(Monrovia) – Rampant police corruption denies Liberians equal and impartial justice and impedes the country’s postwar development, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The Liberian government should rein in police corruption and related abuses before the planned drawdown starting in 2013 of the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL).
The 64-page report, “‘No Money, No Justice’: Police Corruption and Abuse in Liberia,” describes the multiple criminal activities by corrupt police officers, from charging crime victims for every stage of an investigation, to extorting goods from street vendors. These actions violate Liberians’ rights under international and national law and undermine public trust in the Liberia National Police.
“Police should protect the population, not prey on vulnerable people,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Liberians have had all too many years of chaos and violence. A professional police force is critical to uphold people’s rights and create a rights-respecting society.”
The UN Mission, which has been in Liberia for 10 years to stabilize the country after years of civil war, announced its plan to cut UN troop numbers by half between 2013 and 2015. However, a recent UN assessment of the national police found abusive behavior, a lack of professionalism, and serious resource challenges that leave the force unprepared to become Liberia’s sole steward of internal security.
Human Rights Watch spoke with more than 120 people who werevictims of police corruption and abuse. They said that police officers typically ask crime victims to pay to register their cases, for transport to the crime scene, and for pens and other items used in the investigation. Criminal suspects routinely pay bribes for release from police detention.
“I don’t go to the police for anything,” one Monrovia resident told Human Rights Watch. “They always want from me and I don’t have.”
Street vendors, who sell goods such as fish, clothes, and toiletries, described frequent police raids, especially in Monrovia, the capital. Police officers routinely steal goods, arrest the vendors, and then require them to pay for their release from detention. Motorcycle and taxi drivers throughout the country described harassment and extortion along roads. Those who refuse to meet officers’ demands face violence and arrest.
Elite armed units, such as the Police Support Unit, were frequently cited for violent abuses. One resident of the West Point section of Monrovia said that Police Support Unit personnel came to his home, kicked him, held his wife at gunpoint, and stole money she had hidden in her bra.
Police corruption threatens the national development goals set by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Human Rights Watch said. When President Sirleaf took office in 2006, she announced that corruption was “the major public enemy.” Her administration’s poverty reduction strategy focused on professionalizing the security sector and establishing the rule of law. Sirleaf’s administration has made some progress in improving arrest procedures and addressing violence against women.
But corruption and other human rights abuses by the police persist, denying ordinary Liberians both access to justice and a means to pay school fees, feed their families, and afford housing. Extortion by the police frustrates the attempts of low-income people to rebuild their lives after the 1989-2003 civil wars, which killed more than 200,000 people and displaced another million.
The police expressed their own frustration with a lack of adequate support for their work. Human Rights Watch spoke to 35 police officers of varying ranks, who described inadequate supplies, low salaries, and pressure to pay their superiors to obtain desirable posts and promotions.
“They come crying to you and you don’t even have a drop of gas,” one officer said, describing the difficulty of traveling to a crime scene to investigate a crime report. “We are not supposed to ask someone for money, but because you don’t have, we ask the person for money to go.”
Liberia’s anticorruption institutions, which should keep police corruption in check, are weak, Human Rights Watch found. The Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC) struggles to get convictions in corruption cases. One of its few convictions since its establishment in 2008 – against the former Liberia National Police inspector general – was successfully appealed and is now before the Supreme Court of Liberia.
The Professional Standards Division – the internal monitoring body of the national police – needs to respond to public complaints more promptly, effectively, and impartially and to improve the system for the public to report abuses.
The Liberian government should act on its commitment to end police corruption by establishing a Civilian Oversight Board, which President Sirleaf proposed in 2012. It should also immediately investigate the serious resource shortfalls in the national police, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Liberian government has made noteworthy efforts in recent years to promote human rights,” Dufka said. “Persistent police corruption and abuse, however, undermine the nation’s goals of national security and economic development.”