Lawyers Challenge Constitutionality of Rodney Sieh's Imprisonment

A strong legal challenge has been mounted by a team of lawyers to get jailed Managing Editor of the FrontPageAfrica Newspaper, Rodney Sieh, out of prison.

On 19 September 2013, lawyers representing the journalist filed a petition to the Supreme Court of Liberia contesting the constitutionality of the statues relied upon by the Civil Law Court to imprison the journalist for his inability to libel damages to Dr. Chris Toe.

In their petition, the lawyers questioned the constitutionality of the journalist's imprisonment under Section 44.71 (2) (e) of the Liberian Civil Procedure Law, arguing that it violates various provisions of the Liberian Constitution.

Specifically, they contended that Sieh's detention squarely contravenes four constitutional provisions: Article 12 [Prohibition against debt bondage]; Article 11 [the Equal Protection Clause]; Article 20 [the Due Process Clause; and Article 21 [the directive against excessive punishment], to which they asked the highest court to issue a stay order on his continues detention.

'Freedom as collateral'

The lawyers argued that the "debt bondage" which is outlawed under Article 12 of the Constitution is manifestly visible in the imprisonment of the journalist.

"[The] debt bondage manifests itself in various forms, but its defining characteristic is the use of an indigent's personal liberty and freedom as collateral for a debt, compelling his labor in service to creditors or confining him to jail and literally holding him bondage by requiring that he remains incarcerated for a period deemed sufficient to liquidate his debt obligations", they observed.

In the case of journalist Sieh, this means he will be required, if life is so sympathetic to him, to remain in jail for more than 5,000 years as his personal freedom to liberty is now being used as a collateral, until he settles the libel damage of US$1.5 million that the Liberian Civil Law Court claims he owes former Agriculture Minister Dr. Chris Toe.

Sieh's lawyers also argued that the journalist like other poor people is being subjected to discrimination based on "inability to pay", because under Article 11 of the Constitution which calls for "Equal Protection" before the law, only persons similarly liable of libel would have the ability to settle damage cost of US$1.5 million and walk free compared to the 'have-nots'.

'Exacting Proof lacking'

In regard to Article 20, Sieh's lawyers pointed out that due process was never respected in the journalist's case because "the court that heard the matter applied the preponderance of the evidence standard, typically applied in civil cases, in whether he libelled Dr Toe, and not the more exacting proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard." This implies that the Civil Law Court was flawed in its verdict, hence the denial of due process.

For Article 21 (d) with respect to "the directive against excessive punishment", Sieh's lawyers lamented that the journalist's sentence to 5,000 years in jail "is rarely, if ever, imposed on individuals in Liberia, including those convicted of some of the worst crimes, amounts to excessive punishment." Simply, what this suggests is, journalist Sieh will rot in jail unless life is kind to him.

The position of Sieh's lawyers which is contained in a petition filed with the Supreme Court comes two days after some dramatic developments surrounding the imprisoned journalist and his case.

First, he was whisked off from the Hospital in handcuffs on Tuesday morning, September 17 and taken back to prison against the doctors’ advice; but was returned to hospital at the weekend [Saturday, September 21,]as his condition is reported to have worsened.

He had being initially treated for pneumonia; it is not known yet what new conditions he has developed as a result of his forced return to prison by Justice Ministry authorities.

The defence lawyers had written a letter to Justice Minister Christiana Tah, dated September 20, 2013 under the signature of Cllr. Beyan Howard, one of councils for Rodney, requesting “an official incident report and medical report on the circumstances which led to his previous experience as well as the medical report from the John F. Kennedy Medical Hospital.”

Rodney’s return to jail was triggered by a Bill of Information filed with the Civil Law Court by Dr. Chris Toe’s Lawyers contending among other things that “Sieh had been unilaterally release without any order from the court,” due to his continuous stay in hospital.

'Release journalist Sieh'

A writ of summons for “contempt of court” was subsequently issued on the Justice Ministry, which prompted to the quick return of Rodney from his hospital bed back to prison, but that decision was to be short-lived as his condition suffered setback.    

Also during the week, the Management of FrontPageAfrica announced it was pulling out of all negotiations with Dr. Chris Toe and his lawyers because of "impossible demands." Dr. Toe who earlier said he was open dialogue in resolving the impasse, demanded the immediate shutting down of the online publication of FrontPageAfrica before commencing any serious talks between both sides. The Press Union have since dismissed the demand as unrealistic and further ploy to silence the media.

Journalist Sieh was ordered imprisoned by the Civil Law Court and the print edition of his paper shut-down after he was unable to pay US$1.5 million libel damage to former Minister Toe.

Sieh along with his media outlet was found guilty of libel against the former Agriculture Minister even though his publications were based a Government of Liberia sanctioned investigations which held Dr. Toe liable of alleged administrative and financial malpractices amounting to over US$10 million.

The Press Union of Liberia backed by a host of several renowned international media rights groups including the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ); International Press Institute (IPI); Reporters Without Borders; International Federation of Journalists (IFJ); and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), has since condemned the court decision and called for the release of journalist Sieh from further detention.



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