Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1985

Liberia has been ruled by a military government since the 1980
coup led by Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe ended 133 years
of constitutional government. The previous government was an
oligarchy comprised largely of the descendants of freed slaves
from the United States and the West Indies, who constituted
about 5 percent of the population. Doe and his colleagues, all
young noncommissioned officers with indigenous backgrounds,
justified taking power as a revolt against elite minority
rule. They established a military government ruled by the
People's Redemption Council (PRC), suspended the Constitution,
instituted martial law, and banned political activities.
In 1984, the new Government instituted steps to return Liberia
to democratically elected, constitutional, civilian rule.
These steps included the drafting of a new constitution and
lifting of the ban on political parties. Controversy soon
surrounded the political reform program, both before and after
the October 15 elections — the first national elections in
Liberia's history based on universal suffrage. The Government
carefully controlled the reform process by setting sharp limits
on political debate (Decree 88A) , forming a government party,
establishing high registration standards, and banning two
popular parties on the grounds they advocated Socialist
policies, thereby reducing the number of eligible political
parties to four. The campaign itself was lively, and both
government and opposition parties received coverage in the
media which consists of both government and nongovernment
newspapers and radio. Voting on election day appeared
generally free and open, with popular interest in the process
very high. There were, however, immediate and widespread
allegations of illegal procedures in connection with the
counting of the votes. The Special Elections Commission
announced that Samuel Doe had won the Presidency by 50.9
percent and that his party had garnered 80 percent of the House
and Senate seats. The three opposition parties denounced the
results as fraudulent and announced they would contest them in
court .
During 1985, there was an April assassination attempt against
Samuel Doe and a subsequent coup attempt against his Governnient
which occurred shortly after the election results were
announced. On November 12, a small force including some
non-Liberians and led by former Army Commanding General Thomas
Quiwonkpa entered Liberia from a neighboring country and
attempted to overthrow the Government. Although the coup
attempt lasted only a few hours, there was considerable loss of
life associated with the abortive coup and its aftermath. No
accurate casualty figures are available, but there are
unconfirmed estimates that some 450-500 people, including
Quiwonkpa, lost their lives in this period. In its wake, there
were widespread arrests by government forces of military
persons and civilians. There were reports of summary
executions, killings, and reprisals against certain ethnic
groups by government forces or government supporters. Both the
Quiwonkpa and government forces and supporters engaged in
beating presumed opponents during and following the coup, and
homes were looted by both sides.
Against this background, Liberia's mixed economy, with
significant state enterprise activity, continued to decline in
1985 due to weak export markets, economic mismanagement, lack
of fiscal discipline, a large foreign debt, and government
corruption. Foreign exchange receipts and government revenues
are heavily dependent on exports of iron ore, rubber, and
timber, all of which have suffered prolonged market decline.
The Government has attempted to reduce income disparities by
increasing employment in government, but this has only
postponed needed economic reforms. Retrenchment of government
workers was begun in late 1985.
While there were some notable achievements in 1985, such as the
holding of multiparty presidential and legislative elections
that were covered by both government and nongovernment media,
concern over human rights performance in Liberia increased
during the year. The Government used its authority inter alia
to curtail political debate, to limit the number of political
parties, and to detain opposition leaders and hold them
incommunicado. In the wake of the October elections there was
a bloody coup attempt in November, which left many dead and
others in prison awaiting trial. The establishment of a
constitutional government in place of military rule provides
the basis, if respected, for greater protection of political
and civil rights. Liberia returned to civilian rule on January
6, 1986, when the new Constitution officially went into effect.
Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including
Freedom from:
a. Political Killing
In 1985, there were reports of summary executions in connection
with the April assassination attempt and the November coup
attempt. An Army colonel accused of an attempted assassination
on the Head of State was arrested on April 4. His
investigation and interrogation ended in the early hours of
April 8, and less than 12 hours later he was executed. The
politicians whom he had implicated in his plot were arrested
but subsequently released as there was no credible evidence of
their involvement. Following the colonel's execution, the
Government stated that the executed man had been tried by a
military tribunal. There is, however, no public record that
such a trial took place.
On November 12, former commanding general of the Liber ian Armed
Forces Thomas Quiwonkpa led an armed group in an attempt to
overthrow the Government by force. Although no accurate
casualty figures are available, there are unconfirmed estimates
that some 450-500 lost their lives in the coup attempt and its
aftermath. A variety of sources in Liberia reported immediate
summary executions of military personnel involved in the coup.
Quiwonkpa himself was captured and killed, and a number of his
supporters were either killed in fighting or executed. The
Government denied that there were summary executions, although
it acknowledged that a number of supporters of the failed coup
were killed in mop-up operations after the coup.
In November, after the attempted coup, a number of journalists
were arrested. Charles Gbeyon, the editor-in-chief of the
radio and television news for the Liberian Broadcasting System,
was killed; the Government announced that it happened while
Gbeyon attempted to resist arrest, although other sources
disputed this account.
b. Disappearance
A number of people disappeared (either went into hiding, were
arrested or killed) in the wake of the November 12 coup attempt
and have not yet been accounted for. No accurate figures are
yet available for these disappearances.
In 1985, there were several instances when people disappeared
and their mutilated bodies were later found. It is believed
that these were cases of ritual killing. Some who practice
traditional religions believe that ritual killing of others and
the removal of certain parts of their bodies can increase one's
power and chances of success in one's endeavors. The
Government has condemned ritual killing but has been unable to
identify the perpetrators.
c. Torture and Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or
Persons arrested are often subjected, upon or shortly after
apprehension, to beating or whipping by security personnel as a
form of summary justice and a means of preventive discipline.
Such treatment is not generally repeated or used as a tool in
In 1985, there was an increase in reported instances of torture
of political detainees and prisoners. There were reports of
physical abuse of a number of persons arrested on suspicion of
involvement in the November 12 coup attempt. Four individuals
detained for 9 months without charge, allegedly in connection
with the publication of an underground leaflet, were reportedly
given 50 lashes each. It was widely reported that these four
and two others detained in connection with the same publication
were then each given 25 lashes upon transfer to a different
prison several months later. Two journalists were also
reportedly given 50 lashes each when they were arrested after
announcing their intention to sue two high ranking government
officials for false imprisonment in connection with an earlier
detention which followed the journalists' publication of a
story on government corruption.
Approximately 12 persons, some of whom had been participating
in an opposition party political rally, were detained in Grand
Gedeh County and were beaten and whipped. In one case, family
members of a politician were detained as hostages to force him
to turn himself in for making "contemptuous remarks against the
Interim National Assembly." The Defense Minister also
threatened to arrest the families of two wanted men unless the
families disclosed their whereabouts.
Prison conditions are generally poor. Cells are often small,
overcrowded, and without windows or ventilation. Food,
exercise opportunities, and sanitation facilities are usually
inadequate. Prisoners are often stripped to their underwear.
One opposition party leader was stripped when he was arrested
and forced to pose in his underwear in front of the executive
mansion. Government supporters, including a government
minister, were publicly stripped and beaten by supporters of
the coup attempt on November 12, and their property was
destroyed or stolen. Some opposition party officials and
journalists arrested following the coup were reportedly beaten
or mistreated, either at the time of arrest or afterwards, and
some of their homes were looted or burned.
Custom and government regulations permit "trial by ordeal" in
some criminal and legal cases, although senior governinent
officials have spoken out against the practice. fr-Jhile the
suspect's consent is formally required, social pressure may
play a coercive role. The ordeal usually consists of drinking
liquid prepared from the bark of a sassywood tree. Vomiting
the liquid after ingestion indicates innocence, while its
retention signifies guilt. Even if vomited, the liquids may be
toxic. There were no reports of sassywood-related deaths in
d. Arbitrary Arrests, Detention, or Exile
Since the 1980 coup, martial law has coexisted with civilian
law enforcement and the judicial machinery. Although the
Constitution and the writ of habeas corpus have been suspended,
the full body of pre-1980 statute and case law is in most cases
regarded as valid. In theory, civilians charged with statutory
violations are arrested by police with warrants, must be
charged within 3 days of arrest, have the right of bail in
noncapital offenses, are entitled to legal counsel, and may be
convicted in a court of law only under due process procedures.
In practice, however, reports of abuses by police and soldiers
are frequent. Civilians have been arrested or threatened with
arrest by soldiers and police who then require payment of a
fine. In cases of arrests for political crimes, there have
often been long delays, eventual trials, sometimes harsh
sentences, then pardoning by the Head of State or release on
other grounds .
In 1985, in connection with preelection political activities
and in the aftermath of the November 12 coup attempt, there was
a significant increase in the number of arbitrary arrests.
More than 50 individuals were arrested for expressing views
critical of the Government or for engaging in opposition party
activities. For example, two leaders of an opposition party
were detained without charge for 2 months for "making remarks
contemptuous of the Interim National Assembly." Most were
detained without charge for periods ranging from several hours
to 10 months. Six university students and opposition party
members were detained for 10 months for their alleged
connection with the publication of an underground pamphlet. Of
the detainees, two were charged with "breach of security" and
one with sedition for criticizing the Government. The two
charged with breach of security were later released without
trial .
In November, after the coup attempt, at least 200 military and
perhaps as many as 400 civilians were arrested and investigated
on suspicion of involvement in, or sympathy with, the attempted
coup. At the end of 1985, some military personnel had been
charged and closed courts-martial were under way. Over 50
civilians had been released, including presidential candidates
of the Unity Party and the Liberian Unification Party and the
chairman of the Liberian Action Party. Others, including the
presidential candidate of the Liberian Action Party (Jackson
Doe) and a former Minister of Finance (Ellen Johnson-Sir leaf ) ,
were still being detained. Civilians being detained had not
been allowed access to lawyers and trials had not been
scheduled as of December 31.
There was also a noticeable increase in 1985 in the number of
detainees held incommunicado. The Government refused to allow
lawyers, family, friends, or, in one case, the Red Cross and a
local doctor, to visit these prisoners. For more than 3
months, the Government refused to acknowledge that one
opposition party official had even been arrested. It was only
after the detainee escaped that the authorities admitted that
he had been in custody for more than 3 months. As of late
December, some persons detained after the November 12 attempted
coup had not been allowed visits by their lawyers, family, or
friends .
In March, the Head of State established a special task force
for debt collection headed by the Minister of Defense. Several
dozen people were arrested without warrant and imprisoned
without a hearing. They were held until they paid their taxes,
made arrangements to pay them, or convinced the authorities
that they did not owe the taxes .
The Government does not exile its citizens. In fact, the Head
of State and other government officials have on many occasions
urged Liberians who fled or stayed abroad after the coup to
return home. In most cases, those who did return have not been
The Liberian Government neither practices nor condones forced
labor .
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
Liberia's civilian court system is based on Anglo-American
jurisprudence. The military courts follow the uniform code of
military justice of the U.S. military. The Liberian judiciary,
both civilian and military, is vulnerable to influence exerted
by the executive branch, and the Head of State has reversed
unanimous Supreme Court decisions, notably in December 1984.
While there are many good judges and lawyers, there have been
widespread allegations of corruption among lawyers and judges
and of interference in court cases by senior government
officials. The concept of due process of law is
well-established, but there are many allegations of
bribe-related or politically motivated manipulations by judges.
The Government sometimes uses the military court system for
"political cases." In 1985, three civilians — two journalists
and a leading member of one of the opposition parties — were
tried in camera by a military tribunal. The defendants were
not allowed civilian defense counsel. One of these trials,
involving the two journalists, was suspended after 2 days, and
the journalists were released after approximately 2 months'
detention. A leading member of one of the opposition parties,
former Finance Minister Ellen Johnson-Sir leaf , who was accused
of sedition for criticizing the Government, was found guilty by
a closed special military tribunal and sentenced to 10 years in
prison. Shortly after the sentence was passed, the Head of
State pardoned her. This special military tribunal was
formally disbanded on January 4, 1986.
In November 1985, a large number of military personnel and
civilians were detained in connection with the November 12 coup
attempt, and investigations of people whom the Government
suspected of coup involvement began. By the end of 1985, in
camera courts-martial were under way, with appointed military
lawyers for some military personnel, on charges including
conspiracy, mutiny, and sedition. At the end of the year,
however, only five civilians had been indicted. In early
January, the Government announced formal charges of treason
against one additional detainee. The Liber ian Government had
announced that it would hold open trials in civil courts for
any civilians indicted on charges of involvement in this
attempted coup.
In 1985, several opposition political parties faced legal
challenges to their registration. In two cases, the probate
court ruled in the parties' favor but allowed significant
delays in the cases, despite the fact that the parties faced a
registration deadline. Appeals to the Supreme Court faced long
delays. The Supreme Court's handling of these cases led to
accusations that the Court was attempting to delay or even
prevent the registration of opposition political parties. In
the end, three opposition parties were allowed to register to
participate in the elections.
Traditional courts presided over by tribal chiefs are not bound
by Anglo-American common law or judicial principles but apply
customary unwritten law to domestic and land disputes and petty
theft. These decisions may be reviewed in the statutory court
system or may be appealed to a hierarchy of chiefs, followed by
administrative review by the Internal Affairs Ministry and in
some cases a final review by the Head of State. Allegations of
corruption and incompetence in the traditional courts are
f . Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or
Under the martial law regime currently in effect, security
forces may enter private residences without warrants, although
civilian courts continue to issue warrants prior to such entry
in most cases. Before the November 1985 coup attempt, there
had been several cases reported during the year of persons
arrested in their homes without warrants. In the brief period
of control in parts of Monrovia by forces led by Quiwonkpa
during the November coup attempt, homes and property of some
government ministers were sacked and some members of the Doe
Government were arrested and beaten. After the coup attempt
had failed, there were widespread arrests without warrants of
military personnel and civilians and reports of beatings,
killings, and other reprisals against some opposition groups.
The Government stated that some of the civilians, particularly
opposition leaders who were later released, had been taken into
protective custody in a period of great tension and civil
disorder. Other military and civilians were being investigated
for possible involvement in the coup attempt. In the period
after the coup attempt, police and soldiers searched many homes
without warrants. Houses and buildings associated with some
opposition leaders, including the Liber ian Action Party
headqijarters, were burned or looted. There were also reports
of soldiers looting both in Monrovia and in the countryside.
The Government called for a restoration of public order and an
end to ethnic violence, but there were reports of lootings and
ethnic reprisals for days after the coup attempt.
There is no evidence of widespread monitoring of telephones or
correspondence, but there have been allegations of specific
instances of these practices.
Section 2 Respect for Civil Rights, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
Liberia has a relatively vigorous press, including a number of
independent newspapers. However, the Government has passed
laws and taken actions restricting freedom of speech and
press. Among these actions in 1985 were the detention of
journalists and the dismissal of members of the Interim
Assembly for criticizing the Government. The key statutory
limitation to free speech is Decree 88A which makes it a felony
to accuse any government official or other individual of any
crime if the purpose of the accuser is to injure the person's
reputation, to create disharmony, to spread rumors, to
undermine the security of the State, or to impede the electoral
process. Some independent newspapers, opposition political
parties, the Liberian Business Caucus, and the Liberian Council
of Churches have called Decree 88A an unwarranted restriction
on freedom of speech and press and demanded its repeal.
Opposition party officials said the decree restricted their
ability to mount effective political campaigns since they were
unable to criticize the Government.
Government officials frec[uently warned the press and other
media in 1985 to temper their criticism. Head of State Doe
stated that papers which published articles "designed to create
fear and confusion" would face the consec[uences of the law.
According to several newspaper accounts, the Minister of
Defense summoned the piiblisher of one of the independent papers
to the Ministry on October 31 and criticized his paper's
coverage of the Head of State's election victory. He allegedly
warned that the Government would "no longer tolerate" attempts
by journalists to "create division among the people." The
Government also allegedly threatened to close two radio
stations because of their election coverage. In October, the
Justice Minister warned that anyone spreading lies and rumors
about the election results would be prosecuted.
Some other specific actions included; (1) In January, the
Government closed a leading independent newspaper on the
grounds that it was "antigovernment . " This was the fifth
closure of the paper, and it remained closed at the end of the
year. (2) In August, another independent paper was closed when
the Government accused it of "injuring the image of the
government." The ban was lifted 1 month later. (3) In
September, members of the youth task force of the Government's
party carrying batons and chains entered the office of a
leading independent newspaper and threatened to destroy the
office if the paper continued to print articles critical of the
task force.
Despite considerable self-censorship, there are no formal
procedures in place to censor the independent media, and the
relatively independent press did its best to provide balanced
coverage of the process of transition to civilian rule.
There is no prohibition against receiving foreign publications,
but occasionally the Government bans a particular issue of a
foreign periodical. The magazine. West Africa, is currently
banned in Liberia.
b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The ban on political parties was lifted in 1984, and parties
have generally been allowed to hold organizing meetings.
However, in many instances opposition parties were denied
access to public buildings such as town halls and stadiums. In
some counties, opposition parties were prohibited from holding
rallies. One opposition party was suspended for 3 months for
publishing a pamphlet before the party was registered, although
there was no prohibition against this in the election
law. The leaders of two opposition parties were "banned,"
which meant they were prohibited from attending political
meetings or giving speeches or interviews. One opposition
party was banned because its vice chairman made rem.arks
"detrimental to the stability of the state," and another party
was banned for its "alien philosophy."
In 1985, the Head of State lifted a previous suspension on the
activities of fraternal organizations such as the Masons.
There are no official restrictions on social, recreational, or
self-help development associations. There had been no official
restrictions on other civic organizations until November 1985
when the Liberian Government announced a ban on five
organizations: the Press Union of Liberia; the National Union
of Liberian Teachers; the Liberian National Students' Union;
the Liberian Business Caucus; and the Provisional Student
Leadership Council of the University of Liberia. Although the
Government gave no explanation of the ban, members of some of
these organizations had been outspoken during the campaign or
have been in detention following the November coup attempt.
Workers have the right to form unions and to organize and
bargain collectively. Liberia has a national trade union
confederation, the Liberian Federation of Labor Unions (LFLU),
as well as several independent unions. However, organized
labor represents only a small part of the labor force.
Approximately 70 percent of all workers are engaged in
subsistence agriculture and are not affected by the union
movement. Unions represent an estimated 20 percent of the
workers in the monetary sector of the economy.
Union organizing, collective bargaining, and the internal
operations of trade unions are largely free from government
interference. Nevertheless, in one case in 1985, the Head of
State ordered the Labor Ministry to recognize one of two
competing unions as the bargaining representative for workers
at the Firestone plantation, despite the fact that the issue
was at the time under appeal to the Supreme Court. The
Liberian Government's suspension of a union which previously
represented the workers at Firestone was criticized by the
International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1985, and the ILO has
requested more information on the Government's handling of the
matter. Unions are prohibited from strike action, but brief
strikes have occurred despite the ban. In most cases, workers
have been persuaded to return peacefully to their jobs, and the
Government has taken no punitive actions against them.
The LFLU is a member of the Brussels-based International
Confederation of Free Trade Unions, as well as the
continent-wide, Ghana-based Organization of African Trade Union
In 1983, and again in 1984 and 1985, the Liberian Government
was cited by the ILO for violations of ILO Convention 87,
regarding freedom of association, because Liberian legislation
does not recognize the right of Liberians in the public service
or in government enterprises to unionize or the right of
workers to strike. The Liberian Government, the unions, and
employers have drafted a new labor code which eliminates the
objectionable legislation cited by the ILO, but the new labor
code has not yet been promulgated.
c. Freedom of Religion
Freedom of religion is recognized and respected by the
Government of Liberia. The pre-1980 constitution called for
separation of church and state, a concept repeated in the new
Constitution. Christianity, brought by 19th century settlers
and spread through the interior by missionaries, has long been
the religion of the elite groups but has not been an official
or state-favored religion. The majority of the rural
population continues to practice traditional religions, and
approximately 20 percent of the total population is Muslim.
The Government does not practice discrimination against any
religious group. Although there is a tendency among some
Liberians to view Muslims as "outsiders," many government
officials are Muslims, and Muslims are active throughout the
During 1985, Head of State Doe twice warned the clergy to stop
making political statements. After the Methodist bishop made
remarks critical of the Government, the Government withdrew the
Methodist Church's duty-free privileges and ended a government
subsidy to Methodist schools. In November, the radio program
of one religious leader who had been critical of the Head of
State was canceled by the government -owned radio station. The
program was later reinstated.
d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign
Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation
In general, neither domestic movement nor foreign travel is
restricted. Exit visas are required for departure and exit
visas are occasionally denied. Neither immigration nor
emigration is formally restricted. Refugees are not generally
forced to return to the countries from which they have fled.
Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens
to Choose Their Government
Since the 1980 coup, Liberia has had a military government.
Head of State Doe gradually consolidated his position and there
were no effective checks on the power of the executive branch.
At the end of 1985, however, preparations were under way for
the institution of constitutional civilian rule on January 6
under a constitution which provides for the separation of
powers and a system of checks and balances among the three
branches of government.
In 1980, Head of State Doe pledged to return Liberia to a
democratically chosen, constitutional, civilian government and
subsequently instituted a series of steps toward this goal,
including: drafting a new constitution; establishing an
interim National Assembly; organizing a commission to supervise
elections; initiating two voter registration drives; conducting
a national referendum on the Constitution; and lifting the ban
on politics. The elections, held in October 1985, attracted a
large voter turnout. Election day appeared largely free of
attempts to intimidate the voters.
However, there have been persistent and widespread allegations
that the Government, the Special Elections Commission (created
by the Head of State to organize and supervise the elections),
and the Head of State's National Democratic Party of Liberia
(NDPL) manipulated the transition process and engaged in
illegal activities to secure victory for the NDPL. The
Government, in turn, alleges irregularities by opposition
parties during the elections.
Eight of the 13 opposition parties were unable to meet the high
financial requirements established by the Special Elections
Commission (SECOM) . Two other opposition parties were banned
by the Government for espousing Socialist policies. All three
opposition parties encountered procedural and legal delays; one
was not registered until six weeks before the election. No
opposition party was able to complete registration before July
1985, while the government party was registered in November
1984. As noted above, the opposition parties met a variety of
other legal obstacles, such as Decree 88A, and opposition party
supporters in some localities were jailed, intimidated, and
prevented from campaigning by local government officials.
The Interim National Assembly reduced the number of
representatives to be elected on the grounds that the
Government could not afford the salaries and support costs of a
large House of Representatives. The manner in which
constituencies were redrawn resulted in 26 percent of the
population electing 46 percent of the representatives.
The election law, written by SECOM and approved by the
Government, stated that competing party representatives were to
be present during ballot counting at polling stations,
consulted on questionable ballots, and allowed to sign the
official vote tally. The results of these tallies are unknown,
but after the elections, SECOM 's chairman ruled the tallies
invalid because one opposition party allegedly had infiltrated
the pollworkers. As a result, the chairman established a
50-member committee without official representation by the
opposition political parties to recount the ballots. There was
no provision in the election law for such a committee. There
were widespread though unconfirmed allegations that some
ballots counted by the 50-member committee were fraudulent and
that many ballots were secretly removed from ballot boxes and
burned. On October 29, the Special Elections Commission
announced that Samuel Doe had been elected with 50.9 percent of
the vote and that his party had won 80 percent of the
legislative contests. All of the opposition parties denounced
the vote-counting procedure as illegal and fraudulent. They
announced their intention to challenge the election in court
and their refusal to accept the legislative seats they had
reportedly won. In fact, however, in early January 1986, 12 of
the 18 opposition legislators did take their seats.
By-elections will probably be held for the other 6 seats if the
elected members continue to refuse them after 30 days.
Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and
Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations
of Human Rights
Foreign journalists and other observers were allowed to cover
the Liberian elections in October. Several times this year the
Government has met expressions of concern or requests for
information about alleged violations of human rights with the
argument that they constitute unwarranted interference in
Liberia's domestic affairs. The Government has generally been
unwilling to supply information on alleged human rights
violations. The Government refused permission for the Red
Cross and a local doctor to visit political prisoners who had
allegedly been beaten. In the month following the November 12
coup attempt, people arrested in connection with that attempt
were not allowed visits by lawyers or independent international
groups. Several of those arrested have subsequently been
allowed visits by lawyers. Some have been allowed visits by
family members. The Government has indicated it will allow
outside observers at any trials of civilians which may result
from investigation of the coup attempt. The U.S. delegation to
Doe's inauguration had individual meetings on January 6, 1986,
with Jackson Doe and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and a group meeting
with 12 other detainees.
Amnesty International, in its 1985 report (covering 1984), was
concerned about the imprisonment of prisoners of conscience and
about the detention, usually without trial, of other
individuals suspected of criticizing the Government. Freedom
House rates Liberia as "partly free."
In rural areas, where 70 percent of Liberia's estimated
2,232,000 (1985) population lives, the inhabitants practice
subsistence agriculture and follow a traditional culture. The
population is growing by 3.3 percent per year (1985).
The Liberian economy depends heavily on export of iron ore,
rubber, and timber, whose production is dominated by foreign
corporations. Expatriate communities, primarily Lebanese and
Indian, also control an estimated 80 percent of retail and
wholesale trade. However, foreigners until December 1985 have
not been permitted to own real property, and citizenship is
open only to Negroes or persons of Negro descent . Gross
national product (GNP) per capita was estimated in 1983 at $480
annually, but 50 percent of national income is held by only 5
percent of the population. The current per capita figure is
probably significantly lower due to negative GNP growth each
year since 1980.
Health care is poor, especially outside urban areas. Only 20
percent of the population has access to safe water (35 percent
in urban areas and 6 percent in rural areas (1974). The infant
mortality rate is 127 per 1,000 live births (1985), and life
expectancy at birth is only 52 years (1985). Average calorie
supply, however, was 99 percent of requirements in 1977.
Education for the growing population is a major problem.
Two-thirds of all teachers are not professionally qualified and
only 70 percent have finished high school. Only 25 percent of
adults were literate in 1980 (42 percent of males and 9 percent
of females). The primary school enrollment ratio was 80
percent (99 percent for males and 61 percent for females), but
many students drop out. Only 22 percent of school-age children
finish elementary school, and the dropout rate is much higher
among women than men .
Liberia's labor laws provide for minimum wages and health and
safety standards. However, the inspection is not rigorous. In
many cases, the employer has provided appropriate protection,
but the employees prefer not to follow the guidelines.
Employers are prohibited from employing children under 16
during school hours. This is a difficult statute to enforce,
especially since many children are engaged in subsistence
farming. While it is difficult for the Goverrmient to inspect
all workplaces and enforce the laws, any employee with a
grievance can file with a labor inspector.
Liberia was founded by private American "colonization
societies" as a territory where blacks could enjoy political,
economic, and social freedoms denied them in the United
States. Eventually, 20,000 settlers came to Liberia and they
and their descendants have remained heavily influenced by
American cultural, economic, and political models. In urban
areas and along the seacoast where settler dominance was
strongest, a modern sector has evolved with a free enterprise
economy, substantial political and economic equality for men
and women, and Anglo-American judicial procedures based on
English common law as transmitted and modified by the American
experience. Here, land is plotted, deeded, and held in fee
simple, and women can inherit land and property. There is no
formal discrimination in property ownership, educational
opportunity, or participation in economic and political
processes. Women in Liberia have held ministerial and
ambassadorial positions and are represented in the professions
and throughout the modern economy. Women hold two cabinet
posts and several national judicial positions. There was one
woman serving in the Interim National Assembly.
In rural areas, most land is held communally among the related
families of a clan, and women perform most of the labor in food
production and distribution, both for household consumption and
market sale. As opposed to statutory marriage, seen as a
contract between individuals, customary marriage is an
agreement between families. With payment of a dowry under the
customary marriage system, a woman is considered the property
of her husband and family. Upon the husband's death, the
marital contract continues with the family, which has certain
obligations and responsibilities to the widow, or more commonly
widows, if they remain with the family as wives to other
relatives. In the traditional sector, women are not usually
entitled to inherit from their husbands or to administer their
estates. In addition, women are informally excluded, in many
indigenous ethnic groups, from chief tancies or membership in
the councils of elders that direct the affairs of the
community. Female circumcision is widely practiced by those
Liberians following traditional religions. In practice,
especially in newly urban areas, many women use both the
customary and statutory legal systems.