Confused start to Liberian vote-fraud hearings

Hearings into Liberian presidential candidate George Weah’s claims of vote fraud opened amid confusion on Wednesday, when his lawyers failed to deliver witnesses or documents to back up allegations he was cheated of a rightful win in November 8 polls.

Preliminary results from the National Elections Commission (NEC) released a day earlier gave Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf a win of nearly 60% of votes cast, setting the former finance minister on course to become Liberia’s post-war president and Africa’s first elected woman head of state.

Backing their hero’s claims that the vote was rigged, Weah’s supporters have held three days of mostly peaceful protests, which were banned by executive order late on Tuesday by transitional chairperson Gyude Bryant even as Weah pleaded for his partisans to remain peaceful and stay off the streets.

Grandstanding oration on both sides of the bench coloured the first hour of afternoon hearings presided by Joseph Blidi, the senior NEC attorney.

The session had been postponed from the morning by request of Weah’s Congress for Democratic Change in order to consolidate its complaints.

Motions to postpone and to issue subpoenas for witnesses made by the CDC lawyers were denied by Blidi, who gavelled them repeatedly even as he let speeches continue unfettered by opposing counsel.

NEC attorney Beyan Howard called for the complaints to be dismissed as “it is clear that, because they do not have their documents and they do not have their witnesses, they obviously have no case”.

Hearings were adjourned until Friday afternoon, with Blidi warning the CDC that it should not appear without documents or witnesses.

The party has expressed concern about the credibility of the NEC presiding over hearings that could incriminate its own staff, and has already made clear its intention to appeal any unfavourable ruling.

“This will go all the way to the Supreme Court,” said chief CDC counsel Othello Payman after a particularly heated exchange. “We are not playing around.”

The CDC has alleged massive vote fraud, ballot tampering, harassment and intimidation cheated the former Fifa player of the year out of a rightful win in the run-off against Johnson-Sirleaf after having led 21 other candidates in the October 11 first round with 28,3% of more than one million votes cast.

They have not, however, presented any evidence to substantiate fraud that would change the more-than-130 000-vote margin by which Johnson-Sirleaf was leading her rival ahead of certified results due on November 23.

Transparent investigations of fraud claims are still necessary, according to international observers, even those who have judged the polls peaceful and credible while stopping short of calling them “free and fair”.

“For the sake of a country that has been so torn by war in the aftermath of elections that were later judged not to be free or fair, it is crucial that fraud be investigated in a transparent way,” said Sidi Diawara, of the National Democratic Institute, which sent a large delegation from the United States to monitor both rounds of voting.

“That said, it is equally crucial that all parties accept the results of the investigations and help secure the peace Liberia needs so as to move forward with its reconciliation.”

Weah stopped briefly by his party headquarters on Wednesday to implore his supporters to stay off the streets, though he did not attend the hearing.

“Be peaceful,” he told the crowd that has by now dwindled to only several dozen people, a far cry from the more than 100 000 who marched behind him for a rally before the October 11 first round. “I believe in you.”—Sapa-AFP

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