Washington, DC — Liberian journalist Hassan Bility was arrested with colleagues in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, in June 2002 and held incommunicado for almost six months as what the government of Charles Taylor called an "unlawful combatant" and "prisoner of war". During his detention he was interrogated even, he says, by President Taylor himself, and tortured repeatedly.
After a prolonged campaign by international human rights organisations and widespread coverage of his arrest and detention by media around the world, he was finally released in December 2002 on condition that he left the country.
Bility was flown immediately upon his release to Ghana where he spent a few weeks undergoing treatment for injuries sustained under torture during his months in the government's prisons.
He was later helped to come to the United States by the American government where he granted this interview to Musue N. Haddad.
You spent about six months in various Liberian prisons and cells without trial. Why did the government say it was holding you and others as "unlawful combatants"?
Yes, basically I think that was an ill-chosen phrase by the Liberian government. The government did not really have anything to say, so it had to piece together some ill-chosen phrase to satisfy its desire to the international community.
Actually, I reject the government's accusation, I deny it fully. I have never been a military man or paramilitary man. And I have never participated in any war in Liberia. That is contrary to my own philosophy. I object to people who think that they can organize satanic organizations to seek power. I have never been a member of Satan's organizations.
If the government felt I did something bad, the government should have taken me to court. The government was democratically elected and should be able to observe and respect the rule of law; but if it cannot and begins to behave as a military regime then, of course, that will erase the essence of its election as a democratic institution.
I think the government really did not want me in Liberia, the government did not like what I wrote and it was not unprecedented - that was my seventh arrest. Each time I was arrested there was no real or tangible explanation that would be given by the government so the government had to find a way to get me out. The government knew that I stood for the truth and could never have compromised that which I stood for. So the government felt uncomfortable with me and designed a non-existent plot to hang on me by saying that I was a member or collaborator or whatever of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd), forces, the group presently fighting the government.
You were released on released on condition that you leave the country. But that often isn't the way the government handles those it considers critics. We have examples of some being killed, some having to flee maltreatment. Why do you think that you were sent into exile?
First of all, I think it was the work of God. God did not want me to die. Secondly there was too much international pressure on the administration in Monrovia. I was picked up by government security officers without warrant and forcibly pushed into the vehicle near the Press Union of Liberia offices where there are a lot of business centers; I was arrested in full view of many journalists so the government could not deny that it had arrested me.
And because of my track record, because I had written objectively and spoke objectively, the Liberian people and the international community realized that what the government was saying was wrong. If the government had problem with me it should take me to court.
So this is why; because of the pressure from the international community and from the Liberian people who refused to be taken for ride by the Taylor government, the government could not really kill me.
And besides that, the government wanted me out of Liberia because the government felt I knew too much about it, I knew so much about the government, its inner working, its inner circle people; I knew so much about their activities, their dealings, so the government decided to get me out.
In addition to that, the government knew that it had lied to the Liberian people. The government told the world that I had faced a military tribunal, which was absolutely false. I was never taken to any tribunal at all, that is a total lie.
Moreover, I had been so much tortured and beaten that visible scars were on my body all over, so the government did not want to release me in the streets of Monrovia for people to see those scars on my body and the government knows that I would have told the stories of prison to the Liberian people so the government wanted me out because my stories and the condition of my body would have contradicted what the government had all along been telling the people.
After, you were taken away that June 24, 2002, when did you realize that prisons and cells would be your home for a very long time?
Well, when I was arrested, I was taken to the central police headquarter. It was about 3:45pm local time and I remained at the police headquarter until at about 1-2 the next morning and then I was taken to president Taylor's home in Congo town. President Taylor was the fist person to investigate me.
Do you mean personally? President Charles Taylor personally interrogated you?
Yes, President Charles Taylor personally investigated me in the presence of some of his security chiefs and ministers. There were Emmanuel Shaw, Mousse Cisee and Kiadiatu Jarra-Findley [all presidential advisors], Security Directors Freddie Taylor, Ramsey Moore, Benjamin Yeaten [and] a lot of security and other officials. A video camera was brought to record the investigation. The president said a lot. He talked for a very long time and then he said I should talk. He told me that only the truth and God would save me. He said neither the Americans nor Amnesty International would be able to release me. I remember vividly all the things that happened to me.
After he got through questioning me, he said his technicians and security had broken into my e-mail box and that they have seen communications which indicated that I was in connection with Lurd and that I was planning to overthrow him.
Taylor said that I had 24 men at the American embassy and that they were mercenaries and that I had bought arms from Europe and that I was storing the arms at the U.S embassy and he also said that I had a meeting with Ambassador Mr. Robert Perry of the U.S. state department. He said the meeting took place in Silver Spring, Maryland. He said I should tell him the identity of the people I was keeping at the United States embassy, the arms I bought and what European countries the arms came from [and where else] in Monrovia I was storing the arms.
So once the videotape was there, I knew that I was really headed for trouble, big trouble. I began by telling him that the whole thing was a sort of imagination, it was a non-existent plot, it was a witch-hunt designed to silence me. You know he got annoy, he said he did not want to listen to that, I should tell the truth and all of that.
It was at that time I got to know that the prison cell would be my home for a long time. He said we were many and we were doing all kinds of things; he mentioned Bishop Michael Francis, Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, Cllr. Tiawan Gongloe, Abraham Mitchell and so many people. Some of the names I am withholding because of security concerns in Monrovia.
After that I realized that the government had orchestrated this thing and the government wanted to silence me; but I am a believer in predestination. I know that whatever would happen will surely happen. So I convinced myself that I would never lie, whatever the situation was.
So how long did President Taylor carried on his interrogation?
It was over an hour, two or so. The problem is that I had been severely tortured and beaten in the car and even suffocated in the car that took me from the police headquarters to the president's house, to the extent that my left eye could not see clearly. Images were blurred, I was sort of confused and my watch had been taken away by the security guys who were taking me to President Taylor's house. Basically, I was too scared, but under that condition, I was able to calculate for myself that my stay at Taylor's house lasted for about two hours.
Who took you from the Police headquarter to the president's house and were you interrogated before taken to the president?
An officer of the Special Operational Division, (SOD) went for me from the police headquarter. He asked, "Who is the journalist Hassan Bility?" I said, "yes, it is I." The SOD officer came, he brought a black cloth. They tied my face, they blindfolded me. They began beating me and we went to the basement of the police headquarter where another police jeep was. They put me at the back of the jeep and blindfolded and made the cloth to cover my nose and my mouth, I could not breathe properly and I was yelling. When I told them I could not breathe properly, they said that was okay because they were going to kill me. So they did not talk to me, they only took me to the president's house. So the president was the first person that personally investigated or interrogated me under a total climate of intimidation and fright.
After that, I was never investigated until on the 24 of July when I was taken from Monrovia and taken to Clay (outside Monrovia), that was 32 days after my arrest. I was taken to Clay, to an underground cell. I was investigated on the 25 by some security guys.
After I told President Taylor that I knew nothing about what he was saying, and that all that he saying was a non-existent plot and it was designed to silence me and it was a witch hunt, he said he was turning me over to the military people and that they would extract statements from me. The military people did not talk to me until on the 25th of July in Clay.
Before that interrogation, I heard from some people that Information Minister Reginald Goodridge said I had begun to confess which was absolutely false. When he told the Liberian people that I had begun to confess, by that time, I had not even been investigated by the real people who were to investigate me. You know very well that if I was confessing, they would have named some of the persons [I] had mentioned during confession and they did not call any name.
The investigators wanted me to incriminate Bishop Michael Francis, to incriminate Sheikh Kafumba Konneh, to incriminate Abraham Mitchell, Ellen-Johnson Sirleaf and a number of other people including Charles Brumskine, Alhaji Kromah, Taiwan Gongloe because I was specifically asked what I knew about them, what were their connection with Lurd. The names are many but I will prefer not to further endanger the others in Liberia.
So how long were you held in Clay and what are some of the things you went through? Did you see other prisoners?
Yes, I did see other prisoners like the guys who were arrested along with me and many others whose names I would prefer not to mention. I was held in Clay for a little over a month. I was in an underground cell for weeks. It is a prison in the middle of the road just before Grand Cape Mount County (one of Liberia's political sub-divisions, situated in the west).
I was held in that underground prison in the middle of the rainy season with other prisoners. I stayed there for weeks. The cell is about three feet high and it is filled with water so I basically squatted. After sometime we were removed from that and placed in another cell in Clay and after some time, removed from that one to another one and later I was flown to the northern part of Liberia, to Foya, a town in Lofa county.
Liberian-based and international human rights organizations have described prisons and cells in Liberia as appalling. Is that your experience?
Appalling is too soft a word to describe the Liberian prison. Basically they are inhumane places, they are places that you will not want to confine your enemies, let alone someone who is only accused and has not had the opportunity to face court to exonerate himself or prove his case. The conditions in the Liberian prisons are very terrible.
For me, I went through 13 different prisons. At some of the prisons, I was basically in the midst of maggots with rains and the maggots were creeping all over my body. And I was in another prison where I was in a toilet hole cell. I was in another prison where the conditions were very bad in addition to the physical torture by the interrogators.
I am a Moslem, I don't drink alcohol, I have never drunk alcohol but I was forced to drink. They forcibly made me to drink alcohol, this drink called Dewar [whisky]. Usually I understand that it is diluted but I was made to drink it undiluted. They had expected that after drinking it, I would say something, I would confess but after they forcibly made me to drink it, God guided me; I did not say anything they wanted to hear.
They said they wanted me to serve as state witness. They also said I had conspired but they did not bring anything to prove that I had conspired. They brought old clippings of my newspaper articles. When I was editor for The National, I wrote an editorial in 1997 that was titled: Who is the Judas in Ecowas?" As a matter of fact, I was arrested for that editorial! They brought a number of newspaper articles and said that those articles were evidence of my being an anti-government journalist.
So I believe I was arrested because of what I wrote, and I saw myself as a prisoner of conscience. So the human rights organizations are right. People are severely tortured in Charles Taylor's prisons in Liberia. I am a living witness of the placement of prisoners in underground cells because I was placed in an underground cell that was three feet high, with about one foot with water in it so we were just squatting and could not sleep.
You spoke of physical torture. Can you describe some of the assaults inflicted on you and the other prisoners?
They tied me with the rope they called twine. It is a rubber-like rope but very strong and it usually cut the victims. It penetrated the areas above my elbow where I was tied. There was a deep cut there and I was physically beaten regularly and they electrocuted me with the hope of extracting statements from me. They electrocuted my private parts and all over my body. They usually tied me, tied my hands, blindfolded me, tied my feet and swung me around like bag of rice and threw me in the pick-up when ever they were transferring me from one place to the other.
For how long would these actions last?
They tied me for about an hour or two and it really hurt. It hurt. My left hand was almost paralyzed. I struggled to do regular push-ups while in prison when the sore healed, before I could begin to feel. In fact it is not totally healed yet. The lower part towards my wrist - I don't feel properly in that area yet even though I was given treatment immediately after I was released in December and taken to Ghana.
Did you believe that you would eventually be released?
Well, once it was publicized and the security guards would come out and say "the radio was just talking about you", I knew that God had worked miraculously through the American government, through the European Union, through Liberian media, the Liberian council of churches, the Moslem communities, the human rights organizations both in Liberia and outside of Liberia and the Liberian media back home and the Liberian journalists outside of Liberia, I began to realized that I would not be killed. And I always prayed to God while I was in prisons and I saw some signs that indicated to me that I would not be killed.
Are there moments from your ordeal that you continue to think about?
I will continue to think about the Clay prison. I will think about that day, when President Taylor said they should take me away. I was beaten from that evening; they tortured me up to 4am or 5am without rest.
They always investigated me at night; starting from one a.m. they would blindfold me and tie my hands at my back; whenever nights came, I always worried.
Another thing that was worrying was whether they would want to trick me and I would end up being like Dele Giwa, the Nigerian journalist and the Burkina Faso journalist Nobert Zongo [both assassinated by the security apparatus in their respective countries]. I thought about them a lot - those people died telling the truth. I know that if even I had died, I would have been killed because of the truth. I believe there is nothing more important for a journalist than to work for the truth. If even while working for the truth one dies, one would have died for a noble cause.
I also realized in prison that the government was holding me as a kind of bargaining chip with the international community, most especially the United States. I was held hostage and the government, I believed, was trying to exchange my release for political and diplomatic favors from the United States and the West.
You have described the Liberian human rights situation as grim. What are the prospects for the political campaigns ahead of the 2003 elections?
I think the first thing the international community needs to ensure is that the war is stopped because the government in Monrovia is using the war to arrest people.
Once that is done through dialogue, then the Liberian people and the international community should make sure that free, fair and credible elections are held. The elections should be monitored; there should be international monitors, and international observers.
I think the elections commissions should be reconstituted. The reason for that is that the people who are to take part in the elections - participants, political parties - don't trust the composition of the elections commission.
I do agree that the president has the constitutional right to appoint an elections commission, but that should be done in a way that it will make people to trust the system.
I also think there is a need for a stabilizing force in Liberia once an agreement is reached under which security can be provided. I sincerely believe that the politicians will not be provided the requisite security protection by the present institutions.
Even if they are provided security protection, their supporters in the rural areas, -let's say in Lofa, Nimba and Grand Gedeh, Maryland and other places - will not be protected because there is a strange mindset implanted in the minds of all the security personnel by the present government in Monrovia. They see all other oppositions, whether political groups or military as anti-Taylor and therefore against them. They have this strange belief that once Taylor is removed from power, even if it is done through the democratic process, they are all doomed - that will be the end of their life. They have been told these kinds of things so it is very important that some force is around so that people can people can properly and freely exercise their franchise.
President Charles Taylor has consistently said he is not interested in a stabilizing force, that no-one will be allowed to interfere in the sovereign state of Liberia and its affairs.
The government might have said that, but they should reconsider because any election held under the current atmosphere in Liberia will not be credible and therefore by extension will not be legitimized.
If the government feels it is so popular because it won 75% in the last elections, it should have nothing to hide. Any attempt by the government to reject such a force will generally suggest that the government has got some great plans for rigging and to intimidate opposition politicians.
These guys believe - and I was told when I was being investigated - that they are in power up to the year 2024. When I was taken to President Taylor's house that was one of the things I was told.
Do you believe Western countries can help to bring about political change in Liberia?
Oh yes, I think the West must be able to do it; I count on the United States. They can't sit in Washington and the European Union in Brussels to make statements that the government in Monrovia will not respect.
Diplomacy can only be successful if it is accompanied with a credible threat of force. So the West must understand that if the problem in Liberia is not resolved, the United States will continue to receive refugees, Europe too. So why don't they solve the problems in Liberia so that conditions can be better, which will dissuade people from leaving their homeland.
Let me clarify; when I say "force" from the United States, European Union and other diplomatic states, it means direct sanctions that can be strongly tightened to make such countries as Liberia under leaders like Taylor a pariah state. Most of the time these stances are taken as mere statements, they are not really serious about monitoring them; that is the force I am talking about.
The United States, the European Union and other countries should carefully monitor and follow up on sanctions and be interested in solving the problems of developing countries. There should be careful monitoring and follow-up on the sanctions and travel restrictions. You are a journalist; you know that both the United Nations and United States travel restrictions are not fully complied with by the Liberian government.
What is the point of keeping an arms embargo on the government in Monrovia when the government is importing arms regularly? There is no need. The United Nations and other governments are not interested in policing what is going on, so there has got to be a way to sort of police the sanctions properly
Anything else you would like to add?
Yes, I would like to say thanks to the Liberian people because the public, as you are aware, was always at war with the utterances of the government. The public did not agree with what the government said about me and my colleagues in jail.
I also thank the Liberian journalists, the Press Union of Liberia, the Analyst newspaper and all the media institutions in and out of Liberia, the Media Foundation for West Africa, Reporters Without Borders... some of the names I may not remember at this moment but I am sure you know all of them, I tell them thank you in my own Liberian way.
To the human rights organizations, Amnesty International, the Dutch Human Right Commission, Human Rights Watch - all the human rights organizations in Liberia, the Coalition of Human Rights Organizations in Liberia and other parts of the world. I am grateful to Bishop Michael Francis, Sheikh Kafumba Konneh and the interfaith mediation council of Liberia and the Liberia politicians.
I am also grateful to my friend and brother Aloysious Toe who is in jail; he was purposely placed in jail because of me. I am not happy as long as he and the other guys remain in jail. I will continue to work to ensure that the same amount of pressure that was mounted to ensure my release will be mounted so that they can be freed.
I am grateful to ECOWAS, African Union, the European Union Presidency, the Foreign Minister of Sweden, The EU commission offices in Monrovia, the American Ambassador, John Blaney and Ambassador Bismark Myrick, Deputy Ambassador Thomas White, Staff Department Officials, Mrs. Sarah Morrison and Richard Boucher. I am grateful to President George Bush, Mr Colin Powell - let's say I am grateful to the American government and people but I like to remind them that they should continue to mount pressure so that the other guys who are held in jail for committing absolutely no crime are set free.
I am grateful to the world community because this thing transcended the Liberian boundary.