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Arab style protest @ Temple of Justice

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-As Judicial worker sets himself ablaze

A protesting judicial worker Mr. Archie Ponponset himself ablaze at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia on Monday November 2 in an Arab-style protest, following weeks of protest for overdue salaries.

His action was true to his recent threat in which he accuses Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, Sr. of allegedly using all draconian means to hunt, suspend and relieve aggrieved staffers of their positions due to their protest.

In what may be the first of such terrible style of protest in Liberia, Mr. Ponpon on Monday, 2 November appeared to have concealed gasoline and fire litter to make his way into the premises of the Temple of Justice on Capitol Hill ahead of November 8, the day he publicized that he would have set himself ablaze.

The judicial workers started the protest roughly four months back in demand for the Liberian dollars component of their salaries that had been outstanding for about a year, but it escalated recently and their leader Mr. Ponpon threatened to set himself ablaze after judicial authorities indefinitely suspended, transferred and placed some of the protesters under investigation.

Ponpon and few of his fellow aggrieved judicial workers had just been served some writ of arrests Monday, 2 November by court officers when he suddenly walked up the stairs outside the building hosting the Supreme Court and pulled out a bottle filled with gas from under his double clothes with coat on top.

He placed the writ by his side, lied on the floor while he spilled the gas over his body, mainly on his chest and then pulled out a fire litter, setting himself ablaze as those around him yelled and cried out for his life.

The courtyard went wild as Mr. Ponpon’s “Arab style protest” sent a shock to almost everyone seeing him burnt in flame on the sunny Monday.

In effort to save Mr. Ponpon, some of his colleagues used water reserved in an anti – coronavirus bucket to extinguish the fire. But the fire left his skin peeled and wounded. His colleagues suddenly took him away using a motorbike to seek medication.

Later in the day some of the judicial workers assembled at the scene where Ponpon set himself ablaze and staged a protest, demanding justice and the resignation of Chief Justice Korkpor. They have vowed to parade with caskets at the court’s premises. Riot police were deployed at the scene, with no latter incident.

Prior to leading his fellow workers into this sustained protest at the Judicial branch, Ponpon has been in different protests as a student and as a campaigner following different issues, including his advocacy for same sex union, something which is a taboo in the Liberian society.

Ponpon’s move to campaign for gay rights in Liberia resulted to the burning down of a house rented by his mother after he set up the Movement for the Defence of Gays and Lesbians in Liberia in January 2012 to defend the rights of homosexuals in the country.

He survived other attacks that were related to his homosexual campaign before he finally aborted the move. He took part in student politics at the state – run University of Liberia before coming out to take on issues on the national level.

In December 2011, Ponpon was sent to court by the Liberia National Police along with one Oliver Siaty for trial for burning the Norwegian flag.

The duo had indicated at the time that they had no regret for their action because they wanted to draw the attention of the international community that then President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf did not deserve the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to her.

In his latest protest which has escalated into suicide attempt, Ponpon and other aggrieved judicial workers are facing suspensions, transfers and investigation following a complaint filed with the Ministry of Justice by Chief Justice Francis S. Korkpor, indicating that Ponpon accused him of sending people to his (Ponpon’s) house to kill him.

The judicial staffers’ suspensions and investigation ordered by the judicial authorities came despite Finance Minister Samuel Tweah’s intervention committing the government to pay the aggrieved judicial workers’ salaries in October, a move others had though would have calmed the months of crisis at the Temple of Justice.

Ponpon and his colleagues have since been pursued with different writs by court officials, and in return he has at separate times lied down under the chief justice’s vehicle and the vehicle of the Court Administrator, Cllr. Elizabeth Nelson.

Chief Justice Korkpor was on 10 September this year prevented from parking his vehicle at its usual parking lot at the Temple of Justice, as angry judicial staffers intentionally occupied the spot to deny him access while they held a meeting regarding an alleged unpaid Liberian dollar component of their salaries.

Then on 8 October, aggrieved judicial workers protested at the Temple of Justice following several weeks of failed negotiations with authorities at the judicial branch, disgracefully chanting Chief Justice Korkpor’s name and urging him to return their money.

In a rather humiliating way, some of the protesters held placards as others used empty gallons as drums to cause stirs outside the courts, chanting repeatedly: “Bring our money back, Chief Justice bring our money back; Bring our money back, Francis Korkpor bring our money back.”

They have defied an alleged demand that has emerged in negotiating efforts requesting them to apologize to Chief Justice Korkpor to pave the way for peace, insisting that they stand by whatever actions they took to get back a portion of their salaries allegedly cut.

“We say we stand in defiance, we say we will not apologize for any other action done on the grounds of the Judiciary. Our action is guaranteed under Article 17 of the Liberian Constitution of [1986], and as such we petitioned the Chief Justice for the redress of our grievances,” head of the aggrieved judicial staffers Archie Ponpon said Wednesday, 28 October.

In the protest, Mr. Ponpon alleged that Chief Justice Korkpor over the past two to three weeks has demanded through Associate Justice Joseph Nagbe that the protesters do a communication expressing their regret for their actions.

But Ponpon insisted that the protesters believed that every action they took to ensure that they got their money was just, therefore they stood by their decision not to apologize.

According to Ponpon, when they assembled at the Temple of Justice and cry for hunger and thirst, it’s only the Chief Justice that can address their grievances, pondering who will give them justice if the Chief Justice is vex with them.

“As such, no lawyer in this country feels comfortable to plead our case. So when we are [thirsty] and call for water, the Chief Justice only offers us vinegar…,” Ponpon added.

In a suspension letter dated 19 October and addressed to Mr. Archie Ponpon, the author identified as R. Stephen Wontee, Deputy Personnel Director at the Judiciary, indicated that Ponpon accused Chief Justice Francis S. Korpor of sending people to his (Ponpon’s) house to kill him.

According to the communication, this accusation was repeated and allegedly confirmed by Mr. Ponpon at a meeting that the Chief Justice held with employees of the Judiciary at the ground floor of the Temple of Justice on 8 October 2020.

The communication continued that this is a serious allegation which the Chief Justice categorically denies as having no iota of truth, but merely intended to besmear him. “In this regard, the matter has been sent to the Minister of Justice/Attorney General for full scale investigation,” he added.

“In view of the above, you are hereby suspended from work effective Monday, October 19, 2020 pending the outcome of the investigation,” it concluded.

In another communication dated 8 October under the signature of Civil Law Court “B” Clerk Nah J. Wollor and approved by Civil Law Court “B” Judge Scheaplor R. Dunbar, a request was made to Court Administrator Cllr. Elizabeth B. Nelson for the transfer of bailiffs Brenda Geekor and Cynthia Wildoh.

The communication cited the two bailiffs’ unwillingness to work, habitual absence from work and refusal to wear uniforms.

Mr. KybezeilligarKokuloKalaplee, co – chair of the aggrieved protesters insists that they will not bow to intimidation, adding that they are going beyond protesting for salaries now.

“This ground will continue to be a protest ground … few days from now, we have just paid for like 15 caskets; we will parade those caskets here and those caskets will be used by Francis Korkpor to bury us one after the other,” Mr. Kalaplee says.

“He got to resign! Francis Korkpor, we want him to resign, we want Cllr. [Elizabeth] Boyonnoh Nelson to resign…,” says Mr. Kalaplee.

He explains saying, “Chief Justice Korkpor says he has a writ here for us,” adding that predicated upon that, they went to the Temple of Justice to receive their writ but they were allegedly harassed.

He further explains that a lot of the judicial workers from central administration that are afraid to form part of the protest are relatives brought to work with the judiciary. Kalaplee claims he advised Mr. Ponpon against setting himself ablaze, saying “I told him that was not the rightful way.”

In an interview with judicial reporters following the incident, Liberian National Bar Association (LNBA) president Cllr. Taiwan Gonglose says this is the first time, in response to this paper’s question if a protester in Liberia had ever set him or herself ablaze.

“This is a terrible thing of historic importance, it never happened before. People have been killed here, they’ve killed people on the pole, and soldiers have killed people. Different things have happened, but I don’t know of any account of an advocate taking his own life away,” Cllr. Gongloe says.

He suggests that this is another reason for critical examination of the Liberian society, pointing to the issue of rule of law, “how we govern,” respond to leadership, uphold law and regulation and how the different offices given by the constitution are administered and not to ignore what has happened.

“That’s the first, I’m really shocked. I wasn’t here, but I arrived here, I heard about it and I’m shocked because I … read Liberian history from the beginning of Liberia, here to now, I have not heard of anything, any Liberian putting himself on fire for some advocacy,” Gongloe says.

He notes that one of the things that is necessary for this country is the upholding of the rule of law generally, not selectively. He says what has troubled Liberia for long is that the public always suspects that the government is not living by what it says, it is not following the rule of law and it selectively applies laws, regulations, decisions and other things.

Cllr. Gongloe says on Friday he met with Ponpon and others and told them to catalogue what their grievances are so that the LNBA can discuss how it could mediate if it is possible, but he got the shocking news on Monday that Ponpon was burning himself.

He says what Mr. Ponpon did try to pay the hard prize for what he believed in, noting: “There are very few people like that in society who are prepared to pay any cause, especially, give their life for what they strongly believe in.”

The head of communication at the Temple of Justice Atty. Ambrose Nmah did not respond to a call from this paper seeking comment from the Judiciary regarding the incident.

By Winston W. Parley–Edited by Othello B. Garblah

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