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Special Feature

Extraditing Ellen Cockrum to Liberia for Trial


The Liberian Government is endeavoring to muster the” teeth to bite” in its declared war on corruption. No surprises especially after the litany of criticisms about the Government’s alleged weaknesses in cleaning up its profile on public financial management. Two years after declaring corruption “public enemy number one”, the Government established the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission (LACC). LACC’s prosecutorial powers would depend on the Ministry of Justice. Following its first report to the Liberian people on assets declaration, it became clear, that the Commission would need full legal powers to bring individuals before the court of law to answer to allegations of impropriety in the management of public finance.

Extraditing Ellen Cockrum to Liberia for Trial: The Legal Impediments?

In a communication addressed to the Liberian Senate seeking to strengthen the Act establishing LACC, the Liberian leader was forthright in recognizing the need to grant the Commission full powers to prosecute individuals and entities allegedly involved in acts of corruption. She pointed out that it is imperative to further reinforce LACC by granting a direct and non-exclusive power to prosecute cases involving corruption and related offenses. In the logic of the President, granting prosecutorial powers to LACC would strengthen the Commission and remove its reliance on the “external equity of Government”.  The President asserted that this will ensure independence of the Commission to prosecute and eschew the notion of a politically motivated escapade. 

The Ellen Cockrum Extradition Scenario

Prior to this effort of the President, the Government had been gathering evidence to prosecute Ms. Ellen Cockrum, former Managing Director of the Roberts International Airport (RIA) on allegations of corruption. The Government alleged that Ms. Cockrum misappropriated over $500.000.00 (Five Hundred Thousand United States Dollars), and that she also awarded contracts to an individual considered to be her boyfriend.

The government also accused Ms. Cockrum of allegedly violating laws governing the Public Procurement Concession Commission(PPCC),  and the Public Financial Management (PFM). Ms. Cockrum is further accused of contracting a fictitious foreign company called Diaspora International to carry out her alleged corrupt acts.  

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The Liberian Solicitor-General, Cllr. Betty Lamin Blamo, informed the Liberian people that the Ministry of Justice had ample and sufficient evidence to prosecute Ms. Cockrum, and that Liberia would seek recourse to an Extradition Treaty between Liberia and the United States to extradite Ms. Cockrum from the United States, where she comfortably resides, to stand trial in Liberia. In the facade of the hubbub attending Ms. Cockrum’s dismissal, she quietly departed Liberia, some say not through the RIA. This in principle would make her a fugitive from justice.

First thing to consider in this analysis is whether an extradition treaty exists between Liberia and the United States of America. Extradition is normally regulated by treaty and conducted between governments. A Treaty of Extradition was signed in Monrovia between the Republic of Liberia and the United States of America on November 1, 1939. The ratifications were exchanged in Monrovia on November 21, 1939 and the Treaty entered into force on the same date.

Article I of the Treaty provides “It is agreed that the Government of the United Sates and the Government of the Republic of Liberia shall, upon requisition duly made as herein provided, deliver up to justice, any person who may be charged with, or may have been convicted of, any of the crimes or offenses specified in Article II of the present Treaty committed within the jurisdiction of one of the High Contracting Parties, and who shall seek an asylum or shall be found within the territories of the other; provided that such surrender shall take place only upon such evidence of criminality, as according to the laws of the place the fugitive or person so charged shall be found, would justify his apprehension and commitment for trial if the crime or offense had been there committed”. Article II of the Treaty enumerates the crimes or offenses under which a fugitive would be duly charged by the High Contracting Parties.

To what extent this Treaty has been implemented in the more than seventy years of its existence is open for debate. What is clear though is that relations between the two countries in regard to the Treaty appear to exhibit and lay bare a lopsided and an asymmetrical nature since it cannot be established whether Liberia in the life of the Treaty has ever extradited a fugitive from the US to face trial in Liberia.

On the other hand, the US has had the advantage under the Treaty. In recent time, individuals arrested in Liberia, who were attempting to use Liberia as a transit corridor to transport drugs to the United States, were extradited to stand trial in the US.

There are two notable exceptions in regard to Liberia. Firstly, In the Matter of the Extradition of CHAN KAM-SHU, a fugitive from the Justice of the Republic of Liberia, United States Appellant, v. Chan Kam-Shu, Appellee, (477 F.2d 333 United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit), the District Court granted the writ of habeas corpus and ordered the release of  Chan for deportation.  The court “found that Liberia had not timely produced the formal extradition papers pursuant to Article XI of the Treaty.”

“Chan was a resident of Hong Kong, then a British Crown colony, but his citizenship, British, Chinese, or otherwise was not clear from record.” on  January 30,1972, Chan was member of the crew of a Liberian Flag Vessel, the “Silver Shelton.” It was alleged that he fatally stabbed another crew member. The vessel requested assistance from the US Coast Guard, fearing that Chan would not be safe on board the ship after stabbing a popular crew member who later died in a US hospital.  Chan was arrested by the US Government and incarcerated. The US Government informed the Liberian Government about the matter. On March 27, the Liberian Government requested the US authorities to extradite Chan to Liberia for trial on a murder charge. On May 22, Liberia deposited with the State Department a duly certified, authenticated, formal extradition request Meanwhile, Chan, after spending some time in incarceration, filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus. The writ was granted.

Secondly, in the case of Charles Taylor, his extradition was sought by Liberia during the regime of Samuel Doe. Taylor was arrested by US authorities, and extradition proceedings initiated against him. A ruling was made to extradite him to Liberia but he somehow managed to escape prison.

In the Ellen Cockrum scenario, it is important to know whether a request for the extradition of Ms. Cockrum has already been submitted to the US Government. A public statement that the Government of Liberia has sufficient evidence to extradite Ms. Cockrum is insufficient to get the alleged fugitive to stand trial in Liberia. All extradition treaties require foreign request for extradition.

Assuming that a request has been submitted to the US Government, there will be a review by the US Department of State to identify any potential foreign policy obstacles and to establish the veracity of the existence of a treaty between the two countries. The State Department will also ascertain whether the crime or crimes allegedly committed are extraditable offenses and whether the supporting documents are certified in accordance with Title 18 section 3190 of the United States Code Annotated.

The original request will then be sent to the US Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs for another review to determine the sufficiency of the request and afterwards submitted to the US Attorney’s Office for the judicial district in which the alleged fugitive resides. A warrant of arrest is then issued and the fugitive is arrested and brought before the US district judge. A hearing is conducted under Title 18 section 3184 of the United States Code Annotated, unless the fugitive waives her right to a hearing. The court hearing is intended to determine whether the fugitive is extraditable.

From all indications, the chances are that Ms. Cockrum will not be willing to waive her right to a hearing. On the contrary, she might resist the extradition and go  further to deny the charge (s). And since she is an American citizen, she will obviously assert and argue that  as a US citizen and an ex-service personnel, as we are told, she can only be  subjected to the laws of the US. In an extreme situation, Cockrum might also base her argument on the lack of confidence in Liberia’s justice system. Cockrum will also cite recent US State Department reports on the human rights situation in Liberia as a crucial reason why she should not be extradited to Liberia.

In counter argument, the Liberian Government will contend that US citizenship should not be a bar to a scrupulous implementation of the Treaty and that the focus should be on whether the fugitive is extraditable under Article XI of the Treaty. The Government will also defend the justice system and argue that Cockrum was not mistreated in any form when she served in Liberia. The Government will further assert that Cockrum is simply a fugitive from justice, and request the court to uphold the Treaty.

Critical to this debate is whether the US Government, in upholding its treaty obligations, will give Ms. Cockrum a deaf ear or turn a blind eye to its national security disquiets that may arise. Similarly, will US judicial authorities disregard the Liberian situation, where reports abound of alleged serious weaknesses in the rule of law sector? Will it ignore reports emanating from its State Department on alleged human rights violations in the country?  

The question then is, can Liberia win an extradition case of this nature? In my view, the ramifications are profound and the ante high. This exercise may therefore end in another squander of public resources. In Charles Taylor’s extradition case, the late Jenkins. K. Z. B. Scott, then Minister of Justice, and  entourage, had to be present in the United States to prosecute the case. Additionally, Liberia may have to contract legal services. The Liberian Government therefore needs to critically evaluate the probability of extraditing Cockrum before setting out on a course that might be an enterprise in futility.
About the author
Kotono Gbeze is a Liberia. He resides in the state of Texas in the US. He has MA in international relations and a Bachelor degree in Law. Email-kgbeze@gmail.com

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