Liberian authorities release mercenary on bail

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Liberian authorities have quietly released on bail a mercenary known as "Bob Marley" who is accused of leading massacres in neighboring Ivory Coast last year that left more than 120 people dead.

The man, whose real name is Isaac Chegbo, has been implicated by both the United Nations and Human Rights Watch in attacks including one with machetes and rocket-propelled grenades that killed at least 37.

Chegbo, 39, who is known for his voluminous dreadlocks, is prohibited from leaving Liberia while on bail pending his trial on charges of "mercenarism." The first-degree felony can carry the death penalty or life imprisonment if convicted.

However, Daku Mulbah, the government attorney responsible for trying the case, said that he was unaware of Chegbo's whereabouts since his release on $1,000 bail in February.

"We had no knowledge of it," said Mulbah, who said he still hoped to try the case next month against Chegbo.

Matt Wells, West Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch and the author of a report on the postelection violence in Ivory Coast, said Liberian authorities needed to monitor Chegbo vigilantly.

"Chegbo's bail demands that Liberian authorities closely monitor his activities to prevent additional crimes and any attempt to flee from prosecution," Wells said. "Instead, it seems like relevant legal officials scarcely know his current whereabouts, or even that he was released."

The attacks came toward the end of a five-month conflict that erupted after former President Laurent Gbagbo lost a runoff presidential election in November 2010 but tried to cling to power through force of arms in Ivory Coast.

The U.N. estimates at least 3,000 people died during the power struggle between Gbagbo and now-President Alassane Ouattara, a conflict that experts say was exacerbated by violence from mercenaries recruited in neighboring Liberia.

Chegbo's charge sheet says he and his colleagues were recruited to fight for Gbagbo in early 2011 and were promised free reign to loot.

He and four other recruits traveled to Abidjan in February 2011 to meet with high-level Gbagbo officials before receiving 55 AK-47 assault rifles to arm their fighters, according to the charge sheet.

Chegbo was captured in eastern Liberia on April 13, 2011, two days after Gbagbo was arrested, according to the final report of the U.N. Panel of Experts on Liberia, released in November.

Though Chegbo initially was released, he was later re-arrested and transferred to Monrovia, where he was charged with "mercenarism."

The HRW report details two massacres in March 2011 that were reportedly led by Chegbo. In one, pro-Gbagbo militiamen and mercenaries armed with automatic weapons, RPGs and machetes killed at least 37 West African immigrants while pillaging homes and looting valuables.

A few days later, in the town of Blolequin, attackers killed more than 100 immigrants and natives of northern Ivory Coast who were trying to flee the conflict.

Witnesses said Chegbo separated refugees by ethnicity to avoid killing any Guere, an ethnic group seen as being supportive of Gbagbo.

"Just before 6 o'clock, armed men broke into the room where we were. It was the Liberian mercenaries ... led by a guy who goes by the name 'Bob Marley,'" said a survivor quoted in the HRW report.

"They had a Guere militia guy standing there, who asked each person what ethnic group he was from ... If you could speak Guere, they led you outside. If you couldn't, they forced you into another direction. ... We were standing outside and they had us wait while they opened fire on everyone who wasn't Guere. I don't know how anyone could have survived. There was so much noise from the firing, from the crying," he said.

Human Rights Watch and the U.N. say Chegbo's mercenary activity dates back to 2002-03.

"Given the gravity of the crimes Chegbo's implicated in, Liberian authorities should quickly demonstrate progress toward a speedy and fair trial," Wells said.

He said the prosecution of mercenaries "is essential in showing the Liberian government's commitment to end the impunity of soldiers for hire who have wreaked havoc on both sides of the border."

An untold number of ex-combatants from Liberia's brutal 14-year civil war, which ended in 2003, are still struggling to support themselves, experts say, prompting concerns that they can be easily recruited into conflict.

The U.N. Panel of Experts report notes that "few mercenary commanders have been detained by the Liberian authorities," and warns that the artisanal mining sector in eastern Liberia "remains fertile ground for potential mercenary recruitment."