Crimes against humanity: Anatomy of an arms dealer

How a Dutch Del Boy went from trading in used cars to acting as right-hand man for a murderous dictator. By Daniel Howden
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The Independent Online

For those that remember it in its heyday, the Hotel Africa was like a scene straight out of Casablanca. A seedy mix of businessmen, flight attendants, government ministers and cheap prostitutes would prop up the bar. There was even a piano. Patrons remember a world of Montecristo cigars and Rolex watches.

Outside in the equatorial African sun, expats would float in the swimming pool, sipping cocktails while looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. Liberia's VIPs would wander among the resort's 52 villas and the 300 rooms of the five-star main hotel.

At the centre of this world within a world was Mr Guus, a Dutch entrepreneur, hotelier, timber trader, dealer in luxury cars, gambling tycoon and everyone's friend. Anybody who needed anything in Liberia went to Guus Kouwenhoven, a tall, thick-set Dutchman in trademark gold-rimmed sunglasses.

A former guard, who gives his name only as Timothy, remembers a who's who of Monrovia coming and going from the hotel's Bacardi Club disco and the casino on the floor above. "Mr Guus had a lot of contact with government officials," he remembers. "Every day there would be a parade of senators and ministers."

Gert Jan Hoogland, a fellow Dutchman who tried his luck in Liberia during the Eighties, remembers him as the oil in the west African country's machine: "Guus really knew everybody. Every important man with any power in Liberia conducted business at Guus's kitchen table. It was called the 'kitchen cabinet'."

Kouwenhoven himself recalls it as a golden age. "Everybody thought I was crazy when I took over the hotel," he told the Dutch magazine De Nieuwe Revu. "To get people in I arranged for entertainment: a discotheque, a restaurant, a pool. Soon the hotel became the calling card for Liberia; the oasis of Monrovia."

These days Mr Guus's accommodation is more modest. He spends his days in a holding cell in The Hague, back home in Holland, awaiting a possible life sentence as the first arms dealer to be tried for crimes against humanity. The eight counts against him include breaking a UN arms embargo to deliver arms and logistical support to a crazed dictator in return for a steady supply of illegal rainforest timber and blood diamonds. Through his firm, the Oriental Timber Company, he is alleged to have run a private militia of 2,500 men and boys. Human-rights lawyers say the case could set a vital precedent in bringing to book European businessmen who are guilty of large-scale human rights abuses abroad.

According to Global Witness, a British group that investigates the use of natural resources to finance conflict and human-rights abuses, the case against Mr Kouwenhoven is vital for the future of the international law, and the stability of Africa itself.

For the boy from Den Bosch it's an inglorious end to a remarkable journey that took him from used-car salesman to the right-hand man of Charles Taylor, the disgraced former Liberian president, who himself faces charges of attempted genocide at the war crimes tribunal in Sierra Leone. To those who knew Mr Kouwenhoven as a young man, it might be less of a surprise. "He was a bit of a Del Boy even back in those days," says one old friend who prefers not to be named. "I believe he got into trouble while he was in the army for stealing gasoline."

After military service he embarked on a career of buying and selling anything he could get his hands on, starting with tax-free cars for Nato personnel and moving on to bulk supplies of rice from South-east Asia.

By the Seventies, he was a regular in Amsterdam nightspots such as the bar Castel on the Leidseplein. An old bartender remembers him well: "He was a flashy guy with the gift of the gab, fast cars and fast women. He would be out with the property [developer] guys every Monday and it would be champagne and caviar all round."

By this stage Mr Kouwenhoven was criss-crossing the world, spotted in diplomatic parties in Beirut and Los Angeles. In fact, his career nearly came to an end in LA after he was caught in an FBI sting, attempting - along with his then business partner Peter Rombouts - to fence six stolen paintings, including a Rembrandt. Sentenced to two years, he served only 17 days and was deported from the US. Mr Kouwenhoven referred to it as his "greatest mistake".

This mea culpa over a stolen painting is at odds with the scene that confronted David Crane, a professor of law, who was sent to neighbouring Sierra Leone as special prosecutor by the UN secretary general Kofi Annan in January 2002. "When I arrived in Freetown it was 90 per cent destroyed ... There was no running water or electricity. We showered in the rain, which was cleaner and more plentiful."

What Professor Crane found, beyond the heavily guarded walls of compounds like Hotel Africa defies description. "You are going to have to believe the unbelievable," he says. Plagued since the early Eighties by coup attempts and later by civil war, Liberia's rival ethnic fighters outdid each other in brutal savagery.

Arbitrary rule and economic collapse culminated in civil war when Mr Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) militia overran much of the countryside, entering the capital in 1990. The deposed president, Samuel Doe, was hacked to death with machetes.

A once flourishing economy built on exports of rubber, coffee and cocoa, iron ore, diamonds and gold had been channelled into the coffers of a few individuals. Fighting intensified as the rebels battled each other, along with the Liberian army and west African peacekeepers. In 2003 the United Nations estimated that as many as 1.2 million people had lost their lives in the most appalling circumstances.

"They didn't just die, they died in horrible in agony," says Professor Crane. "Imagine standing in a mass grave of dead children. I could describe to you the horror but you wouldn't take it in, you couldn't ... People like Kouwenhoven did this."

The government had become one vast criminal enterprise. By the Nineties, Mr Guus was the director of two lumber companies. One of those, the Oriental Timber Company, was Liberia's largest, thought to control up to 40 per cent of the country's valuable hardwood rainforests.

According to the prosecution in The Hague, Mr Kouwenhoven's company used a fleet to export tons of tropical hardwoods as far as Greece, France and China. His ships would come into the port in Buchanan, unload Serbian and Chinese arms, bought via a Russian arms dealer - a regular at Hotel Africa - then load up with freshly felled rainforest timber.

The prosecution has presented ships' manifests and logbooks, backed up by personal testimony from former employees of OTC and members of Mr Kouwenhoven's militia. Timber was the Liberian government's biggest source of income, worth $100m (£53m) a year, the UN says.

The OTC was granted huge timber concessions in Liberia's ancient rainforest and the environmental impact of the illegal logging that saw trade increase tenfold in the space of four years was massive. The rainforest is home to 9,000 species of plants and 1,300 species of vertebrate animals. According to Greenpeace, it is the last bastion of the forest elephant in west Africa.

"These were thugs," says Professor Crane of Mr Taylor and his Dutch business partner. "Small-time crooks and bit-players who took advantage of the absence of law. They were nobodies. But they became mobsters who will go down in history as horrors. They thrive on the corruption and greed in the dark corners of the world."

OTC was given permission by President Taylor to build roads to export the timber and these roads were in turn used to funnel arms to rebel groups in border areas destabilising Sierra Leone, said prosecutors.

Professor Crane, the author of the indictment against Mr Taylor, who is now in jail in Sierra Leone, awaiting probable trial at The Hague, adds: "(Mr Kouwenhoven) represents the kind of financier that has ruined large parts of West Africa for personal gain. He was a close intimate of Charles Taylor. We exposed the rule of blood diamonds, rainforest timber and guns. What we found was horrendous."

In court this month, Mr Kouwenhoven's lawyer, Inez Weski, painted a very different portrait of her client. "There is no proof that my client committed any offence," she said in her closing arguments. According to the defence, UN and NGO reports accusing OTC of illegal logging and exchanging guns for timber were an attempt by opponents of Mr Taylor to cut him off from his biggest source of income. She further claimed prosecution witnesses implicating Mr Kouwenhoven had been paid for testifying and thus could not be trusted. A spokeswoman for the Dutch prosecutors' office said that defence claims that witnesses were paid off were laughable. Under the legal system in the Netherlands, witnesses are entitled to a living expenses allowance of $30 per day.

Mr Kouwenhoven claims he is the victim of a conspiracy and was never close to Mr Taylor. "I never once ate with him or played tennis with him. We were not the best of friends. My heart stopped every time I was called to go up and see him," he said.

"I never once personally experienced the war. We just knew there was a war through the media. We never heard anything about the killing of civilians."

But that is not how the prosecution and its legion of witnesses remembered it. According to their testimony, OTC's 2,500-strong militia was at the beck and call of Mr Taylor.

"Guus knew exactly what was going on," said Natalie Ashworth from Global Witness. She says Taylor used to call him his "pepper bush", a local reference to someone very close.

The two may be close again very soon. Both Sierra Leone and the newly elected government of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia want Mr Taylor transferred to the war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Mr Kouwenhoven, who had no idea he was being investigated by Dutch authorities, was picked up in France and transferred to the Netherlands last year.

For those who spent years putting Mr Taylor and his associates in the dock it can be an unsettling experience to see them there. "They look ordinary when they're sitting in the courtroom," said Professor Crane. "But if you look into their eyes you see a darkness that is uncanny. The devil does walk this earth. It will make your hair stand on end when they look at you."

Additional reporting by Vincent Smits