UN urged to Investigate Liberia for Detaining Rights Defenders

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Liberian human rights organization Green Advocates International, in collaboration with the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School, is calling on U.N. officials to investigate Liberia’s arbitrary detention of 19 environmental and Indigenous human rights defenders. They have submitted an allegation letter, dated Nov. 28, to the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights and seven U.N. Special Rapporteurs.

According to the complaint, Liberian police forces swept through the Kokoya community in rural Bong County in October 2018 at the behest of Turkish multinational mining company MNG Gold. The company, a subsidiary of Avesoro Holdings, had prompted widespread distrust after it released three million gallons of toxic chemicals into local water but refused to clean up or adequately compensate community members. Community outrage exploded into protest when a contractor crashed a company vehicle into four villagers, leaving them dead.

“I went on the scene . . . [and] saw the car burning because the car killed some citizens and the company did not care to even cover the dead bodies with body bag[s],” according to one of the defenders who was later arrested.

Another defender quoted in the complaint said, “You can’t kill people like chicken[s] and refuse to even take their dead bodies from the road.”

The allegation letter documents how police, instead of addressing the killings, responded to the resulting protests with “mass arbitrary arrests” of 77 people, many of whom had not been anywhere near the protests. The police went on to beat and humiliate detainees, publicly stripping them of their clothes and leaving several with debilitating injuries, according to the complaint.

The letter goes on to document a criminal process described as “riddled with irregularities.” The letter documents how the government charged all the defenders with laundry list of boilerplate charges, including terroristic threats. However, according to the letter, the underlying offense consisted of — at worst — looting. The account continues with the government proceeding with a group trial at which the judge refused to allow the defendants to present alibi witnesses. The poorest of the 24 defenders were convicted and sentenced to 10 years of confinement. Five defenders have been released on medical grounds, two of whom died shortly after their release. Two other defenders are gravely ill but remain in detention.

“This case is a clear instance of state capture,” said Marina Wilbraham ’23, a student in the Lowenstein Clinic. “From start to finish, we see how the government turned these proceedings into a show trial to make an example of these defenders. The message is clear: in Liberia, speaking up against big business can get you jailed or even worse.”

The allegation letter emphasizes that the Bong County case raises urgent and intersecting questions about the criminalization of environmental and Indigenous defenders who have combatted corporate corruption, and the interaction between business, the environment, and human rights. Green Advocates and the Lowenstein Clinic ask the U.N. experts to urge the Liberian government to release the defenders and provide both them and the Kokoya community with appropriate remedies for the harms Liberia and MNG Gold have inflicted on them.

Alfred Lahai Brownell Sr., founder and Director of Green Advocates International and a Tom and Andi Bernstein Visiting Human Rights Fellow at Yale Law School, noted that frontline environmental defenders are increasingly under attack in Liberia, in West Africa, and around the world.

“It is critical that U.N. experts act in this emblematic case of the state criminalization of human rights defenders in West Africa to send the message that states cannot silence those who speak out against corporate rights abuses and environmental harm,” Brownell said.

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