Liberia: Cease governmental surveillance and harassment against human rights advocates defending land and natural resource rights
November 3, 2016
To: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia
We write to express our deep concern regarding an ongoing and systematic pattern of threats, intimidation and harassment that have been leveled against the staff of Green Advocates and other human rights defenders working to defend the rights of indigenous communities impacted by large-scale oil palm and rubber production in Liberia.
As of November 2, 2016, we are informed that Mr. Alfred Lahai Brownell, the founder and lead campaigner of Green Advocates, is facing a warrant for his arrest for contempt of court after he allegedly failed to respond to a subpoena requiring him to provide testimony in connection with a war crimes case involving a Dutch citizen, Gus van Kouwenhoven. The warrant also mentions Mr. Brownell’s “office assistant,” who remains unnamed.
Mr. Brownell has provided extensive support to the van Kouwenhoven case in the past. He has declined voluntary invitations to participate in the current proceedings due to the ongoing campaign of intimidation against him and his colleagues but was unaware of any subpoena requiring his testimony. The Liberian government is now using the purported subpoena as a pretext to harrass Green Advocates and obstruct their work. We understand that the writ of arrest was presented to staff members of Green Advocates on Friday, October 30, by plain clothed police officers who visited the office of Green Advocates while apparently under the influence of alcohol. Since that time, we have received reports that the Liberian police have surrounded the office of Green Advocates, invaded the home of Mr. Brownell and briefly arrested his uncle. At present, the staff of Green Advocates are in hiding, in response to the imminent threat of their arrest.
This wave of intimidation and repression comes in the context of an extensive chain of threats against community activists and human rights defenders working on issues of land and natural resources in Liberia, many of whom are supported by Green Advocates:
- Highly placed officials in the Liberian government have repeatedly accused Mr. Brownell and his colleagues of fraud, terrorism, economic sabotage, and sedition, and threatened criminal prosecution.
- Green Advocates staff have become aware that their phones are being tapped, that they are under periodic surveillance, and that their communications are monitored.
- In May 2015, after a protest broke out in Butaw, Sinoe County, against the activities of Golden Veroleum, we understand that local police issued arrest warrants and raided the homes of 27 community activists/leaders, and charged an additional 22 individuals, “to be identified.” Over a dozen community members were detained for an entire year without trial, and many suffered mistreatment in prison. One detained protester, Fred Friday Thompson, died in Greenville Central Prison, Sinoe County under unexplained circumstances. Other spurious charges have been filed against community activists in Wealla Community, Margibi County.
- In July 2015, unknown intruders broke into the Green Advocates office, stealing files and computers while leaving many valuables untouched – suggesting surveillance and intimidation.
- In early 2014, well-connected company and media executives illegally obtained banking information about Green Advocates – information that could not have been leaked without official complicity.
- In June 2014, Green Advocates staff were accompanying an international delegation to Tarjuwon District when their car was surrounded by people wearing uniforms of a palm oil company, Golden Veroleum Ltd., who issued death threats and tried to slash the car’s tires. Local police failed to offer protection, and they were saved only by the quick action of local community members.
In light of the multiple, severe threats that have been leveled against the above-mentioned human rights defenders, we respectfully request that Your Excellency:
- Take all necessary steps to put an end to all further acts of surveillance, harassment and intimidation against the staff of Green Advocates, including Alfred Brownell, and guarantee their freedom from arbitrary detention;
- Immediately drop all outstanding arrest warrants against Alfred Brownell, who was never served a subpoena, members of his family, Green Advocates staff and members of the Butaw and Wealla communities of Sinoe and Margibi Counties, which have been filed in an apparent reprisal for their activities to defend and promote human rights;
- Launch independent, impartial investigations into the incidents mentioned in the above, including the attack on Green Advocates staff on June 16, 2014 in Sonouh town, Tarjuwon district, the death of Fred Friday Thompson on July 15, 2015, and the illegal entry of the offices of Green Advocates on July 27, 2015, to clarify responsible parties and ensure justice;
- Provide adequate protection for the staff of Green Advocates and the members of the community of Butaw and their partners, against threats, reprisals and harassment against them by individuals with ties to Golden Veroleum; and
- Promote a model of development that upholds human rights and environmental sustainability, including the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent, and allows people to sustain their livelihoods and live in dignity.