wrong move?

Liberia extradites Sierra Leone’s purported coup leader, as presidential candidate cries foul

By Darlington Porkpa

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Posted on August 18, 2023 11:38

A border crossing between Liberia and Sierra Leone. (Reuters/James Giahyue)
Easing the border or crossing the line: Liberia may have extradited Turay to facilitate trade, some say. (Reuters/James Giahyue)

Critics accuse the George Weah government of violating international conventions by responding to Freetown’s extradition request for ex-police chief Mohammed Yaetey Turay.

Liberia has extradited Sierra Leone’s former chief superintendent of police Mohammed Yaetey Turay to face prosecution in connection with an alleged failed coup in his home country.

Turay was dismissed by President Julius Maada Bio in May 2020, and had been residing in Liberia along with his family until his arrest on 4 August.

The Sierra Leonean authorities allege that Turay and several others planned a coup between 1 June and the day of Turay’s arrest.

A military delegation from Sierra Leone arrived in Liberia on 7 August with an extradition request, despite a last-minute rush by Liberian human rights activists to block the extradition. 

Tiawan Saye Gongloe, one of Liberia’s chief human rights lawyers and a presidential candidate in upcoming Liberian elections, has taken the George Weah administration to task for violating international obligations under the refugee convention.

“When people come to your country because they are afraid that something bad will happen to them, you cannot send them back. If the suspect is killed today, his blood will be on the head of President Weah,” Gongloe says.

Article 33 of the 1951 Refugee Convention, of which Liberia is a signatory, states that ‘No Contracting State shall expel or return (“refouler”) a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.’

Gongloe argues that Liberia does not have the right to extradite the suspect as the offence Turay has been accused of is political in nature.

Phone logs seized

Turay denies the allegations and had appealed to the Liberian authorities not to turn him over to the Sierra Leonean government, saying it was a plot by Freetown to end his life.

Liberia’s information minister, Ledgerhood Rennie, said the extradition request was approved after the Sierra Leone government assured Liberia that Turay would have a free, fair and speedy trial.

He said such a decision is in accordance with the laws of Liberia and the 1986 Non-Aggression Security Treaty drawn up by the governments of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. 

On 7 August, Montserrado County Attorney Cllr. Swaliho Alhaji Sesay requested Criminal Court ‘A’ to subpoena the two leading mobile telecommunication companies in the country to examine the former police chief’s call logs.

The subpoena request focused on Turay’s calls from the period of 1 June to 4 August – ‘the period of the planning of the alleged coup and after it was foiled’, according to Sesay’s petition to the court.

‘The situation of coup in the sub-region is worrisome, and with our elections on hand, we have to jealously protect our democracy during this difficult period,’ Sesay wrote, adding that his office is prepared and ready to legally cooperate with any country to extradite any of ‘their citizens in Liberia engaged in subversive activities’. 

But Liberia did not wait for the court to receive the documents from the GSM companies before proceeding with the extradition.

Cementing relations

Some observers believe Liberia is keen to aid trade and commerce relations, amid heightened security over the election season.

“We commute daily between the two sides, and I think the decision is largely intended to relax any tension between Liberia and Sierra Leone,” says cross-border trader Cynthia Robertson.

“Recently the Sierra Leonean government has increased its security presence at the borders […] so this could help greatly, although there are concerns about the suspect’s safety,” she tells The Africa Report.

A risky venture 

Former Sierra Leone member of parliament Alusine Conteh expresses doubts that the suspect will be accorded a free and fair trial and says regional organisations need to weigh in to ensure the suspect’s safety is guaranteed. 

“We saw how one of the military personnel assaulted a journalist in Liberia for taking his pictures, so you can see that brutality from right here,” he tells The Africa Report, referring to a Sierra Leonean soldier from the extradition contingent who roughed up a journalist in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

“You know that anything can happen to him in Freetown, that is why we are calling on ECOWAS [the Economic Community of West African States] to come in immediately,” he adds.

Granting the suspect access to speak to the press in Sierra Leone would be one of the obvious ways of ensuring that his rights were protected, Conteh says.

“We want to hear Turay himself talking to the Sierra Leone people, saying that he is safe, because we don’t trust the government at the moment. Since the elections ended, the administration has suddenly changed,” he adds.

From Monrovia, Robert Kpadeh, a political analyst and lecturer at the state-run University of Liberia, says for the authorities “to turn him over, it was an error”.

If Turay “came here for safety because he feels his home is unsafe for him and he’s facing danger, we should keep him here no matter the crime. We should [do that] first and [then] begin to seek other means legally or diplomatically,” he tells The Africa Report.

No regrets

On 8 August, the chair of Liberia’s Independent National Commission on Human Rights (INCHR), Cllr. Dempster Brown, appealed against the extradition in a statement, saying that the move would amount to a human rights violation. 

Recalling that both Sierra Leone and Liberia are signatories to several regional and international instruments including the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime and the ECOWAS Convention on Extradition, the INCHR indicated that ‘extradition shall not be granted if the offence in respect of which it is requested is regarded as a political offence or as an offence connected with a political offence’. 

The government action, according to INHCR, could lead to the possibility where Turay is subjected to torture or cruel, inhumane punishment – which would violate Article 7 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights or other fundamental principles of human rights. 

‘Also, under our Criminal Procedure Law, Section 8.3 and the Geneva Convention which Liberia signed and ratified … the Republic of Liberia should not have honoured the request of the Sierra Leonean Government to extradite Turay because there is no extradition agreement between the two countries,’ the Commission pointed out. 

Despite the condemnations from human rights activists, Minister Rennie justified his government’s actions, saying the administration does not regret turning the suspect over and calling on the public to give the rule of law a chance in Sierra Leone.     

“Sierra Leone is a responsible republic and international law does apply, so let’s wait! He is a Sierra Leonean and he has returned to his country and authority,” says the information minister.  


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