The Criminal Court “A” at the Temple of Justice has temporarily taken custody of Officer Melvin K. Tolbert of the Armed Forces of Liberia, pending the court’s scheduled ruling on Friday, 24 June after a writ of habeas corpus and an amended bail of information have been heard.
Judge Boima Kontoe placed Officer Tolbert under the custody of the Sheriff for Montserrado County on Wednesday afternoon, 22 June temporarily securing him from army detention while awaiting Friday’s ruling.
In a request for habeas corpus to secure the soldier’s release from an alleged perpetual detention by the AFL that went roughly over 20 days, his counsels wrote that he had been detained at the Edward Binyan Kesselley Military Barracks in Schiefflin, Margibi County since 31 May 2016 up to the time of filing the complaint on 17 June.
Tolbert’s counsel claimed that defense authorities here have consistently downplayed his request to seek foreign medical attention after he was injured in May 2009 by grenade blast during training. The counsels appeared more frustrated that after their client’s five years contract with the military expired in 2011, army authorities declined to discharge him to civilian life despite series of communications for his resignation, citing April 2016; September 2013; January 2012;March 2011 and October 2011, respectively But lawyer representing the Ministry of Defense Cllr. Alexander Saryeah contended that Officer Tolbert remains an active army personnel because he was never discharged as per the agreement in the contract he signed with the army.
“As long as you are not discharged from the army, you are a member of the army,” Cllr. Saryeah insisted, raising further contention that an army officer must not be subjected to a civilian authority but to the Military court.
He repeatedly warned that it would be a bad precedent wheresoldiers would run to court each time they have problem, adding that when one becomes a military person, he is subject to militarysystem. “Your Honor, I will tell you and tell you for the very last time, if the courts decide to interfere into military matters, it will bring very grave situations in this country!,” he warned.
He considered it as serious problem coming into the army where lot of habeas corpus will be coming from the court each time an officer is disciplined by his authorities. He [praised] the officer for being a brave soldier, but said his [action] indicates that his engagement with the army is more than an employment, as people don’t walk in and out of the army at any time they want.
The Defense Ministry’s counsel concluded that being “confined in the barracks” was different from being placed behind bars, noting that Tolbert was confined in the barracks and not permitted to leave without special order.
Cllr. Saryeah accused Officer Tolbert of allegedly disobeying orders, deserting post and receiving salaries from the Liberia Revenue Authority or LRA, while he has not yet been discharged from the army when both institutions are under the executive.
But Tolbert’s lawyer Cllr. Arthur Johnson dismissed Cllr. Saryeah’s argument that military personnel should not be subjected to civilian authority, reminding him that there is no military court in Liberia now, though the law requires same.
He said his client took the decision to leave after being ignored by authorities despite series of communications written surrounding his resignation and request for discharge from the army. He noted that habeas corpus is for anyone whose rights have been infringed upon without due process like in the case of Officer Tolbert.
He further argued his client wrote series of letters requesting to leave and the authorities did not care about the particles that are in his body; citing the communications from April 2016; September 2013; January 2012 March 2011 and October 2011, respectively.
“Melvin Tolbert is detained in a dark room at the Kessely Barracks; he is not being confined. MelvinTolbert is not in the confines of the Barracks to say he is walking around. He was arrested by Military Police Officers and placed in the dark room,” Cllr. Johnson argued.
He reminded the court that the law declares as unconstitutional, any law, regulation, statute or rule that is inconsistent with the Constitution of Liberia. “Then he comes here to say the military has a rule that even if you are jailed for 100 days, you can’t come to court,” Cllr. Johnson stressed, noting that it was unconstitutional.
He warned that if the Court allowed the AFL to continue detaining officers in such manner, even the rest of the officers that were in the courtroom to take Tolbert in their custody would also see themselves lock up for hundred days and nothing happening to protect them.
He reminded that since the AFL does not have an ”adequate legal structure”, they are obligated to turn over to the Ministry of Justice any arrest made within 48 hours.
By Winston W. Parley & Zee Roberts-Editing by Jonathan Browne