Liberia Releases Religious Leaders, Intensifies repression

Only two days after they were charged with treason, two Liberian religious leaders have been released from detention by the government of President Charles Taylor. The authorities said they lacked the evidence to try them.

David Kiazolu, a Muslim, and Rev. Christopher Toe, a Christian, are members of an inter-religious council working for reconciliation. They were arrested on December 28 and charged on Wednesday January 8 of conspiring to overthrow the government and being in contact with the rebel Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd).

Friday's unexpected release cannot be seen, however, as a sign that the government intends to reverse the policy of repression and harassment of perceived enemies of the state that intensified in 2002.

To many observers and analysts, Toe's and Kiazolu's experience has become the typical pattern in Liberia: intimidation, detention and the use of violent state power against any organized opposition. Says one opponent of the government in the region who asked not to be named: "This [Taylor] administration has a way of thriving on chaos and generating chaos to survive."

Last year, Sheikh Sackor, president of Humanist Watch Liberia, and several others were held incommunicado for varying periods for their alleged complicity with the rebel Liberian United for Reconciliation and Democracy (Lurd). Early last year, the Chairman of the New Deal Movement, Nigba Wiapla, and members of the staff of the Human Rights Center were arrested for speaking out on the political and human rights situation.

Politicians, journalists and activists with civil society organizations are routinely picked up, jailed, and frequently beaten and tortured. Last April, human rights lawyer Tiawan Saye Gongloe sustained severe injuries after being badly and repeatedly beaten by state security officers while in jail. He told that he had been left only with "my voice and my spirit".

At a press conference shortly afterward, Charles Taylor said that Gongloe's fellow inmates were responsible for the beatings. In any case, said the Liberian president, under the state of emergency imposed in February, the authority of the police could not be challenged.

After his arrest last June, journalist Hassan Bility was held incommunicado and tortured for almost six months as "a prisoner of war", in the words of the government. He was finally released last month on condition that he leave the country.

Liberia's former Interim President, Dr. Amos Sawyer, who is now in the United States, described to allAfrica the ransacking of his office by security forces in November 28, 2000. "They beat me up," Sawyer said. He continues to be baffled by President Taylor's statement after the November incident: "A week after we were severely beaten, Mr. Taylor himself confirmed that he supported the attack. Taylor further said he will not stop until he gets at people like me."

There is bafflement, as well as chagrin, among many Liberians as what they perceive as the low key almost tolerant attitude of the United States government toward an extremely repressive regime. "Not much has been done and it is strange given the litany of abuses that have occurred in the country," said one activist. "For such indifference to be demonstrated by the U.S. administration is quite strange." Others point to the strident diplomatic effort against the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe and contrast it with the approach to Liberia