US Undermining Justice for Liberian War Victims?
By William Q. Harmon
Basketball star Griner’s release comes at a high cost as the US quests for justice for war crime victims in Liberia, which for the most part remains elusive, in the 14 years of civil unrest that rocked the country.
For more than a decade, the US government has been at the forefront of the campaign for justice for Liberia’s war crimes victims, but its decision yesterday to release Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer whose business dealings resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Liberians, appeared to undermine that effort.
Bout’s release came when the US interest came into play — the freedom of its citizen — basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been in Russian custody since February after Moscow airport officials found cannabis oil in her luggage while she was returning to the US from that country.
The US basketball star was released on Thursday from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for Bout, nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” by his accusers.
Such a swap, which was rumored to be in the making for a while, has been considered a slap in the face of victims of war crimes in Liberia, considering the role Bout played in the Liberia civil war, according to war crime court activists.
Griner’s release comes at a high cost as the US quests for justice for war crime victims in Liberia, which for the most part remain elusive, in the 14 years of civil unrest that rocked the country.
He played a well-documented role in the First and Second Liberian civil wars — crises that led to the deaths of over 250,000 people, according to Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
“[Bout’s] possible release is a dent in the quest for justice in Liberia,” says Hassan Bility, the executive director of Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), which helped convict Liberian war criminal Alieu Kosiah and United States immigration fraudsters Mohammed Jabbateh and the late Thomas Woewiyu whose crimes were linked to Liberian civil wars.
“His imprisonment did bring some relief and justice to Liberia. The US, in line with its interest in justice, at least did something which we appreciate [then],” Bility told the DayLight, a media partner to the Daily Observer in August this year when the prison swap was then proposed.
Bility and other war crimes advocates are now grimaced upon hearing that Bout, arguably the world’s best-known illegal arms trafficker, is now a free man — a move that puts a dent in their efforts for justice in Liberia.
The release of the Russian would be a setback to his account for the crimes he allegedly committed in Liberia, according to Liberian war crime activists, many of who prefer anonymity. To them, the quest for justice is most supported by the US and its allies.
So why now?
“The sad reality is that the US freed Bout considering its interest and not the interest of his victims in Liberia and the many people his criminal career hurts.
“We had hoped that the Biden administration would think long and hard about the threat this swap could pose to the West African sub-region, which is becoming volatile, with military coups on the rise. It is for this reason that Russia wanted Bout for so many years, and now they have gotten him so easily,” the war crime activists told the Daily Observer while requesting anonymity.
Between 1989 and 2003, Bout sold weapons to Liberian warring factions, notable among these being former President Charles Taylor. His trade deals with the former Liberian President circumvented several United Nations arms embargoes.
His profitable deals with Taylor didn’t only lead to the killing of hundreds of thousands of Liberia, it also spiraled to other countries in the region. It did not also spare Liberia’s natural resources because as he supplied Taylor with arms and ammunition, Taylor illegally exploited the country’s logs and minerals and abused its huge shipping registry to pay him, a global witness report said.
The plundering of the Liberian forestry sector to fuel the war led to the infamous tags “Logs of war” and “conflict timbers” across the world.
In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended that Bout be investigated for his role in the country’s crises, but this is yet to happen more than a decade on.
Bout started an air freight business in the years after the fall of the Soviet Union, which prosecutors alleged he used to transport military-grade weapons around the world, often supplying arms to combatants on opposing sides of the same conflicts.
In an indictment of Bout issued in February 2010, the US Justice Department alleged, “Bout, an international weapons trafficker since the 1990s, has carried out a massive weapons-trafficking business by assembling a fleet of cargo airplanes capable of transporting weapons and military equipment to various parts of the world, including Africa, South America, and the Middle East.
The arms that Bout has sold or brokered have fueled conflicts and supported regimes in Afghanistan, Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Sudan.”
He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in April 2012 after being found guilty of conspiracy to kill Americans and US officials, delivering anti-aircraft missiles, and aiding a terrorist organization.
Bout — who was 45 when he was sentenced — is said to have begun channeling weapons through a series of front companies to war-torn parts of Africa. The UN named him as an associate of former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was convicted in 2012 on charges of aiding and abetting war crimes during the Sierra Leone civil war.
“[Bout is a] businessman, dealer and transporter of weapons and minerals [who] supported former President Taylor’s regime in [an] effort to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds,” UN documents state.
Media reports in the Middle East claimed he was a gun-runner for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He is also alleged to have armed both sides in Angola’s civil war and supplied weapons to warlords and governments from the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Sudan and Libya.
In an interview with the UK’s Channel 4 News in 2009, he flatly denied ever dealing with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. But he did admit to flying arms to Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, saying they were used by commanders fighting against the Taliban.
He also claimed to have helped the French government transport goods to Rwanda after the genocide and to have transported UN peacekeepers. Bout had a stint in the Soviet army, where he reportedly achieved the rank of lieutenant, serving as a military translator in many countries, including in Angola, a country that would later become central to his business—and from whence he launched his Liberian mission.
As reported by The Daylight, Taylor’s illegal timber operations were equally organized. It comprised the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the then Ministry of Mines and Energy, militiamen led by his son Chuckie Taylor, logging companies, and combatant miners.
At least 17 logging firms, including Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise, played a role in illegal arms trafficking, and civil instability in Liberia, according to the TRC.
A report by the UN-backed Forest Concession Review Committee found that logging companies paid US$7.9 million in Taylor’s personal account. In one transaction, OTC paid Taylor US$3-5 million, according to a 2002 Global Witness report.
Taylor ran his illegal operations with Bout mainly through Guus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch gunrunner, who owned OTC. By 2000, the company controlled 1.6 million hectares of forestland, or 42 percent of the country’s concessional forest, the United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia said.
The panel cited a transfer of US$500,000 by OTC’s parent company in Singapore, Borneo Jaya Pte Ltd to San Air, one of Bout’s airlines. OTC-chartered ships supplied weapons to Taylor at the Port of Buchanan three times between September and November 2001.
Charles Taylor with Bout’s business partner, Guus Kouwenhoven, and other top officials of the government (photo credit Global Witness)
The supplies contained 7,000 boxes of ammunition, 5,000 rocket-propelled grenades, 300 howitzer shells, and other equipment, according to a report by the Washington Post.
Following his ousting in 2003, Taylor and Bout were designated by the UN and U.S. for sanctions, travel ban, and assets seizure. An executive order, issued by former US President George W. Bush in July 2004, also froze the assets of Taylor’s relatives and some members of the Liberian government including the ex-President’s ex-wife and current Vice President of Liberia, Jewel Howard Taylor, and the political leader of the All-Liberian Party (ALP), Benoni Urey.
In 2005, the United States Treasury Department said Bout controlled one of the largest networks of ships worldwide, with Sanjivan Ruprah, a Kenyan arms dealer, as a partner.
Ruprah, who was one of the first gang members to be arrested in 2002, also lived in Liberia at one point. He was a holder of several Liberian passports, which identified him as the deputy commissioner of maritime affairs with Urey as boss.
Source Daily Observer.