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Lawyers battle in ex-defense minister’s trial

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Prosecutors and defense counsels for former Defense Ministry officials have held their final arguments before the Criminal Court “C” in which the lawyers battled against opposing interests to convince the court either to convict or acquit the accused indicted for allegedly embezzling funds deducted from soldiers’ salaries for pension.

Judge Yamie Quiqui Gbeisay’s ruling into the trial depends on when he will make an assignment, as hearing has been adjourned after the final argument Thursday, 19 March at the Temple of Justice in Monrovia.

During the final argument, Cllr. A. Ndubusi Nwabudike, Executive Chairperson of the Liberia Anti- Corruption Commission (LACC), accused former Defense Minister Brownie Samukai, former Deputy Defense Minister Joseph Johnson and former Defense Ministry Comptroller Nyumah Dorbor of allegedly using their powers to usurp the authority of the people [soldiers] that they were supposed to represent.

The three officials have been on trial for allegedly embezzling funds generated through a compulsory savings scheme established in July 2009 in which soldiers’ salaries were deducted and placed in an account as supplementary pension benefits for assistance to wounded soldiers and deceased soldiers’ families.

The state alleges that over US$1.2m of the US$1.9m deposited was misapplied by the officials, with further claim that the defendants made themselves the only signatories to the account, leaving out the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL) and other ranking officers.

Cllr. Nwabudike argues that the defendants are not soldiers and were not qualified to contribute to the account, and therefore they were not also qualified to benefit from that account, as he alleges that the accused had partly made expenditure before asking for authorization.

“They failed to produce evidence as to what they did with the money,” he alleges, and says withdrawals were made 11 times for salaries.Cllr. Nwabudike adds that even if the government pays the money, it does not suggests that the defendants are free of the crimes charged.

To counter suggests that government has agreed to pay back the soldiers’ money, he argues that by 17 January 2018 [which was in a time of transition], outgoing President Ellen Johnson – Sirleaf did not have the power to commit government to anything, as the Legislature was not seated to give approval to budgetary commitment by the president.He pleads with the court to convict the defendants for having allegedly committed economic sabotage, theft of property, and misuse of public money.

But defense lawyer Cllr. Wilkins Wrights questions the prosecution as to why President George Manneh Weah committed himself to pay back the money if former President Sirleaf’s commitment was invalid.

He accuses the state of persecuting and harassing the former officials, claiming that they are not being prosecuted but facing witch-hunt.He argues that with the exception of “illegal orders,” no defense minister would refuse to take the Commander – in – Chief’s orders and instruction, saying “these people are not criminals.”

“Your Honor, if the clerk follows your instructions, has he committed a crime?” he asks, and notes further that the defendants spent the money on the order of the Commander – in – Chief, former President Sirleaf.

“No matter how this case ends, these people got nothing to be ashamed of,” he continues, as he tells State lawyers to be prepared to face similar consequences after President Weah’s regime when new government comes.“The thing is prosecution didn’t produce any evidence that these people personally benefited anything,” he adds.

Cllr. Wright says the State considers the AFL money as private money, and yet charges the accused for misuse of public money, saying “private money is not supported by public law, so we are asking you to please acquit and set the defendants free.”By Winston W. Parley

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