Religious Leaders Released but Repression Intensifies
Byline: Charles Cobb Jr.
© Copyright 2002 All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica

MONROVIA, Liberia  - Only two days after they were charged with treason, two Liberian religious leaders have been released from detention by the government of President Charles Taylor. The authorities said they lacked the evidence to try them.

David Kiazolu, a Muslim, and Rev. Christopher Toe, a Christian, are members of an inter-religious council working for reconciliation. They were arrested Dec. 28 and charged on Wednesday January 8 of conspiring to overthrow the government and being in contact with the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd).

Friday's unexpected release cannot be seen, however, as a sign that the government intends to reverse the policy of repression and harassment of perceived enemies of the state that intensified in 2002.

To many observers and analysts, Toe's and Kiazolu's experience has become the typical pattern in Liberia: intimidation, detention and the use of violent state power against any organized opposition. Says one opponent of the government in the region who asked not to be named: "This [Taylor] administration has a way of thriving on chaos and generating chaos to survive."

Last year, Sheikh Sackor, president of Humanist Watch Liberia, and several others were held incommunicado for varying periods for their alleged complicity with the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd). Early last year, the Chairman of the New Deal Movement, Nigba Wiapla, and members of the staff of the Human Rights Center were arrested for speaking out on the political and human rights situation.

Politicians, journalists and activists with civil society organizations are routinely picked up, jailed, and frequently beaten and tortured. Last April, human rights lawyer Tiawan Saye Gongloe sustained severe injuries after being badly and repeatedly beaten by state security officers while in jail. He told that he had been left only with "my voice and my spirit".

At a press conference shortly afterward, Charles Taylor said that Gongloe's fellow inmates were responsible for the beatings. In any case, said the Liberian president, under the state of emergency imposed in February, the authority of the police could not be challenged.

After his arrest last June, journalist Hassan Bility was held incommunicado and tortured for almost six months as "a prisoner of war", in the words of the government. He was finally released last month on condition that he leave the country.

Liberiaís former Interim President, Dr. Amos Sawyer, who is now in the United States, described to allAfrica the ransacking of his office by security forces in November 28, 2000. "They beat me up," Sawyer said. He continues to be baffled by President Taylorís statement after the November incident: "A week after we were severely beaten, Mr. Taylor himself confirmed that he supported the attack. Taylor further said he will not stop until he gets at people like me."

There is bafflement, as well as chagrin, among many Liberians as what they perceive as the low key almost tolerant attitude of the United States government toward an extremely repressive regime. "Not much has been done and it is strange given the litany of abuses that have occurred in the country," said one activist. "For such indifference to be demonstrated by the U.S. administration is quite strange." Others point to the strident diplomatic effort against the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe and contrast it with the approach to Liberia.

Says one activist not prepared to have his name published: "There was a time when the Voice of America, the Omega Tower [a navigational station erected by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1976 to guide shipping] and many other facilities were crucial to America. I am sure if those same conditions existed now, the U.S. would have some interest in Liberia. But now if you look around there is not much, except that [televangelist and businessman] Pat Robertson is trying to mine gold in the eastern part of Liberia."

But Bush Administration officials insist they're not indifferent. "The internal dynamic of what's happening on the ground in Liberia is of great concern to us," said Assistant Secretary of State Walter H. Kansteiner at a recent press briefing. "The way forward for Liberia to not only have an internal reconciliation, but also to become a constructive player within the region, is for Liberia to open up and to allow civil society to live and abide by the human rights norms that we all agree to."

He insists that it's incorrect to say that the U.S. is soft on Liberia. There are U.S. and United Nations sanctions working against the Taylor regime, he says. They are "ring-fencing" Taylor's Liberia. "I think the pressure that the diamond sanctions have had has clearly produced some results; that is, we've cut off some of that revenue stream. Timber sanctions. We continue to press for increased timber sanctions against Liberia at the United Nations. You know, we're putting together this series of mechanisms where you ring-fence the revenues of the ship registry or of the timber, in particular. And we could look at other sources of revenue, too, but the ring-fencing then enables an objective third party to come in and basically audit."

But says one Liberian activist, "No one knows how effective the sanctions have been. No one knows how effective the travel ban has been. And at the same time there is not a determined attempt to even support and reinforce the capacity of local groups -- ordinary people in civil society organizations."

But a United Nations-sponsored audit of Liberia's shipping books, authorised after UN experts found that Liberia was using money earned from its shipping register to purchase guns and run them to Sierra Leonean rebels, has "collapsed", according to a senior administration official speaking on background. The Taylor government won't let auditors see the books. "The Liberians seem unwilling on a voluntary basis to make these books available." So it's back to the United Nations Security Council. "...We at the Security Council now want to make this mandatory. But if we do, and they still don't do it, what comes next?"

Hope for reigning in and perhaps even removing Taylor seem to be resting on the War Crimes tribunal underway in neighbouring Sierra Leone. "Charles Taylor is a problem in the region... particularly in Sierra Leone, and we are taking a closer look at it," United States ambassador-at-large for War Crimes Issues, Pierre-Richard Prosper said, in a recent interview.

Many Liberians, disappointed with U.S. actions so far, are taking a wait-and-see attitude. "We hear talk about this," says Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an opposition leader who campaigned against Taylor in the 1997 presidential race. "We don't know how far they will go. We do know that the Sierra Leone government is afraid of Taylor and they're not going to push that agenda."

© Robert W. Kranz  January-2003