In part three of this three-part series Anthony Stephens looks at the Liberian government’s efforts to get tough on human trafficking.
In September 2021 the Liberian government sent a signal it was getting tough on human trafficking. The Legislature passed a revision to a 2005 law increasing the prison sentence for anyone found guilty of all forms of sex and labor trafficking to a minimum of 20 years. It had previously been one year.
By Anthony Stephens with New Narratives
This law serves as a caveat to anyone that wants to engage in human trafficking,” said Cllr. Wesseh A. Wesseh, Liberia’s Acting Solicitor General who denounced human trafficking as “modern day slavery”. “That also shows to you that we are on top of our game to ensure that we curtail, minimize, or combat trafficking in persons at all costs. It means that the government is very serious, and that the government is very committed to ensure that nobody is trafficked.”
But the government didn’t really have any other choice. International trafficking of women as domestic workers was soaring, so was trafficking of children within Liberia. Inaction by the government had put the country on the Tier 2 Watchlist of the United States’ Trafficking in Persons Report. One more year on the Watchlist and the country risked sanctions including a cut in aid.
The annual Trafficking In Persons Report is the US government’s principal diplomatic tool for engaging foreign governments on human trafficking. Liberia had been on the Tier 2 watchlist from 2017 to 2019. After one year off the watchlist in 2020 it went back on it again in 2021. To get back up the rankings the government increased investigations, prosecutions and convictions and gave more funds to NGOS to raise awareness. It established the Anti-Trafficking Unit within the Labor Ministry and, for the first time, hired lawyers dedicated to prosecuting trafficking cases.
And with US help, the government revised the new law. “Without the US government it would have been very difficult to craft this new law,” says Wesseh. “They have provided training for our lawyers. They have hired consultants for us.”
The new law is “among the most stringent in Africa, if not the world,” says Sean Boda, Public Affairs Officer for the US Embassy in Liberia who applauded the government’s actions. But he warned it will need to take further steps to stay off the watchlist. Shelter services and support for NGOS helping victims remains insufficient according to the report. And “a lack of resources, including, but not limited to, financial, technical, personnel, tools and equipment, pose serious challenges in enforcing the law.”
Boda says police “lack basic resources (including gasoline for vehicles) and equipment to fully respond to and investigate allegations of trafficking, especially outside the capital. Courts operated at reduced capacity and processed fewer cases due to pandemic-related restrictions.”
The law came into place just in time. Early in 2022 stories started coming from the Arabian Gulf state of Oman making it clear that a new wave of Liberian victims was being trafficked there. Law enforcement began prosecuting the traffickers.
The new law was used to prosecute and convict eight traffickers according to the 2022 Trafficking In Persons report. In April Criminal Court “A” sentenced Retina Capehart, 31, to 20 years in prison for trafficking 10 Liberian women to Oman. Capehart was also fined $US5,000. The court also sentenced Regina Keppa alias, Aisha Kelleh, to 20 years for trafficking more than seven Liberian women to Oman.
The government celebrated those sentences as major victories in its anti-human trafficking fight.
In the four years before the new law came into effect the government had prosecuted seven cases with the previous law. Five of those were won, while one, in Lofa County, ended in a hung verdict. The case is to be retried.
Cornelius Wennah prosecuted those cases when he was head of Felonious Crimes at the Justice Ministry. Wennah is now judge of Criminal Court “E” in Bong County. Wennah had been a prosecutor for over a decade and served as county attorney for Bong, Grand Bassa and Bomi Counties. One of the major cases he prosecuted saw Revival Womo Sam, a Nigerian Pastor, convicted of trafficking a Liberian teenager to Nigeria where he impregnated her. Sam lured the girl under the pretense of curing her “spiritual” curse. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“Human trafficking is a very big problem,” says Wennah. “People who are victimized, people who give their loved ones or their children who are subsequently, subjected to conditions of exploitation, actually do not understand, what trafficking is. Their perception is that their family members are going to seek greener pastures.”
Wennah says a big part of his work has just been to open the eyes of citizens eyes to an issue that has plagued the country. That work was aided this year when he was awarded a US Statement Department Trafficking In Persons hero award—one of five recipients of the annual award. He says Liberia’s recognition was key to ensuring the government carries through with the needed reforms.
“Prior to receiving that award, Liberia had been placed in the category of countries that were doing very little or nothing to combat trafficking,” says Wennah. “This award coincided with Liberia being elevated to tier two, which means that Liberia has been recognized as being a country doing something to fight trafficking.”
Wennah praises the new law, believing it will instill fear in alleged traffickers.
“The law in itself is very stringent,” he says. “The measures against those who will be found guilty is very, very harsh. It is a very strong, deterring force.”
But even with its anti-human trafficking strides, Liberia still struggles to prosecute alleged traffickers and to support victims. Wennah agrees and urges the government to address these issues.
“In the absence of these basic implements that should ensure that the work is smoothly carried out, there will be a lot of hindrances in the progress that we can make as a people,” Wennah says.
Organizations that provide physical and psychosocial support for victims are eager for support to do more. World Hope International Liberia is one organization that has helped repatriated women from Oman. 25 women have sought their help says Princess Taire, Social Protection Coordinator. But the organization is financially stretched and could only serve a dozen of women.
“They need to do more, especially in victim care,” says Taire. “Majority of the people are here but they have not gotten any service aftercare intervention.” The women’s needs are great according to Taire. “They are still crying, having flashbacks, having nightmares, and sleeping and eating disorders.”
Taire says before a determination is made on the women’s condition, she and her team listen to their stories and then refer them to hospitals for laboratory tests to assess their health needs. Women are then referred to Anger of Hope, a local counseling organization. “We pay for it,” she says. “You have to think about the medical aspect and the psychosocial aspect before you try to reintegrate them.”
Taire says as part of the reintegration process, the women are given $US800 to “start afresh.” Funding for the program is provided by the Tim Tebow Foundation, the US anti-human trafficking organization. Tiare praises Liberia’s amended anti-human trafficking law.
“The law is effective right now,” she said. “And I would say where we have restitution, for me, it’s a huge impact.”
A raft of trafficking cases were set to get underway in November in courts around the country but were delayed because of a strike by prosecutors over pay. Now that is resolved the Anti-Trafficking Unit expects trials to get underway soon with dozens more perpetrators facing long prison sentences. Experts say demand and opportunity will only grow in coming years. Time will tell if twenty year sentences will be enough to deter would-be traffickers and victims.
This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of the Investigating Liberia project. Funding was provided by the US Embassy in Liberia. The funder had no say in the story’s content.