Liberian soldiers stripped, raped and flogged students two weeks ago while breaking up a protest at the University of Liberia in the capital city of Monrovia, the Liberian minister of justice said yesterday in Washington.
The minister, Jenkins Z.B. Scott, told a press conference at the Liberian Chancery that police resources in his West African nation "are limited to a handful of soldiers who are ill-equipped to handle civil uprisings."
He said, "Individuals were disrobed. There were some rapes. There were some floggings with whips."
The minister said he could not say how many rapes and floggings had taken place. Acknowledging that his nation's soldiers had run amok, he said that "the road to democracy is a rocky road" and that his country cannot establish a democracy "if the people are not prepared to be civil."
Scott, who said he came to the United States to answer questions that had been raised here, repeatedly denied that anyone died in the Aug. 22 confrontation, which occurred when soldiers were ordered by Liberian leader Samuel K. Doe to clear the university of students protesting the arrest of Prof. Amos Sawyer. Sawyer, an opposition political leader, remains in custody for allegedly plotting a coup against Doe's government.
Several Liberian groups outside the country have estimated that between 18 and 60 persons, most of them students, were killed when soldiers began firing at demonstrators. One exile group, the Movement for Justice in Africa, has said that eyewitnesses reported that government forces collected bodies on the campus and buried them in a mass grave 30 miles outside Monrovia.
Scott, however, challenged reporters to find any Liberian who has reported the death of a relative.
"Can 50 people be killed in Liberia and no one comes up and says, 'Yes, I lost a relative'?" Scott asked.
Liberia, a country of 2.1 million people, has been ruled since 1980 by former Army master sergeant Doe, who is now a general. He seized power in a coup that saw 13 of Liberia's top officials, including President William Tolbert, lined up on a beach and shot.
Doe has promised to turn the government over to democratic control by 1985, and he recently lifted a ban on political parties. That move toward democracy apparently precipitated last month's violence. Before his arrest, Prof. Amos Sawyer had criticized Doe for unfairly stacking the National Assembly with his cronies. According to the official Liberian press, Doe responded by saying "some politicians" were using their new freedom to "endanger the security of the state."
Doe was affronted by what he called the "gross disrespect" accorded him by university administrators and students and ordered his minister of defense, Maj. Gen. Gray D. Allison, to the campus to stop the demonstrators.
Scott said that when the defense minister appeared, he was stoned by students. It was then, Scott said, that the soldiers began firing their weapons, and the raping and flogging began.