It was Justice Francis Kporkpor, an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court who told a story of a judge who had arrived at 2:00 PM for a trial he had scheduled for 10:00 AM.
But amazingly the judge’s court records for that day showed that proceedings in the case commenced at 10: AM. So it was with many litigants, amongst them the Management of the New Dawn Newspaper at the Monrovia City Court on Tuesday February 22, 2011.
The New Dawn represented by its Editor Othello B. Garblah, Copy Editor G. Barassto Barpeen and News Editor Throble Suah had been summoned to answer to a complaint of Criminal Malevolence (simply put: writing falsehood with malice or wicked intent) by Private Prosecutor James Jensen and had been scheduled to be there at 10: AM on that Tuesday.
Throble Suah and I arrived at the Temple of Justice at about 9:50 AM trying to locate the Monrovia City Court. When we finally located it, we approached some of the court attendants to verify whether indeed it was the Monrovia City Court, we were told we were at the right place. We then introduced ourselves and asked for the presiding judge Nelson Chineh who had issued us the writ of summons. We were told to sit in the court room and that he would soon be in court.
Few minutes later, we were asked by the Court’s Clerk to restate our purpose of being there. We again informed him that we were from the New Dawn Newspaper and that we had come in response to a writ that was served on us on Saturday, February 19 requesting us to answer to a Criminal Malevolence complaint filed against the New Dawn.
“Oh that the journalists them. They are here for criminal malevolence,” one of the court attendants emphasized.
“You people sit here and wait,” one of the Sheriffs said pointing to a bench, which we later came to know was a prisoner’s bench.
As we sat for few minutes, I began to make contacts with the New Dawn’s lawyer, Cllr. Negbalee Warner. Told by Cllr Warner that he was in a brief meeting and would have gotten back to me, I decided to call other legal friends who would have been there before the arrival of Cllr. Warner.
I woke up, not knowing where I was sitting was a prisoner’s bench –meaning we were now considered as prisoners and our liberties had been seized. So, I ignorantly woke-up with the intention of walking out to call some friends who are lawyers, when one of the Sheriffs shouted: “Ah you, where are you going?”
When I turned around one of them said to me: “Don’t you know when you are sitting on that bench, you don’t have to go anywhere, that is a prisoner’s bench,” he said.
“Look, you should have explained to me that where you sit is a prisoner’s bench and the rules. If I woke up walking, it means I just didn’t know that I am now a prisoner,” I replied.
Can you imagine from an invitation to answer to a complaint against you, without being afforded the opportunity to face your accuser and answer to the allegation, you are already considered a prisoner. No due process.
At about 10:30 AM, we were joined by Copy Editor George Barpeen, he was also ushered on the bench. We were later joined by two other suspects in handcuffs. Minutes later, the bench was filled with individuals summoned to answer to various charges.
By 10:30 AM or so, we were joined by Cllr Warner. Upon seeing us to where we sat, he immediately went to file in a bond before coming back to inform us that where they have placed us and the complaint before the court we needed to file a bond and schedule a time for trial when the judge arrives.
So we sat for like about four additional hours amidst various dramas in the court room. It was now 2: 00PM, Judge Chineh who had scheduled the hearings at 10: AM had been in another meeting all along, according the Court’s Clerk.
By 2:20 PM, the Sheriffs came in with a bundle of handcuffs and became to read out the names on the various summons. As he called a name, he brings the handcuff to handcuff you and send you to prison.
“But you invited me here, my lawyer is on his way, you have not asked me what happened and you are handcuffing me to take me to jail?” asked Jeremiah, one of the suspects who had been accused by a female Police officer on charges of aggravated assault.
The Police officer in question, according to Jeremiah, is a tenant in his house. They had a brush over a generator and according to Jeremiah; the lady had allegedly used her influence as an officer to detain him for two nights at the Zone #3 Police Depot before charging him with the crime of aggravated assault and theft.
He was never listened to or even given the chance to file his bond. He was handcuffed and escorted to prison despite crying out to the sheriffs that his lawyer was on his way and that if it is a criminal appearance bond his lawyer would have filed it. All of his complaints fell on deaf ears as some lawyers and the audience looked on.
Another gentleman who had been brought in on the allegation of aggravated assault was also handcuffed. Despite insisting that he needed to be heard, one of the Sheriffs responded: “Keep quiet, this is a Police court.”
“You can do your “bugar, bugar” (act like giant) out there, but when you reached here, we will restrain you. ” The court attendant dressed in white T-shirt and a pair jean trouser said to the suspect.
“Abel, Abel, bring your hand,” holding the handcuff at my back, one of the Sheriffs shouted. None of us sitting on the prison bench responded. Pushing me by the shoulder, one of the Sheriffs yelled: “Why don’t you answer to your name, isn’t he calling you?”
“Do you know my name?” Why should I respond when I am not Abel,” I responded.
All these handcuffing and sending to prisons were being done to people who had been served with various writ of summons but were not afforded the opportunity to respond or file a bail bond all because the presiding judge who had scheduled hearings at 10:AM had not come and it was almost 2:30 PM.
When the Judge finally arrived, it was almost 3:00 PM. But at least two or three of the people who should have had their days in court had already been sentenced without being heard. That is from their houses, with the aim of going to answer to complaints that have been filed against them at the court; they were rather sentenced without being heard.
“This is the normal thing here,” one lady said as we walked out.
Judge Chineh had apologized to the management of the New Dawn that only the Editor would have been required to sit on the prison bench and not all the editors as was done.
But the question here is if the law proscribed that a person should be given a due process is that a due process for a person who had only been invited to answer to charges being sent to jail because of a judge who could not come to court as scheduled?
Why if the person had come with the understanding that when require, he would pose a bond and return at the next schedule date. But there were no due process.
The interesting thing is the mere behavior of the court attendants, the form and manner in which they treat accused persons speaks volume- as if the person is already guilty. So, as it is practiced, it is guilty before proven innocent.
This should actually explain why there are dozens of pre-trial detainees in jail today-because once they are summoned to court before a delinquent judge and his host of court attendants who do not respect the rights of the accused, a complainant will have his /her way because his or her intention is to ensure that the person being accused is punished by prison sentence and with the kind of legal system in place such desires are often achieved.
And once that objective is achieved the complainant no longer shows up in court and that accused person remains in prison and forgotten about, especially when no family member is aware that the person had been picked up and sent to court.