SG Cephus Supports Transitional Justice Commission -Provides Legal Roadmap for War/Economic Crimes Court

The issue of the establishment of a war and economic crimes court in Liberia has been gaining serious traction, given the recent US Congressional Hearing on the subject matter. Moreover, the recent detention, trial and prosecution of alleged war criminals in the prolonged Liberian civil conflict in Europe has emboldened the call for justice in Liberia, a country whose government bears the onus to bell the impunity cat, albeit some of whose governors that should pass into law the establishment of such court are themselves accused of perpetrating war and economic crimes. In any case, the legislature on June 30, 2021, cited the country’s Solicitor General, Cllr. Saymah Syrenius Cephus, to provide a roadmap on the very legislature’s suggestion for the establishment of a Transitional Justice Commission whose role remains scanty to the Liberian public that is eagerly awaiting dispensation of justice for crimes against their persons and relatives and for illegally managers of state finances depleting state coffers under the guise of governance, The Analyst reports.

Appearing before the Senate Wednesday, Cllr. Cephas generally concurred with the Legislature’s recommendation for the establishment of the Transitional Justice Commission as a way of addressing outstanding issues surrounding the implementation of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

Speaking on the invitation of the Upper Chambers of the national legislature to give his views and expert opinions on the recommendation forwarded to President Mr. George Manneh Weah to guide him on how the report of the TRC, especially the clamor for the establishment will take place, Cephas openly declared his support for the TJC setup, but with several caveats.

“Yes, if you ask me if I support the setting up of the Transitional Justice Commission, it will address most of the outstanding issues around the TRC, especially why it has not been implemented and all the implications”, Cllr Cephus said.

Answering a question why the TRC recommendations have not been fully and timely implemented, Cllr. Cephus cited social, economic, and legal reasons and argued that the way forward is for amendment/repeal of some parts of the constitution and judicial laws to take place, basing his legal reliance on Articles 2, 27, 50, 65 and 66 that need to be amended before the TRC can be fully and timely implemented.

“To establish a court with the international dimension that will be respected by the people and international community, you need seasoned lawyers from different backgrounds or countries. Now, the new judicial laws say only Liberians can practice laws in Liberia; and Article 27 says only persons of negro descent can be citizens of Liberia, which means no foreign can practice law here. So, how can you bring in foreign persons to work on cases when the war crime court is established here?” Cllr. Cephas wondered.

Speaking further, Cllr Cephus said that to the best of his knowledge the TRC has not been effective in living up to its original mandate of initiating a face-to-face interaction between alleged perpetrators and victims of various offenses committed during the war. He said if the TRC had succeeded with that, then there would have been no reason for the Senate to have invited him to give an expert opinion on their recommendation.

Touching on the effect of the August 2003 Act which gave general amnesty to everyone who took part in the Liberian crisis, Cllr. Cephas said it is an act and a standing legal document that remains enforceable in Liberia. He said it was one of the impediments he has identified that renders the agitation for war crime court not feasible and that to go against the Act the national legislature can repeal it so that all those granted amnesty under the said act will lose said amnesty and be made to face justice in the court system.

Cllr. Cephus said he agrees with the position of the Senate that war crime and economic crime should be separated because the two cannot be addressed under the same legal process.

“We already have the Criminal Court C which has jurisdiction over all economic cases; so, what is the point of establishing any court that will deal with the same issues. The war crime court is something that we are looking at that cannot happen right now because of some of the legal issues I talked about earlier. Certain amendments must happen before we can have the court established”, he said.

On the effect of the ratifications of Liberia to the Rome Statute of 2004 as it relates to the establishment of the war crime court, Cllr. Cephus said Article 2 of the constitution clearly states the supremacy of laws of the land and that the Supreme has the power to nullify any laws inconsistent to the laws of the land. He said it was not binding on Liberia to make the statute above laws of Liberia as those going through the legal system in the country have the option of going to the Supreme court for redress if any other court in the country does not render satisfactory judgment.

Cllr Cephus, in his conclusion, made an emphatic case for the setting up of the Transitional Justice Commission because it will factor in all the outstanding issues surrounding the workings of the TRC and the matters that arose in the aftermath of its final report. He cited the dissenting opinions of two of the seven commissioners who even petitioned the national legislature to vent their anger on how the reports were authored and submitted.

“The TJC will look at the many unresolved issues and come up with proper recommendations that will guide the process of Liberians making input in the reports. The TRC was never a court that rules on opinions of judges, and so, not taking into consideration the dissenting views of the other members does not apply and such can be addressed by the TJC”, he said.

He said he fully supports the Palava Hut Initiative recommended by the Senate to be reactivated because it will accelerate the process of national reconciliation, facilitate the completion of the memorialization projects, seek for possible reparation to be paid to victims of the war and review of the controversial national symbol.

At the end of his presentation, Cllr Cephus answered some questions posed to him by some Senators on the floor. Senator Varney Sherman of Grand Cape Mount County sought to know whether Article 34 of the 1986 constitution which empowers the Legislature to set up special courts can be of help to set a war crime court to avoid all the legal issues that may arise. Cllr Cephus said it is possible in that direction but there are other mechanisms that need to be put in place so that the court will satisfy the international dimension it must have.

Responding also to Senator Milton J. Teahjay of Sinoe County’s question on whether the citizens of Sinoe who proposed for restorative justice could do anything in that direction as against what the retributive justice the TRC was proposing, Cephas said that was why he was backing the setting up of the Transitional Justice Commission which will look at some of these grievances which he called the unfinished or untouched businesses of the TRC.

Meanwhile, Cllr Tiawon Gongloe who was earlier billed to also speak at the public hearing sent in an excuse for not being able to attend but pleaded with the Senate to postpone the hearing for Wednesday, July 7, 2021 to enable the Liberia National Bar Association to send in a team of legal experts to make their presentation. The request was accepted and the LNBA will next week send their delegation.

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