By Leon Dash
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 23, 1980; A01
MONROVIA, Liberia, April 22, 1980 -- Thirteen leaders of Liberia's toppled ruling elite were executed by firing squad here today before hundreds of shouting, cheering soldiers and civilians.
The 13 men, who had formed the top echelon of the oligarchy that had held largely unchallenged power since Liberia's founding 133 years ago by freed American slaves, died tied to posts with their backs to the Atlantic shore on which their 19th century forebears first set foot.
Those executed included Frank Tolbert, brother of assassinated president William Tolbert, who was slain in the April 12 coup of noncommissioned Army officers, and former foreign minister C. Cecil Dennis.
Trussed to a hastily placed steel pole, Frank Tolbert, once the powerful president of the Senate, began to sink slowly to the ground, unable to stand on his quaking legs as he awaited the shot. Saliva drooled from his mouth as he slumped against a cord tied tightly around his bare chest.
Soldiers laughed and tormented the men. Former foreign minister Dennis stared stoically into the crowd as one of the soldiers stomped on his feet. Dennis closed his eyes and mouthed a prayer, and another soldier shouted, "You lie! You don't know God!"
Their deaths came following a coup that ended a belated effort to reform an archaic system of government that had for too long held on to century-old concepts that only the propertied should rule and have access to power. That system was swept away today as Liberia was thrust violently into 20th century Africa.
The announcement of the planned executions came matter-of-factly this afternoon following a 10-minute press conference at the executive mansion by Liberia's military head of state. Master Sgt. Samuel K. Doe. Doe led the coup that toppled the Tolbert government and killed 27 other officials of the government and the ruling True Whig Party.
As the press conference broke up, the new minister of information, Gabriel Nimely said, "Gentlemen of the press, you are all invited to the executions." n Asked who would be executed, nimely stonily replied, "enemies of the people."
The coup originated among lower-ranking officers of Liberia's indigenous Africans, the majority of the country's 1.6 million population. A selected few of Liberia's "safe" natives, derisively called "country people" up until the coup, were allowed entry into the minority ruling Americo-Liberian or "settler" class of 45,000 people, descendants of the freed American slaves.
Of the 14 people tried so far by a special five-man military tribunal, only one, former information minister Johnny McClain, has escaped execution. McClain, 38, is an indigenous Liberian who rose from reporter to the top position in the Information Ministry under Tolbert.
In an interview in February, McClain said he had suffered abuse and humiliation from Americo-Liberians when growing up, and had cleaned dormitory toilets to pay for his education at the University of Liberia.
"The Americo-Liberian class is not as distinct today as it once was," McClain said in February."There are more of the 'country people' who have class status today but there are still problems between the rich and poor."
McClain contended that Tolbert, who for nine years had led a country that was known for its stability on a continent where military coups are common, had gradually opened the political system for the participation of larger numbers of indigenous Liberians.
But McClain was still in an Army stockade, with 80 untried prisoners as the gunfire -- followed by cheers of approval -- erupted at the seaside execution site.
A huge mass of Monrovia's poor waited in gleeful anticipation as reporters followed Sgt. Doe's convoy to the executioin site at 2:15 p.m.
The crowd stared at four 20-foot poles silhouetted against the ocean whitecaps.
Then, at 2:30 p.m., two large mechanical hole cutters and five additional poles were brought to the site as foreign television cameras filmed the quick erection of the additional posts.
At 3:30, a bus carrying the 13 condemned men drove up and the soldiers cheered. Nine of the 13 were tied to the available posts while the other four were left on the bus to watch.
A passing soldier shouted at the reporters, "You know, we got to stop all the corruption in the country."
Deputy Brigade Commander (formerly corporal) Harrison T. Penue, identified by Doe as the man who killed Tolbert, strutted up to the reporters and said, "I am executing 13 men today because I don't like corruption."
Former finance minister James T. Phillips, dismissed from the government recently after thousands of dollars in receipts disappeared following an Organization of African Unity summit conference here last summer, made barely audible pleadings of innocence as he and others were tied to stakes.
Then 13 soldiers carrying M1 rifles marched up to the unblindfolded men and arrayed themselves, one rifleman to each, a few feet in front of them. There was a brief tussle as one of the spectator soldiers tried to take the position of the soldier in front of Dennis.
Soldiers mugged for cameras alongside the condemned men. Then the order was given to fire.
The soldier assigned to Dennis wounded him once and missed twice. The spectator soldier opened up with his Uzi into Dennis' face, showering bone and brains. The soldiers cheered and mugged for more pictures.
P. Clarence Parker Jr., once of the four prisoners on the bus, smiled and waved weakly to a reporter who had interviewed him in February. Parker had been one of the harshest critics of the corruption that riddled the Tolbert government, but he had also been treasurer of the ruling True Whig Party and a millionaire paint manufacturer.
Parker, with the three others, walked quickly to a pole, faced the firing squad and smiled slightly before a single shot cut him down. As the cheering civilians surged forward, the spectator soldiers sprayed all 13 bodies with automatic rifle fire, replacing their ammunition clips as they emptied one after another.
Others executed today included former justice minister Joseph Chesson; former True Whig Party chairman E. REGINALD townsend; former speaker of the House Richard A. Henries; former chief justice James A. A. Pierre and former budget director Frank A. Stewart.
At his press conference before the executions, Doe said, "The revolution which brought down the Tolbert government was motivated by the sufferings of the Liberia people throughout our country. Things were fixed in such a way that only a very few people enjoyed everything."
"The judiciary was a mockery in many instances because cases were determined by how much money one could offer," Doe said.
"The armed forces have taken over the government to recover from their long years of suffering and when things begin to get on the right track, we, the men and women in arms, will return to the barracks where we belong," he pledged.