MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) -- Liberia has petitioned a criminal court to approve the extradition of seven alleged mercenaries arrested along the border with Ivory Coast, justice ministry officials said late Wednesday. But defense lawyers are contesting the move, arguing that it's unclear if the men being deported are actually from the Ivory Coast as the government claims.
Liberia's Deputy Justice Minister Benedict Sannoh said the government of Ivory Coast made the request to extradite the men, who already have been indicted and are being detained at the Monrovia Central Prison. Sannoh said once the alleged Ivorians have been extradited to face trial at home, Liberians detained in connection with cross-border raids will appear in a Liberian court in February next year.
The men facing extradition are among a group of around two dozen being held on suspicion of involvement in cross-border raids along the Liberian-Ivorian border.
The allegations are especially sensitive because Ivory Coast is trying to recover from violence that followed the 2010 election when former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara. The U.N. estimates at least 3,000 people were killed in the six months of violence that followed. Gbagbo was arrested with the help of U.N. and French forces in April 2011, and is now facing charges of war crimes at The Hague.
Lawyers for the suspected men say the Liberian government is violating their right to due process.
Defense lawyer Arthur Johnson said there is no proof that those the Liberian government is referring to as Ivorian mercenaries are actually Ivorians. "The government needs to understand the geo-political realities of tribes in the two countries sharing border in deciding which side that person actually comes from," he said.
The Liberian government's actions come after criticism from Human Rights Watch and other groups that it has done little to end the presence of armed groups along the border. A few months ago, the country extradited more than 40 Ivorians who were said to have taken part in the Ivory Coast conflict and then fled to Liberia.
One of the Liberians in detention, Ophoree Diah, acknowledged being a rebel commander during Liberia's 1989-2003 civil war. But he said he is being falsely accused of involvement in an ambush in which seven United Nations peacekeepers were killed near the Ivorian border town of Tai.
"This is not true; I don't know anywhere in Ivory Coast; and I don't even speak French," Diah told The Associated Press when he and a few other detainees were escorted from their detention cells to explain their situation Wednesday. "During the Liberian war, I did all my fighting right here in Liberia. If you put me anywhere in Ivory Coast, I will get lost."
But detainee Alfred Julu, a man regarded by the Liberian government as one of the ringleaders in the cross-border raids, told AP that he and hundreds of other Liberians fought in Ivory Coast to keep Gbagbo in power.
"Under duress we fought for Gbagbo because Ivorians were harassing Liberians in their country, accusing them of being against the regime of Gbagbo," he said. "But when we realized that the U.S. and the U.N. were backing the new man -- Alassane Ouattara -- and that Gbagbo could not win the war, I crossed back into Liberia with 107 men, leaving our arms and ammunition in an Ivorian town."
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