NETHERLANDS: The Dutch Try One of Their Own Over Links to Liberia

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

They became partners during some of the worst convulsions in West Africa: Charles Taylor, the warlord and former president of Liberia, and Guus van Kouwenhoven, a resident Dutch businessman and lumber trader.

Mr. Taylor, who was arrested in March for war crimes, is in an African prison still awaiting trial. But very different legal proceedings have already opened against his former business associate at a district court in The Hague.

Mr. van Kouwenhoven, 63, is also charged with war crimes. He is accused of supplying Mr. Taylor with militia fighters from his lumber companies. He is further charged with violating a United Nations embargo by smuggling weapons into Liberia. His trial, held under a new mix of national and international law, is drawing attention because it is the second time a Dutch court is prosecuting a Dutch businessman for being involved with human rights abuses on another continent.

Human rights lawyers say they hope the case signals a new trend. Domestic courts in Europe are increasingly taking on rights abuses that happened far away, but the accused have usually been foreign military or political officials, not businessmen who are their own citizens. But in December, a Dutch court sentenced a Dutch businessman, Frans van Anraat, to 15 years in jail for selling chemicals to Saddam Hussein. The chemicals were used in poison gas weapons that killed Kurdish villagers.

Desiree Leppens, a spokeswoman for the prosecution, said the cases were a Dutch initiative but were prompted in part by the opening here of the International Criminal Court, which aims to prosecute grave human rights violations. Soon after that court opened in 2002, its prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, said he hoped national prosecutors would join him in investigating the "criminal business" of war.

Ms. Leppens said, "We want to demonstrate that our government is also willing to prosecute such crimes. This is also becoming an international priority."

Mr. van Kouwenhoven's trial offers glimpses into the network of collaborators and companies that Mr. Taylor and his cohorts used to organize and finance conflicts across West Africa, leaving at least 300,000 people dead. Prosecutors here have said that Mr. van Kouwenhoven became a critical player in the Taylor network because he traded Liberia's valuable hardwood for weapons on the international market.

He was arrested in 2005 while visiting the Netherlands from his home in France, apparently unaware that Dutch prosecutors were investigating his activities in Africa. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, but could face a long prison sentence if convicted.

In the small sober courtroom where the trial opened on April 24, Mr. van Kouwenhoven, in a dark suit and tinted glasses, made light of his dealings with the former Liberian president. He said he was part of a circle of businessmen "who had direct contact with Taylor" and had met with him regularly. "I wasn't his friend in the sense that I did not go swimming with him and never even ate at his home," he said.

But prosecutors painted a darker picture. They said Mr. van Kouwenhoven, who initially ran a car import business, a hotel and a casino in Monrovia, Liberia, established ties with Mr. Taylor in the 1990's and became the director of two large lumber companies. One of those, the Oriental Timber Company, was Liberia's largest. It operated under different names and used its own fleet to export tons of tropical hardwoods as far as France and China. Human rights groups have said that Mr. Taylor was co-owner of the company.

The timber ships brought back weapons and ammunition, which were unloaded during the night in the port of Buchanan, prosecutors said. The weapons came from a Russian arms dealer, a Serbian company and other sources, they said.

Although the smuggling operations reportedly began earlier, Mr. van Kouwenhoven is being prosecuted for weapon deliveries between 2001 and 2003, in violation of the United Nations arms embargo of Liberia. The United Nations issued an international travel ban on him in 2001, calling him an "arms trafficker."

Cinder Reeves, an associate and relative of Mr. Taylor and the first man on the witness stand here, told the court that he was one of the people who took deliveries of weapons at the timber company, perhaps 20 to 30 times.

"They gave us documents to sign for delivery and a list of the weapons in the containers," said Mr. Reeves, whose nickname is Sunshine but who was darkly disguised in the courtroom and wore a black wig and dark glasses for security reasons. "I saw ammunition, grenades, rocket launchers," he told the court. Weapons were sometimes stored directly beneath Mr. Taylor's residence, White Flowers, Mr. Reeves said.

He also told the court that he had regularly made appointments for Mr. van Kouwenhoven to see Mr. Taylor at White Flowers to discuss arms imports and the course of the war.

Mr. van Kouwenhoven told the court he had never seen Mr. Reeves.

Two lumber companies sent many of their security guards to fight along with Mr. Taylor's militia, according to the prosecution. Militias from the companies "participated in slaughter among the Liberian population wherein nothing and no one was spared, not even babies," a prosecution statement said, adding that Mr. van Kouwenhoven provided the weapons.

Defense lawyers and judges have agreed that Mr. Taylor himself should testify in the case. Dutch investigators, who have questioned witnesses in Africa and Asia, may return to Sierra Leone, where Mr. Taylor is awaiting trial in a cell of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, a tribunal backed by the United Nations.

Both Liberia and Sierra Leone have asked that Mr. Taylor be transferred to The Hague so he can be tried on the premises of another international court, arguing that he poses a risk to the region's stability. But the United Nations Security Council is still debating the terms of his transfer. He may not arrive in The Hague before Mr. van Kouwenhoven's trial ends later this month.

Ms. Leppens, the prosecution spokeswoman, said Dutch investigators had received much assistance from the Sierra Leone court and from Global Witness, a British group that investigates the use of natural resources to finance conflict and human rights abuses.

Investigators are now negotiating with Mr. Taylor's lawyers to have him testify via video link or to make a sworn statement in his cell, she said.

AMP Section Name:Corruption
  • 116 Human Rights
  • 124 War & Disaster Profiteering