Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

LIBERIA: Even the Devil is Subject to the Law

Rebecca Murray

Monrovia and Harper, LIBERIA, Mar 9 2009 (IPS) - Tiny 14-year-old Precious sits on her orphanage bed in the southern port town of Harper, accused of witchcraft six months ago and exiled from her family and nearby community.

Graves by the lake in Harper - a landmark court case is challenging the impunity enjoyed by secret societies in Liberia. Credit:  Arwen Kidd/IPS

Graves by the lake in Harper - a landmark court case is challenging the impunity enjoyed by secret societies in Liberia. Credit: Arwen Kidd/IPS

She says she was publicly beaten and tied up to burn at a stake, until the Harper police were tipped off and saved her.

"Precious told us her stepmother asked her to give her biological mother as a human sacrifice," says Moses Davies, a police officer with the Women and Child Protection unit in Harper’s town centre.

"This is very hard to explain – but her stepmother was a witch and initiated Precious. They asked her to kill her mother as a contribution. But Precious refused, saying, ‘If I did that who would take care of me?’" Precious’ father has two wives, her mother being the first.

Public fear of ritualistic killings and witchcraft performed by secret societies are prevalent in places like Harper’s Maryland County in southeastern Liberia, and in the northern counties of Nimba and Lofa.

"In the 1970s, the town of Harper was engulfed in fear," explains Thomas Mawolo, the Maryland County head of the Liberian human rights watchdog, the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.

"It was very terrible. You couldn’t even leave your house to go out after six o’clock in the evening. And it was so difficult for ordinary people to get justice if someone went missing in this town."

Under the practice known as 'Gboyo', there is a belief that human body parts extracted and eaten while the victim is still alive bestows power and affluence.

Charles Taylor and his militia brought international prominence to Gboyo practices during Liberia’s brutal civil war in the 1990s.

"Power is in the blood, and most people use the blood. The medicine men would help you do that to extract the power. So the people in town were seen as prey, to be taken and carried away," Mawolo says.

The murder of a local Harper fisherman, Moses Tweah – whose mutilated body washed up on a beachhead known as ‘Devil’s Rock’ – triggered a massive public outcry in town in 1977.

A landmark Supreme Court case, under President William Tolbert’s administration, sanctioned the public execution by hanging of seven prominent community members found guilty of the crime, who were forced to walk naked through mobbed streets.

Mawolo says he has personally recorded up to ten cases since then. "Harper is a breeding ground for ritualistic killing… I’m not disputing it's not elsewhere, but in this area its very rampant."

The prevalence of secret societies in Liberia crosses social strata and varies in membership, strength and practices, but rarely do their activities enter into the public realm.

"Its only when you live in the little villages that these things are practiced full-blown," says David Waines, the Canadian co-founder of a local development charity, Equip Liberia, which tracks secret society abuses.

"Everyone has to be controlled by something, and this is a religious and political system of absolute terror. You terrify people into submission, and then you control the turf."

Liberia's largest secret society, the Poro, has its own strict interpretation of superstitious traditions and a disguised incarnation of the devil. While not known to currently perform ritualistic killings for power like those in Maryland County, the society is involved in murder.

Like Moses Tweah’s ritualistic killing case thirty years ago, a recent Supreme Court ruling on Hastings Tokpah’s death last November – although overturned – serves as a warning against impunity to members of secret societies.

Tokpah was just 21 years old when he was killed by a mob in his rural hometown of Gbedin in Nimba County in 2005.

He had refused to join the local Poro organization although his father, Saye Zeeboe, was a member. He was also accused of witnessing Poro ceremonies – strictly forbidden to outsiders – explains Solicitor General Taiwan Gongloe, who argued his murder case before the Supreme Court.

"When [the Poro] do come to town periodically, they come with the masked man, the spirit they call the ‘devil’… Non-members stay indoors until they finish what they want to do and go back to the bush.

"Tokpah’s father said to him, 'Why are you embarrassing me? You’re not a member of Poro, you’re not a member of our society, why don’t you follow our rules?'"

"The story that came out," says Gongloe, "was that he was actually grabbed by his friends and killed, and his father was part of those that killed him… When the father left the scene, when he and the other people came out of the bush, all the people saw [Tokpah’s] rain boots, his cutlass, and other things, but his body was not found."

Under Liberian law, a person is not officially missing for up to seven years if there is no physical evidence.

Pushed to trial by a combination of Tokpah’s outraged mother, Martha, other family members, their community church and local Equip Liberia workers in 2007, Saye Zeeboe and four co-defendants were ultimately pronounced guilty by a circuit court judge.

However, Gongloe says that while he amassed enough circumstantial evidence to establish guilt, the Supreme Court overturned the circuit court decision on technical grounds, citing the absence of Tokpah’s body.

"Although the conviction was not sustained, I believe [the mother] made a big mark by just bringing them to account," says Gongloe. "They will try to insulate themselves by saying this is a secret society, our tradition, but no, the court has to proceed. The devil, and ordinary people – everyone is a citizen of Liberia and is subject to the law. I think it sends a clear message that everyone is accountable. Not like in the past with secret societies."

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