Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Magistrates Sitting Program

Last week I was able to visit Monrovia Central Prison and observe the Magistrates Sitting Program. The program was set up a year ago by the Liberian Supreme Court and Ministry of Justice with the specific aim of reducing prolonged pre-trial detention and prison overcrowding. Magistrates from 6 magisterial courts in Montserrado County visit Monrovia Central Prison to hold pre-trial hearings six days a week (a different court visits on each day).

The project has certainly begun to make an impact. As of April 2009, an estimated 239 inmates had been released from Monrovia Central Prison. A recent report has even estimated that the magisterial courts order the release of an average of 3 to 7 detainees each day. This is a considerable achievement and those involved should be applauded for the hard work that has gone into the program. However, many challenges remain. For one thing, the number of detainees released each day is often insufficient to counterbalance the number of detainees admitted; thus, the population of Monrovia Central Prison continues to rise.

During my visit to the court, which is actually situated inside the prison compound itself, I was able to witness some of the challenges that the Magistrates Sitting Program still faces; it was also my first opportunity to observe a court hearing in Liberia. To my great surprise, the atmosphere inside the court was extremely informal, the judge struggling to keep order or maintain decorum: at one point, the defence and prosecution lawyers began arguing back and forth as if it were a classroom debating competition. The rules of procedure were only loosely followed and the judge had to continually remind the defence and prosecution lawyers to refer to Liberian law rather than reciting policy arguments without any legal basis. One criticism of the program has been that the prosecution and defence lawyers first read the case files on the day they arrive at court, having never met with or interviewed the detainees; given the low level of advocacy I witnessed, this point was clear to see. Indeed, the prisoner did not even attend the hearing and as I understand it, very few understand how the process works. Beyond these problems, the program suffers from inconsistent rulings between different magistrates, an overly narrow jurisdiction (over 95% of pre-trial detainees fall outside the jurisdiction of the magisterial courts), unclear pre-trial procedures, and a deficient record-keeping system.

So the challenges are clear for all to see. In addition, after a week in which I was able to sit in on some of the meetings between judges and magistrates to discuss how to improve the program, I can also confirm that progress can be frustratingly slow. Yet, with so many organisations and talented individuals working to push the program forward, I am confident that the Magistrates Sitting Program can fulfil its potential and provide an effective means of ensuring access to justice for the hundreds of pre-trial detainees that are currently trapped in the Liberian criminal justice system.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Monrovia Central Prison: Initial Impression

Last Tuesday was my first formal day at the Ministry of Justice. I made sure to arrive promptly at 8.30am to meet with a member of the Minister’s staff, who briefed me on how the Ministry operates and how I could contribute to the ongoing work of the corrections and rehabilitation department. After this small introduction, we departed for Monrovia Central Prison so that I could gain an initial impression of the problems currently faced by the Liberian prison system.

As we entered the sandy grounds of the prison, the blazing morning sun beat down upon us. A piece of razor wire fencing lay abandoned in the yard in front of the rusted walls of the main prison detention unit. Upon entering, we were immediately greeted by several prison guards who proceeded to give us a tour of the premises. It is difficult to describe just how desperate the situation at the prison is but I will do my best.

The prison houses around 800 inmates in a building built for a maximum capacity of around 300 prisoners. Consequently, the prison is seriously overcrowded with some cells housing as many as 12 prisoners. There is not even enough floor space per inmate in some cells with prisoners having to use their ingenuity to construct makeshift hammocks to create additional sleeping areas. Generally, inmates receive just one meal of maize per day, a portion which falls far short of the legal requirement to provide prisoners with good and wholesome food in sufficient quantity and reasonable variety. The healthcare situation is dire: the prison employs just one nurse and has inadequate space, drugs and supplies. The prison lacks the means to test for malaria, so all suspected cases must be brought to JFK hospital, a significant burden given the high number of cases. The prison suffers from a lack of running water with a single well serving the needs of the whole prison. As a result of inadequate staffing and security risks, prisoners are only allowed outdoors in small groups for short periods of time. Given the poor ventilation and sunlight inside the cells, the shortness of time spent outdoors by each prisoner is particularly distressing. Even when prisoners are allowed out, the prison has little to offer in the way of recreation with one lone volleyball net sitting idle in the prison yard: the most exercise prisoners can hope for is a walk around the prison grounds. There are few projects aimed at rehabilitating prisoners and no assistance is provided on release to assist with their reintegration back into society; as a consequence, many end up returning to prison upon release.

Possibly more shocking than the prison conditions themselves is the fact that 90% of inmates are pre-trial detainees, i.e. they are merely accused of committing crimes but have not yet had a full trial or conviction. Particularly worrying is the high number of pre-trial detainees who are accused of non-violent crimes, minor felony crimes and economic disputes all of which should have been declared non-custodial during pre-trial stages. Instead, these pre-trial detainees become trapped in the prison system, helpless to obtain the fair and speedy trials that they desperately need.

A famous prison reformer, Thomas O. Murton, once said that “prisons, mental hospitals and other institutions are a thermometer that measures the sickness of the larger society. The treatment society affords its outcasts reveals the way in which its members view one another – and themselves”. The Liberian government has recognised this fact and is now pushing to reform the entire criminal justice system. Over the coming months, I will be assisting with the development of this reform programme and through this blog I will introduce you to the many projects that are being undertaken to help improve the system. One thing is clear: reform can't come quickly enough.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Ducor Hotel: A Symbol of Liberia's Past and Potential

On my first full day in Liberia I was given a tour of Monrovia by John Hummel, the Country Director of the Carter Center. As we drove around, taking in the sights and sounds that the city has to offer, my general impression was that Liberia is really beginning to get back on its feet after so many years of hardship. A lot of renovation is now taking place and the city had a real buzz as we drove through it.

Eventually, we ended up at the Ducor Palace Hotel. Now a derelict building, the Ducor is more a symbol of Liberia’s troubled times than the thriving 5 star luxury hotel it once was. It was the first hotel constructed in Liberia and used to boast lavish facilities, including 300 rooms, a swimming pool, tennis courts and a roof-top bar.

We left our vehicle and with permission from the officials who were guarding the building, we entered and ascended to the top. As we climbed the stairs, it became clear just how badly the building had been damaged: it felt as though the war had torn its way into every room; no wall, corner, or ceiling was left unscarred. To my mind, the hotel felt almost haunted and I was left only to imagine what had taken place to reduce it to such a state.

As we reached the top of the hotel, my eyes squinted from the sudden brightness. As my eyes began to acclimatise, the most spectacular view was revealed. The dereliction of the building was overwhelmed by a stunning vision of Monrovia. I could even imagine the wealthy clientele that used to reside at the hotel sipping cocktails whilst gazing down on Monrovia from above.

The clash between the darkness of the building and the brightness of the panorama in many ways sums up Liberia: fighting to move forward but still gripped by its past. As I stood captivated by Monrovia's beauty, I recalled the vast potential that the country possesses. For one, Liberia is rich in timber, diamonds, gold, iron ore and has extensive rubber plantations. But also, it became clear that, provided it continued on its road to recovery, Liberia could have a booming tourism industry.
As we descended the stairs of the Ducor to return to our vehicle, my mind turned to the work that I would soon be carrying out over the coming months. My brief tour of Monrovia had left me feeling extremely motivated to help Liberia realise some of its potential, even if I could only do so in a small way.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The Road to Monrovia

14 hours after leaving London’s Heathrow airport, I finally touched down at Roberts International airport just outside Monrovia, Liberia. So many emotions are running through me at this point: excitement, fear, anxiety. I have no idea what to expect from a country that only 7 years ago ended one of the most brutal civil wars in African history. During my stay in Uganda last year, most locals in Kampala were completely untouched by the war that had been confined to the northern regions of the country; some were even unaware that a war had taken place. In Liberia, the entire country has been touched by war and its impact is acutely felt by all to this day.

It was therefore little surprise when the conversation with the private taxi driver, who had picked me up at the airport, soon turned to his experiences of the war. Like many Liberians, he had witnessed people being arbitrarily slaughtered in public and acts of barbarism that no one should ever have to experience. When I asked whether he wanted those who had committed such crimes to be held accountable, he answered that he would rather just focus on moving the country forward rather than looking back at its past. To my mind, Liberia’s past and future are inextricably linked: how can Liberia ever truly move forward unless it confronts the wrongs committed during its civil war? As the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, has previously declared, “to understand a nation’s future, one has to first understand its past”.

The accountability of individuals for crimes committed during Liberia’s civil war is an extremely hot topic at the moment in light of the recent report issued by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which recommended the formation of an “Extraordinary Criminal Tribunal for Liberia” to try specific individuals for human rights violations committed during the civil war. One of the rationales behind the formation of such a tribunal is clearly to deter such crimes being committed in the future. However, my taxi driver was sceptical: he held the belief that war crimes trials would destabilise Liberia and act as a catalyst for future conflict. International criminal law’s ability to deter mass atrocity remains a contested issue. For example, Professor Mark Drumbl has argued that the perpetrators of international crimes rarely adopt a rational analysis that the deterrence theory presumes: “Do genocidal fanatics, industrialized into well-oiled machineries of death, make cost-benefit analyses prior to beginning work?” Yet, even if a war crimes tribunal is not answer, I am still of the belief that some form of accountability is necessary. Having said this, I am also aware that I come to Liberia with a British conception of justice, rooted in an adversarial system that places a strong emphasis on holding individuals to account for their actions. During my stay in Liberia, one of my aims is to learn more about local perceptions of justice and the different methods that exist to help transition a country out of civil war.

The drive to Monrovia took about an hour. It was night-time and Liberia’s lack of a reliable source of electricity became clear as a deep darkness had descended over the houses, hotels and shops that lined the road. Eventually, we turned off the aptly-named UN Drive onto an unmade rocky road and arrived at the Carter Center residence, where I would be staying for my first few weeks until I find a more permanent place to live. I was greeted by three people: John Hummel, the Country Director of the Carter Center; Sean MacLeay, the Project Manager of the Carter Center; and Kartik Sharma, another law fellow who is working at the Ministry of Internal Affairs. One Lebanese falafel later (there is a large Lebanese presence in Liberia) and it was time to get some rest after a long trip. My 5 month journey in Liberia had begun.