Liberian Environmental Defenders Freed But Clinic and Advocates’ Investigation Continues

The red and gold flag of Bong County, Liberia, waves against the sky at sunrise
The flag of Bong County, Liberia.

Green Advocates International and the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic are celebrating the recent release of Liberian environmental defenders imprisoned in the wake of protests against a Turkish mining company in 2018. But the Liberian-based nonprofit and the Yale Law School clinic vow to continue investigating the detentions. As the two have detailed in a letter to U.N. officials, an investigation into the mass arrests that followed protests against MNG Gold turned up many irregularities. Among its findings were records showing that most of the people arrested had not been at the protests.

On Aug. 31, Liberian President George Weah issued executive clemency for 14 people from Bong County. The group comprised the last of 22 Kokoya residents still in prison nearly five years after the protests, which erupted when an MNG vehicle struck and killed four villagers in a community already roiled by the company’s spill of toxic chemicals into local water the previous year. Six of the residents convicted and sentenced after the protest became gravely ill and were released earlier, while two died in prison.

“Today we rejoice that the 14 defenders are finally free,” said Alfred Brownell, founder of Green Advocates and the Tom & Andi Bernstein Fellow at Yale Law School. “But we will keep fighting. MNG Gold stole from the Kokoya community. Now it is time MNG Gold was held accountable for the time stolen, the families destroyed, the water ruined, the lives taken. Our work has just begun.”

Following their release from Saniquellie Prison, the defenders finally made it home to Kokoya around midnight, where they were met by hundreds of community members celebrating their return. 

“The outpouring of emotion was overwhelming,” said Samwar Fallah, the Senior Staff  lawyer for Green Advocates and the West African Fellow for the Global Climate Legal Defense Network (CLiDeF). “You have to understand what this community has been through. First, MNG Gold poisoned their water but denied wrongdoing. Then, when the people protested, the company got police to raid people’s homes, to harass and arrest them. They targeted the poorest of the poor, most of whom weren’t even at the protest. Where is the justice in that?” 

Protests Follow Toxic Spill, Deaths

In September 2017, MNG Gold accidentally spilled 3 million gallons of toxic chemicals — including cyanide, mercury, and lead — into the water of several communities in western Bong County. The contaminated water reportedly made many community members sick. An investigation by the National Bureau of Concessions described MNG Gold’s actions during and after the spill as a “wanton, reckless and inconsiderate dispossession of the emergency medical needs of the community.” 

One year after the toxic spill, in November 2018, the company vehicle of an MNG Gold contractor struck and killed four villagers in the Kokoya community of Bong County. The company left the uncovered bodies in the street for hours. Already angered by the company’s continued refusal to accept responsibility for the toxic spills, community members staged an impromptu protest that resulted in some damage to company property. Over the next two days, Liberian National Police swept through the community and, arbitrarily, according to the investigation, arrested 73 people. The police then beat and humiliated detainees, publicly stripping them of their clothes and leaving several with debilitating injuries, according to the investigation.

Investigation Finds Irregularities In Arrests, Trials

Green Advocates partnered with the Lowenstein Clinic to investigate the arrests that followed the protests. At the request of Green Advocates, the clinic reviewed hundreds of court and police records. It found that the underlying allegations amounted to trespass, vandalism and destruction of company property — notably, the company truck that killed the residents. But the government chose to bring a raft of “identical and inflated” criminal charges against all 44 defendants, according to the investigation, including for what the government called “terroristic threats.” 

“Criminalization is a common tactic that governments use to try to suppress protest, and it appears that is what happened here.”
— Clinical Lecturer Hope Metcalf

“The gap between the rhetoric and reality of these arrests was extraordinary,” said Marina Wilbraham ’23, a recent graduate of the Lowenstein Clinic. “News coverage at the time of the protest painted the detainees as looters and terrorists. But as we delved into the record, it became clear that most of the people convicted weren’t even present at the protest.” 

The criminal trial was also marked by irregularities, according to the investigation. Authorities prosecuted the case as a mass arrest, issuing identical charges to all defendants. The government filed a petition for change of venue and a judge ordered the case removed to another county, far from potential defense witnesses, and capped the total number of alibi witnesses for the 44 defendants at 10 total witnesses, even though Liberian law requires two alibi witnesses per defendant. Ultimately, 22 people were convicted and sentenced to 10 years. 

In November 2022, Green Advocates International and the Lowenstein Human Rights Clinic submitted an allegation letter informing the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights and seven U.N. Special Rapporteurs of the alleged abuses and detailing how the defenders’ convictions violated the right to fair trial.

“At best, the whole proceedings seemed like a sloppy case of mistaken identity,” said Lecturer in Law Hope Metcalf, supervising attorney for the Lowenstein Clinic and Executive Director of Orville H. Schell, Jr. Center for International Human Rights. “But when you put together the history of malfeasance by MNG Gold and the obvious procedural shortcomings, there is a serious question of whether the company and law enforcement used these defenseless people as scapegoats to set an example for future protestors. Criminalization is a common tactic that governments use to try to suppress protest, and it appears that is what happened here.”

In May 2023, the U.N. Working Group on Business and Human Rights, as well as seven U.N. Special Rapporteurs, wrote the government of Liberia and MNG Gold to bring attention to the abuses that followed the toxic spill. The letter requested several accountability measures for such abuses, including a proper investigation into damages resulting from the protests and access to an effective remedy for human rights violations.

Liberians React to the Release

People in Liberia expressed mixed emotions as they learned of the release.

“We are grateful to President Weah for freeing our brothers, and we thank God that they have returned home,” said Elder James Garyeazohn of Sayweh Town. “But they never should have been in prison in the first place, let alone for nearly five years.” 

Issues around the toxic spill at the center of the story have not been resolved. To date, MNG Gold has not made remediation efforts to clean up the toxic chemicals, and community members have not received compensation, according to the clinic and Green Advocates International. In 2021, a civil case against the company was purportedly filed on behalf of community members. That suit settled out of court for approximately $450,000 USD, but several community leaders and members including some of the chiefs interviewed by Green Advocates confirmed that they are not aware of the settlement or whether the funds have been disbursed among the community members.

Green Advocates International is a Liberian-based nonprofit, public interest law, environmental and human rights organization working to advance a wide range of issues through legal aid, consultation and support for the victims of environmental and human rights violations.

The Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic is a Yale Law School course that gives students firsthand experience in human rights advocacy. The clinic undertakes a wide variety of projects each term on behalf of human rights organizations and individual victims of human rights abuse.