Liberia: Former Defense Minister's 'Corruption' Case Begins Today

As Criminal Court 'C' at the Temple of Justice begins hearing today, October 17, 2019, into multiple charges, specifically the "money laundering" accusation against former Defense Minister Brownie J. Samukai. The case has generated serious debate among legal minds.

The charges filed against Samukai, particularly alleged money laundering, relates to claims that between July 2009 up to and including November 2017, he authorized the withdrawal of US$852,860 from the coffers of the Ministry of Defense's (MoD) account, named and styled: "Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) Pension Account" at Ecobank-Liberia, which the government equates to money laundering.

The bank account was based on salary deductions and established to provide benefits to wounded AFL soldiers, and also to the families of dead AFL soldiers, as well as to supplement pension package to personnel of AFL upon retirement from active service.

State lawyers said documents showed that Samukai made several payments between 2009 up to and including 2017, which were basically for activities that were already provided for under the National Budget of the Republic of Liberia, such as the AFL operators.

In their money laundering claim, they said Samukai illegally paid US$50,000, as death fees to the families of the late Nigerian General Abdurrahman, who the document claimed did not contribute anything to the fund, while serving as AFL Chief of Staff (CoS).

They also claimed that Samukai made payment to facilitate AFL's operations in the amount of US$170,955 and US$369,380 was also paid to the high command of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) peacekeeping operation.

The money laundering charge also alleges that Samukai used a total of US$270 to transfer the money to Mali.

Samukai has repeatedly denied the money laundering claim, arguing that he acted based on the instruction of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who was also the Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) under whose administration Samukai served as the Minister of National Defense.

However, some legal experts, who confided into the Daily Observer, said that the act on the part of Samukai does not in anyway amount to the charge of money laundering.

One of the lawyers explained that the act of laundering is committed in circumstances where a person is engaged in an arrangement (i.e. by providing a service or product), and that arrangement involves the proceeds of crime.

"These arrangements include a wide variety of business relationships, which include banking, fiduciary and investment management," the Supreme Court lawyer noted.

The lawyer said that the requisite degree of knowledge or suspicion will depend upon the specific offense, but will usually be present where the person providing the arrangement, service or product knows suspects or has reasonable grounds to suspect that the property involved in the arrangement represents the proceeds of crime, which he claims is far from what the government terms as "money laundering."

In some cases, the lawyer said, the offense may also be committed where a person knows or suspects that the person with whom he or she is dealing is engaged in or has benefited from criminal conduct.

He said that under money laundering, criminal gangs move illegally, obtain funds around the globe using banks, shell companies, intermediaries and money transmitters, attempting to integrate the illegal funds in legal businesses and economies.

Our source said, among other things, that there are two key elements to a money laundering offense: "The necessary act of laundering itself i.e. the provision of financial services; and a requisite degree of knowledge or suspicion (either subjective or objective) relating to the source of the funds or the conduct of a client."

Samukai, together with two others co-defendants, Joseph P. Johnson, former Deputy Minister for administration and Nyumah Dorkor, former comptroller, are charged with theft of property, criminal conspiracy, economic sabotage misuse of public money and money laundering in connection to the misapplication of over US$1.147 million from the account of the AFL at Ecobank-Liberia.

It can be recalled that the Government of Liberia in August 2009, recommended that the appropriate and right thing to do in the AFL money saga at the time was restitution or refund the full amount of US$1,147,656.35 that was expended on the AFL for the past several years. "This refund shall be immediately provided in the next budgetary appropriation to the AFL by the government, not an individual minister or its designate(s), the recommendation then said.

To this, the document said then Minister Samukai was exonerated from any wrong alluding to corruption.

In August 2009, the Ministry of Defense established a contributory savings involving deduction from all ranks of the AFL for their welfare and supplementary pension benefit after their years of honorable service. As of October 2017, the amount of US$2,062,160.14 (including accrued interest), were collected and deposited into that account at Ecobank. And, it was established that about US$1,147,656.35 were spent on the AFL, and the balance in the account was US$688,964.96 as of November 8, 2017.

What makes the arrest warrant for the former ministers of defense a special case is that, the AIRReT chose to ignore the August 2009 recommendations of the Board of Inquiry (BOI) that was established by then Brig/Gen. Daniel Ziankahn, AFL former Chief of Staff (COS) to determine the status, utilization and balances of said account.

Meanwhile, the today's hearing is expected to determine the merit and demerit of the case, whether it is politically motivated as Samukai has insinuated.

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