(Nairobi) – Liberian authorities should be commended for swiftly undertaking criminal investigations with a view to prosecuting or extraditing armed men alleged to be involved in cross-border attacks into Côte d’Ivoire, Human Rights Watch said today. The response followed an attack on June 8, 2012, in which at least 17 people, including seven United Nations peacekeepers, were killed in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire.
On June 14, Liberia’s information minister, Lewis G. Brown, announced that the country’s National Security Council (NSC) had ordered the arrest of 10 Liberians and Ivorians potentially connected to attacks along the Liberian-Ivorian border. The Liberian government also announced an imminent extradition hearing for 41 Ivorians and Liberians detained in Liberia in connection with post-election crimes in Côte d’Ivoire.
“The Liberian government has taken important steps, making it clear that those responsible for devastating attacks on Ivorian border residents and the deaths of seven UN peacekeepers will be held accountable,” said Matt Wells, West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “With effective cooperation on both sides of the border, the attackers should know that there is no safe refuge from justice.”
Human Rights Watch called on the Ivorian and Liberian authorities to ensure the protection of due process rights, including the presumption of innocence, of any alleged participants in the attacks who are detained in Côte d’Ivoire or detained and extradited from Liberia.
Among those Brown announced arrest warrants for is Isaac Chegbo, a Liberian better known by his nom de guerre “Bob Marley.” Human Rights Watch and the United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI) have set out evidence of Chegbo’s involvement in two massacres in Côte d’Ivoire in which more than 100 people were killed.
Between July 2011 and April 25, 2012, at least 40 Côte d’Ivoire residents were killed during four cross-border attacks that appeared to target civilians from ethnic groups who largely support President Alassane Ouattara. On June 8, the seven UN peacekeepers from Niger and 10 civilians were killed in an attack south of the Ivorian town of Taï, several kilometers from the Liberian border. It was the most deadly attack against the UNOCI since it began peacekeeping operations in 2004. Overnight on June 11, at least five more civilians were killed in attacks on the Ivorian border villages of Sieblo-Oula and Tiele-Oula.
The precise details of who was responsible for the June attacks have not yet been established. The UN and Liberian authorities have said they are still investigating, while Ivorian authorities have said the attackers came from Liberia. Ivorian authorities have said they arrested several attackers, though they have provided few additional details.
Liberian authorities have announced the closure of its border with Côte d’Ivoire, the deployment of additional military forces to the area, and the suspension of artisanal gold mining near the border due to its possible role in funding armed groups.
Two days before the June 8 attack, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the role of militants loyal to Laurent Gbagbo, the former Ivorian president, in four cross-border attacks from Liberia between July 2011 and April 2012. People who admitted to having carried out or planned cross-border attacks from Liberia’s Grand Gedeh County told Human Rights Watch that they were using profits from artisanal gold mining along the border to mobilize and recruit – including children – for further attacks. Human Rights Watch visited five such artisanal gold mining camps.
In the report Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the Liberian authorities’ inability to investigate properly and to extradite or prosecute people like Chegbo who were credibly implicated in grave crimes in Côte d’Ivoire, then returned to Liberia. Chegbo was arrested and charged with “mercenarism” in May 2011, but then quietly released on bail in February. No further action appeared to have been taken on his case.
On June 12, Côte d’Ivoire’s interior minister, Hamed Bakayoko, announced on national television that authorities had thwarted a coup plot involving military and political leaders loyal to Gbagbo. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of some harassment, including arbitrary detention and extortion, by Ivorian armed forces of young men from ethnic groups perceived as pro-Gbagbo following the June 8 attack.
Liberian authorities, to their credit, have explicitly stated that the rights of any accused will be respected. These rights include informing anyone arrested of the reason, and promptly bringing them before a judge and informing them of the charges on which they are being detained or extradited.
“In responding to cross-border attacks and other alleged threats to national security, Ivorian authorities need to safeguard due process rights,” Wells said. “The rule of law should not be replaced by a presumption of collective guilt, which would risk further widening Côte d’Ivoire’s dangerous communal divisions.”