Dear President Taylor:
Human Rights Watch is writing to express its deep concern over the increasing harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Liberia since you took office in 1997. Most recently, on 28 November, 2000, a gang of men armed with knives, hammers, and sticks stormed the offices of the Centre for Democratic Empowerment (CEDE), a nongovernmental organization in Monrovia. Human Rights Watch believes that this recent incident is part of a pattern of attacks against members of the Liberian human rights community and the independent media, intended to silence independent voices in Liberia.
The assailants physically assaulted CEDE staff, including director Conmany Wesseh and chair and former Liberian interim president Amos Sawyer. Nine CEDE staff required hospital treatment following the attack, including Conmany Wesseh who suffered stab wounds. The attackers also ransacked the offices, destroying computer and other office equipment. The recent attack on the CEDE office followed a meeting hosted by CEDE of Liberian nongovernmental organizations on curbing the proliferation of small arms and light weapons in the region. The police have reportedly arrested a number of those responsible for the November 2000 attack, and regret has been expressed by your government about the incident. However, it remains to be seen whether your government will take action to bring those responsible to justice.
This is the second time that Conmany Wesseh has been made the target of a violent attack in the space of a year and a half. In July 1999, Mr. Wesseh's house was ransacked and his family threatened by over one hundred former combatants after he gave an interview saying that the welfare of ex-combatants was the responsibility of the government and not the international community. Several days earlier, on July 26, 1999, he had been threatened by the police chief who reportedly said, "We won't touch you, but you will see." Mr. Wesseh had previously been assaulted by a dozen unidentified persons the night after the in-custody death of government critic Samuel Dokie. Despite initial arrests, those suspected of carrying out the attack were later released without charge, and no one has been held accountable for the July 1999 attack on Mr. Wesseh.
Independent voices in the human rights community and the media are steadily being silenced by the government in a bid to stem publicity and criticism of security force abuses and other human rights violations by the government. Journalists and human rights activists are regularly being subjected to mistreatment and violence at the hands of security forces, as well as to politically-motivated criminal charges in the courts and other restrictions. Additionally, attacks high-ranking government officials against human rights groups creates a permissive environment for attacks on human rights activists. Human rights activists have had to flee the country for fear of their lives. For example, in 1998, leading human rights activist Kofi Woods of the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission fled the country after receiving threats and being followed by unidentified persons believed to be security officers who were frequenting his home and inquiring about his whereabouts. Mr. Woods had been speaking out against violations by the government.
In December, 1999, James D. Torh, the executive director of Fore-Runners of Children's Universal Development (Focus) fled the country after politically motivated criminal charges of sedition were brought against him after he made a speech to students. He reportedly said, among other things, that "[President Charles] Taylor is running this government from his pocket and that those who voted for this government must repent that it is failing" and "we are prepared to tell whoever that is in power that it is time of the Liberian people to stand up and tell you to step down."
In March 2000, independent Star Radio station was forcibly closed by government security, according to the police director for "hosting of political talk shows, news, interviews and programs that have damaging political effects that tend to undermine the peace, security and stability of Liberia." Some fifteen police raided the offices, assaulted two journalists, confiscated the radio handsets, and ransacked and sealed the offices without giving a reason. Star Radio remains closed to date.
We are concerned that your government is not fully committed to ensuring respect for human rights and rule of law in Liberia. In order to ensure that your stated commitment to ensuring the rule of law in Liberia is a reality, your government must take immediate action to ensure the safety of human rights defender. Liberian government officials must end their public denunciations of the human rights community and independent media, and make a genuine commitment to ensure that Liberia becomes, in your word, "a country based on laws, not men." Human Rights Watch calls on your government to bring the perpetrators of the attacks against the CEDE employees to justice and ensure the safety of civilians.
Africa Division Director
Human Rights Watch