(New York) - A prominent Liberian newspaper editor and three other Liberians have been detained without charge for more than a week, Human Rights Watch said today. The four are being held in incommunicado detention by the Liberian government, and may be at risk of torture and ill-treatment. The government has twice disregarded a court order to bring the detainees into court.

Hassan Bility, the editor of one of Liberia’s most independent newspapers, was arrested on June 24, 2002, together with Ansumana Kamara, Abubakar Kamara, and Blama Kamara. The detainees were taken to an unknown destination by two plain-clothes men reportedly from the Criminal Investigations Division of the police.

At the time, Minister of Information Reginald Goodridge issued a public statement announcing that Bility and the others were being held on suspicion of operating a rebel terrorist cell in Monrovia.

“Hassan is the most recent victim of the Liberian government’s crackdown against the independent media,” said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “His detention is intended to send the message that criticism of the Liberian government — or indeed even press coverage of that criticism — will not be tolerated.”

Over the past year, Hassan Bility has been interrogated and detained twice, and his newspaper, The Analyst, has been closed down twice, as the result of publishing articles deemed critical of the government.

In May 2002, Bility received a telephoned death threat from a colonel in the Liberian National Police who warned him that those who were writing articles critical of the president would be dealt with. The threat came after The Analyst covered a speech made by leading human rights lawyer Tiawan Gongloe on the role of civil society groups in bringing peace to the sub-region. As a result of the speech, Tiawan Gongloe was held in unlawful detention and tortured in April 2002 before being released without charge, and The Analyst was shut down briefly by the government.

Although the government initially acknowledged it was holding Hassan Bility and the others in custody, it has been impossible to determine which security agency is holding them or to obtain access to them. The government has twice failed to honor a court order that the detainees be produced in court. At both hearings, state lawyers have denied that the detainees are in state custody, despite the Information Minister’s press conference the day the accused were arrested, stating that the accused were undergoing “investigation at the National Security Agency” for a plot to “assassinate the person of the president and destabilize the state.”

State lawyers have also argued, in contradiction, that Bility need not be produced in court since he is an “illegal combatant,” and should therefore be brought before a military tribunal.

“Especially given Liberia’s recent history of seeking to quash public criticism, it increasingly appears Bility’s arrest on suspicion of operating a rebel terrorist cell in Monrovia is merely another effort to silence him,” said Takirambudde.

In the face of a rebel incursion since mid-2000, the government of Charles Taylor has become increasingly intolerant of dissent. Following the imposition of a state of emergency in February 2002, Liberia has intensified its harassment of civil society groups and the independent media. Additionally, members of the Mandingo and Krahn have been singled out for indiscriminate persecution based on their ethnicity, since many of the rebel fighters are Mandingo or Krahn. All four detainees are Mandingo.