The Liberian authorities admitted on Monday that they had lost track of four men recently tried and exonerated after the seizure of 100 million dollars worth of cocaine, a judgment that shocked even the Minister of Justice.
A criminal court in Monrovia caused a stir on May 18 by finding not guilty a Liberian, a Bissau-Guinean, a Portuguese and a Lebanese man arrested in connection with the seizure, in October 2022, of 520 kilos of cocaine with an estimated value to 100 million dollars, concealed according to the authorities in a container from Brazil.
The result of cooperation with the United States and Brazil, it is one of the most important catches ever made in the country.
The judgment by a popular jury was all the more surprising as the court ordered the return to the suspects of $200,000 seized during the operation.
The case highlights the place of the West African coasts on the drug trafficking routes from South America, to Europe in particular. The judgment raised questions about the functioning of justice and its exposure to corruption.
The court's decision "makes Liberia an international laughingstock," Justice Minister Frank Musah Dean Jr said in a statement. It "clearly undermines the collective efforts of Liberia and its international allies to combat the illegal transit of illicit drugs, and the use of West Africa as a conduit for international trade from Latin America and by the way,” he said.
The four suspects, photographed in prison uniform with their lawyers after the trial and released, have disappeared.
"They can't be found. We don't know where they are. They fled," Information Minister Ledgerhood Rennie told AFP, confirming the justice minister's remarks.
The defendants had attracted attention by trying to buy the container from the businessman who owned it, the justice minister reported. Their acquittal has sown indignation or perplexity on social networks.
The case "accredits the widespread perception locally and abroad of an inherent compromise in justice and the courts", admitted the Minister of Justice.
It also prompted questions about the use of popular juries, "while there is constant talk of the immoral practice of bribing the jury during such trials," he wrote.
The State Department, in its report on human rights in Liberia in 2022, notes that judges "are prone to influence attempts and engaged in corruption".
“Lawyers and prosecutors reportedly instructed defendants to pay bribes to obtain favourable rulings from judges, prosecutors and jurors,” says U.S. Foreign Affairs, a lead partner from Liberia.