Liberia: Judicial Workers Remain Defiant

-As protest leader threatens suicide

Protesting judicial staffers have defied an alleged demand that has emerged in negotiating efforts requesting them to apologize to Liberia's Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, Sr., to pave the way for peace, insisting that they stand by whatever actions they took to get back a portion of their salaries allegedly cut.

"We say we stand in defiance, we say we will not apologize for any other action done on the grounds of the Judiciary. Our action is guaranteed under Article 17 of the Liberian Constitution of [1986], and as such we petitioned the Chief Justice for the redress of our grievances," head of the aggrieved judicial staffers Archie Ponpon said Wednesday, 28 October.

A few number of the aggrieved judicial staffers and their leader Mr. Ponpon staged a protest Wednesday in the premises of the Temple of Justice as President George Manneh Weah and his entourage, lawmakers and diplomats visited the Judiciary to sign a book of condolence for the late Chief Justice Chea Cheapoo, Sr. In venting anger at Chief Justice Korkpor, Mr. Ponpon threatens that he will set himself on fire on 8 November "because the Chief Justice over the time has refused and has used all draconian means to subject us, relieve us of our position, suspended me, hunting people because they participated in protest... "

Several staffers of Liberia's Judicial branch of government who took part in recent protests for salaries are facing suspensions, transfers and investigations after the government, through Finance Minister Samuel Tweah conceded to the workers' claim and assured that it would pay the first three months of their money this October.

"We are looking forward to November 8, the world of history will be made between the Chief Justice and I, including Elizabeth Boryonnoh. What is expected? It's expected is that we will light myself on fire. That is possible! It is!" Mr. Ponpon threatens.

In the protest, Mr. Ponpon alleges that Chief Justice Korkpor over the past two to three weeks has demanded through Associate Justice Joseph Nagbe that the protesters do a communication expressing their regret for their actions.

But Ponpon insists that the protesters believe that every action they took to ensure that they got their money was just, therefore they stand by their decision not to apologize.

According to Ponpon, when they assembled at the Temple of Justice and cry for hunger and thirst, it's only the Chief Justice that can address their grievances, pondering who will give them justice if the Chief Justice is vex with them.

"As such, no lawyer in this country feels comfortable to plead our case. So when we are [thirsty] and call for water, the Chief Justice only offers us vinegar... ," Ponpon adds.

In the wake of Mr. Ponpon's threat to continue the protest, Pearl Brown - Bull has offered to make intervention, urging the protest leader Mr. Ponpon to submit to her the names of the 19 staffers that are affected by the suspension.

"Alright, give me the list of the 19 persons and I will formally write a letter to the Chief Justice, the Court Administrator, and send copy to the Chief Justice. Y'all hear?" Cllr. Bull says.

Initially Mr. Ponpon and his colleagues declined to give the list, but they later submitted it to Cllr. Bull after some time of talking to them and assuring that she will represent them.

But she discourages Mr. Ponpon against his plan to set himself ablaze, warning that it would lead him to hell if he does so.

"Archie, if you put [yourself], November 8, ablaze, guess what, you going to hell!" Cllr. Bull says. But Mr. Ponpon replies that "hell is a place for human beings too," telling Cllr. Bull that God will take care of his (Ponpon) children.

Meanwhile, Cllr. Bull notes that she will raise money to give to the protesters, pleading with them to give her the chance to talk about the matter.

In a suspension letter dated 19 October and addressed to the aggrieved judicial workers' leader Mr. Archie Ponpon, the author identified as R. Stephen Wontee, Deputy Personnel Director at the Judiciary, indicated that Ponpon accused Chief Justice Francis S. Korpor of sending people to his (Ponpon's) house to kill him.

According to the communication, this accusation was repeated and allegedly confirmed by Mr. Ponpon at a meeting that the Chief Justice held with employees of the Judiciary at the ground floor of the Temple of Justice on 8 October 2020.

The communication continued that this is a serious allegation which the Chief Justice categorically denies as having no iota of truth, but merely intended to besmear him. "In this regard, the matter has been sent to the Minister of Justice/Attorney General for full scale investigation," he added.

"In view of the above, you are hereby suspended from work effective Monday, October 19, 2020 pending the outcome of the investigation," it concluded.

In another communication dated 8 October under the signature of Civil Law Court "B" Clerk Nah J. Wollor and approved by Civil Law Court "B" Judge Scheaplor R. Dunbar, a request was made to Court Administrator Cllr. Elizabeth B. Nelson for the transfer of bailiffs Brenda Geekor and Cynthia Wildoh. The communication cited the two bailiffs' unwillingness to work, habitual absence from work and refusal to wear uniforms.

The NewDawn has contacted the head of communication at the Judiciary Atty. Ambrose Nmah, referencing the letter addressed to Archie Ponpon to get the judiciary's response, but Atty. Nmah said the letter is clear, declining to speak further on the matter because he was not in the know.

Earlier on 13 October, Finance Minister Samuel Tweah told protesting judicial staffers that the government will restore cuts in their salaries that have necessitated their protests over the past weeks, saying this month each of them will receive US$153 representing the first three months, in addition to their October pay.

"We're giving three months in October, and I didn't make any firm commitment in terms of timing, but I did say that we will continue to search and overtime continue to meet them," he said.

The meeting with the Finance Minister followed a sustained protest at the judiciary with judicial staffers demanding Liberian dollars component of their salaries.

The protest was marred by anti- Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor slogans and drumming with gallons and pot tops. In the process the protesters were dragged by riot police later in the day, and some of them including protest leader Archie Ponpon were left unconscious.

It followed failed negotiations with authorities at the Judicial branch of government that led to the aggrieved judicial staffers' protest in extension of several weeks of protests for Liberian dollars component of their salaries allegedly cut, as they assembled outside the court, beating drums and chanting Chief Justice Francis S. Korpor's name.

It remains unclear why the judicial staffers targeted Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor in their protests against cuts in their salaries, despite the Judiciary issuing a clarity in September informing the aggrieved employees that the cuts in salaries were not done by the Judiciary and that the cuts affected all employees in the government sector.

Minister Samuel Tweah informed the judicial workers during the meeting that 15,000 real human beings, including Immigration officers, were lifted from as low as US$40.00 per month for years, to US$120.

To do that, he said about 9,000 Liberians who were making more had to make that sacrifice, meaning the government took money from those who were earning more and passed it on to those who were making less.

He revealed that the government team recently identified US$2.2m on account of some government employees who were getting two or three salaries in the same government.

According to a presentation by the Technical Team from the Ministry Of Finance, the Judiciary's wage bill was reduced from US$15.4m to US$12.8m, leaving a difference of US$2.6m.

The team indicated that ideally anybody who is working under the Judiciary is affected by 16 percent reduction which is done when the basic salary and allowance are combined.

The team noted that allowances were not taxed prior to the harmonization program, revealing also that the total payroll for the judiciary is around 2,000 or 1,800.

Based on the technical team's presentation, some of the judicial workers who for instance, are earning a basic salary of US$125 plus an allowance which prior to the harmonization program was in the tune of US$150, would get a combined total of US$275 by then.

The team noted that it is the US$275 that is supposed to be reduced by the 16 percent because the Judiciary's budget is reduced from US$15.4m to US$12.8m. When the 16 percent is applied to the US$275, the employee in this category like a bailiff for instance, would be left with US$231.

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