the constitutional crisis of separation of powers as well as the implications for the Attorney General during the period of suspension.

Last October, the court ordered Tah to explain why she should not be held in contempt for granting Compassionate Leave to the newspaper publisher due to a number of medical emergencies. The court had jailed Sieh for failing to pay a $1.5 million libel fine to former agriculture minister J. Chris Toe.

To the contrary, the court ruled that the respondents, Counselor Christiana P. Tah, Minister of Justice/Attorney General and Counselor Beyan D. Howard committed contempt against the judiciary.

"Their actions were not in consonance with Section 34.20(1) of the Criminal Procedure Law of Liberia. The actions of the respondents were instead deliberately intended to proceed through the Executive Branch of Government and release a prisoner who had been imprisoned for contempt of court without any reference to the Judiciary, in utter violation of the doctrine of separation of powers as enshrined in our constitution. Their actions are therefore punishable as such."

The ruling continued: "For her role in releasing Rodney D. Sieh from prison as well as her persistent affront to this court demonstrated in her refusal to reverse the action which formed the basis for the contempt proceedings, notwithstanding her Counsel's promise to return Rodney D. Sieh to prison, co-respondent Christiana P. Tah, Minister of Justice/Attorney General, is hereby suspended from the practice of law in the Republic of Liberia directly or indirectly for the period of six(6) months; while, for his role played in the release of Rodney D. Sieh from prison, Counselor Beyan D. Howard is suspended from the practice of law directly or indirectly for a period of three(3)months. The Clerk of this court is hereby ordered to communicate with the respondents informing them of the judgment of this court. It is so Ordered."

Tah said then that her decision to grant Sieh "Compassionate Leave" grounds and was based on authority vested in the Attorney-General under the above reference of the Criminal Procedure Law.

FrontPageAfrica recently reported that the Supreme Court's suspension of Tah "marked only the second time in Liberia's history that a sitting Minister of Justice, who also doubles as Dean of the high court and chief legal advisor to the President, had been dealt a severe professional blow".

The only other time that this has happened was during the administration of the late President Samuel Kanyon Doe, when the late Chief Justice Emmanuel Gbalazeh suspended then Justice Minister Jenkins K.Z.B. Scott for reportedly referring to judges as 'unprofessional.'

At the time, Doe "prevailed on Gbalazeh to reverse his decision and pointed out that the court's ruling to revoke Scott's license amounted to removing him from office, and that only the Head of State could remove government Ministers.

Legal scholars say, late President Doe stood by his Justice Minister because he recognized that to allow the decision to stand, it would have a far reaching negative effect on Liberian jurisprudence.

Last week, the Press Union of Liberia expressed disgust at the high court ruling and declared that the decision projected a continuation of a sad episode, which kept the journalist behind bars and his paper, FrontPage Africa, shutdown for months.

PUL President Abdullai Kamara said taking such a decision, more than two months after Sieh's landmark release, renews concerns about the future of democracy, especially the sustenance of a free press in Liberia. "Punishing someone for merely seeking compassion for a journalist fighting corruption raises a new specter of fear that is poised to institute the dreaded effect of self censorship among journalists in Liberia," Kamara protested.

The PUL has always viewed the punishment against Sieh as a disincentive to the developing freedom and democracy environment in Liberia, and is further worried about the reflections that of punishing Cllr. Howard for making a compassionate appeal. Kamara, "this action simply limits opportunities for anyone to stand up for journalists or democracy in Liberia."

The PUL averred that regardless of how distasteful anyone's offense is, there should be no further offense for anyone expressing remorse for them.

"Because the High Court in South Africa found Nelson Mandela and co guilty of treason and subversive activities did not stop the rest of humanity from disagreeing. In fact, until very recently, even the United States, still considered Mandela a terrorist, but the rest of the world had always resisted!

Continued the PUL: "This action has most importantly brought forth the issue of contempt, which remains undefined in our jurisdiction, despite the strives being made to reform the governance process.

The Legislature should now act hastily and enact laws to define contempt of courts and the legislature, as has been required of our constitution since 1986. This will strengthen democracy in Liberia and bring hope that laws are about ensuring justice and empowerment, and not necessarily to punish people," the PUL statement noted."

Legal and political observers remain baffled at the legal complications of the high court ruling and the implications for the Sirleaf presidency. Minister Tah is yet to comment on the court's decision but an aide said the minister will most likely brief the president before addressing the issue publicly.

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