PHOTO: DAN KLOTZ
A lawyer's nightmare: What I faced when I defended Indigenous Peoples and local communities in Liberia from false charges
Founder, Green Advocates
Distinguished Scholar in Residence, Northeastern University School of Law
A CLASSIC RESPONSE from governments and businesses in recent time is not just to characterize legitimate grievances by Indigenous Peoples and local communities as anti- government, anti-development, and anti-investment. They are waging wars against Indigenous Peoples and individuals who are protecting the planet and its people by criminalizing their legitimate grievances and then threatening, arresting, intimidating, and imprisoning those who dare challenge this mode of development.
We have spent months and months defending local communities and Indigenous Peoples against frivolous criminal charges. It’s a strategy the governments and businesses have used often to silence any protest or advocacy actions by these communities. It is exhausting, and it is exhaustive. It takes a toll on our time, staff members, and meagre financial resources. The government and their business partners love to see us spinning around moving from one community to another defending our community clients. After we have secured bonds or bail, the government never come back to pursue charges. Instead, most of the time, they re-arrest under different criminal charges, which requires additional bail bonds and responses from us. Some time they impose capital offenses so that the communities or Indigenous Peoples do not qualify for bail or bond. It’s been charges after charges as an attempt to break down the moral and motivation of communities and Indigenous Peoples.
It’s a lawyer's nightmare. You are trapped in this vicious circle of defending your clients against criminalization and there is hardly time to pursue their complaints in a judicial forum.
As an activist, environmental, and human rights defender, I have experience firsthand these attacks in their various forms. Not only have I defended Indigenous Peoples and local community clients from frivolous criminal charges such as murder, attempted murder, theft of property, terroristic threats, economic charges, criminal trespasses and sedition, I along with my staff members and colleagues at Green Advocates have also faced some of these same charges in attempt to break us down and weaken the legal firewall we have built to protect communities, Indigenous Peoples, and individuals who have the courage to defend the planet and its peoples. A number of times I was unable to go to court to defend my community clients because I was accused as the one inciting them.
In recent weeks we have read reports from several organizations related to the mass murders of rights defenders across the globe, most of them Indigenous Peoples and local land rights defenders. Even though those who defend the planet and its peoples are now becoming statistics, I know for certain that there are thousands of others whose names will never appear. They are the faceless and nameless heroes and heroines of our struggle. For example, Fred Thompson, a local land rights defender in his native Butaw in Liberia, was arrested, allegedly flogged, tortured, and sent to prison. He died in prison and despite request for an independent investigation, the government of Liberia refused. Fred Thompson is not mentioned in any international report or counted as one of the defenders murdered.
There’s also Anna Tue, Beatrice Koon, and Maronlyn Chea, all indigenous Butaw Kru women land rights defenders, from Butaw, Sinoe County, Liberia. Anna and Beatrice were disrobed, stripped naked, and thrown in the back of a police jeep while still naked and imprisoned—despite the lack of charges against them. Their only crime was protesting the grabbing of their customary lands.
Maronlyn Chea was in her ninth month of pregnancy when she was arrested, allegedly flogged, and imprisoned for a protest she had no idea was even occurring. She had travelled from her village to visit a local clinic along with her husband. Despite her pain and agony and numerous complaints for medical attention, her request was denied. It took the intervention of Chief Justice of the Liberian Supreme Court—who was on a visit to inspect judicial facilities and stumbled into the prison quarters when he heard her cries of agony—to get her released. Despite his intervention, prison authorities demanded she pay bribes for her freedom. Friends and relatives had to secure loans to help her.
I have witnessed firsthand how governments and business have used the media to stigmatize and vilify defenders. There are media reports that local communities and Indigenous Peoples have rejected us in their communities. I have also faced stigmatization when media institutions in Liberia ran stories that I was involved in corrupt practices in the misapplication of donor funds. Even though one of the funders wrote a letter defending our financial records and stated that we are regularly audited, these media institutions did not retract their stories.