Strained Relations: Liberia's President and Her Stepson

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left: Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf and her stepson Fombah

For Liberia's president and celebrated reformer, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Operation Relentless was a rare piece of good news. American DEA agents working closely with Liberian officials arrested five suspects conspiring to turn her tiny, fragile West African nation into a narco-trafficking hub between South America and Europe. A federal indictment alleges that a group of traffickers sought to bribe the director of Liberia's National Security Agency to allow more than $100 million of cocaine to pass through the country. The Liberian official was cooperating with the Americans; he also happens to be the president's stepson, Fombah T. Sirleaf.

Operation Relentless has also focused attention on the ambivalent relationship between the much-lauded President (she was named to the TIME 100 in 2006) and her stepson, a West Point graduate she depends on for security in a Liberia deeply scarred by a horrific civil war. Fombah Sirleaf, who reports directly to the President's office, runs what is primarily an intelligence organization, but one with strong influence over the Liberian National Police. He and the NSA have been dogged by allegations of politically motivated arrests and human right abuses — which he has consistently denied.

Operation Relentless has given rise to one more charge of abuse. Early this month, Konstantin Yaroshenko, a defendant in the case, filed a motion to dismiss the indictment alleging that he was kidnapped and tortured by Liberian authorities in the presence of DEA agents and informants. Yaroshenko, a Russian citizen and pilot, is accused of taking part in a conspiracy to ship cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela through Liberia. In late May (right after the President Johnson Sirleaf visited the White House), he was arrested in the Liberian capital of Monrovia by Fombah Sirleaf's NSA and turned over to the DEA.

Yaroshenko alleges that Liberian authorities beat him with a rubber truncheon until he urinated blood, threatened him with rape and held a knife to his throat. At one point, he says, he lost consciousness after he was strangled with a nylon rope. "There was also a white man who came into the room from time to time. He checked my pulse, blood pressure, eye movement but did nothing to stop the abuse," his court filing reads. According to the defendant's motion, the abuse continued after Yaroshenko arrived in the United States. His filing states that after he refused to sign documents upon entering a customs area of an unidentified airport, he was dragged to a bathroom and punched.

The U.S. Attorney's office denies Yaroshenko's allegations, calling them "baseless and unfounded"; it filed an affidavit by one of the lead DEA agents that said Yaroshenko "appeared relaxed, composed and a bit tired"; it also included photographs of the Russian at various stages after he had been taken into custody, intended as evidence that he had not been harmed. The other defendants in the case have filed motions indicating they were denied access to attorneys, but have not alleged physical abuse by the Liberian authorities.

Fombah Sirleaf was not named in the filings, but Yaroshenko's allegation about his treatment under Liberian custody joins many other claims of abuse that have arisen during Sirleaf's tenure at the NSA. He has even been criticized by his own stepmother. The president publicly rebuked him following the attempted arrest of a member of the government's General Auditing Commission, who had criticized President Johnson Sirleaf. "This Government does not and will not resort to the infringement of human rights or arrest of anyone without due process," she said in a statement issued shortly before her trip to Washington. Johnson Sirleaf herself had been detained twice in the mid-1980s during the savage regime of one Liberian warlord president. An investigation has begun into the auditing commission incident. The director of the NSA has not commented on it.

Fombah Sirleaf served in the Black Berets, a short-lived private militia that fought alongside peacekeeping troops during the 14-year-long civil war. In the late 1990s, Sirleaf and another former Black Beret, Brownie J. Samukie, formed a private security company, Executive Security Consultancy, or EXSECON. In 2006, following Ellen Johnson Sirleaf's election as Africa's first female elected head of state, she tapped him to run the NSA and his colleague, Samukie, to head the Ministry of Defense. At the time, Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged criticism about appointing her stepson to such an crucial office but she did not back down. "I feel more secure with somebody who is close to me," she said in a 2006 profile in the New Yorker magazine, "that in itself is testament to the risk that I feel. But he, too, will have to live by the rules and the standards."

Presidential and national security is a tricky challenge for Liberia. Most candidates to lead the police, military and intelligence agencies came of age during the factional violence of the civil war, when killings, rape and torture were committed by nearly all parties to the conflict. Finding anyone both untainted and trustworthy is extremely difficult. And, apart from nepotism, Liberia's president also had to factor in an unsavory parallel when she picked her stepson: her predecessor Charles Taylor appointed his son Chucky to run his personal security force. Chucky Taylor has now been convicted in the U.S. on torture charges and sentenced to 97 years in prison. (His lawyers are appealing.)

In her memoir This Child Will Be Great, President Johnson Sirleaf discusses in detail her relationship with her four sons by James Sirleaf, but she does not mention Fombah, her husband's offspring from a subsequent relationship. Johnson Sirleaf, who never remarried after her divorce, wrote that "even in the best of circumstances, stepfamilies can be challenging to navigate."

"Everybody [in Liberia] has skeletons, including Fombah Sirleaf," says Robert Ferguson, former defense attache for the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia, who says he's a friend of the president's stepson. Ferguson, when he was security manager for the steel giant Arcelor Mittal's operations in Liberia, rejected a bid from EXSECON, the private security company founded by Sirleaf and Samukie, to provide security for the firm. Sirleaf, who was at that time acting chief of the NSA, did not bid for the job, says Ferguson, who eventually chose a company with more regional experience.

Ferguson, who supports the DEA's work in Liberia, is nevertheless concerned about unforeseen consequences. His greatest fear is the issue of corruption. "Things are going to happen and we're going to be associated with that" he says. "That's the problem."