Dutch court jails Liberian warlord's right-hand man

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The Independent Online

A one-time used-car salesman who became the right hand man of Liberia's former warlord president Charles Taylor was convicted yesterday of breaking a UN arms embargo and jailed for eight years.

A Dutch court found that Guus Kouwenhoven, 64, had sold weapons to Taylor in return for rights to the country's tropical timber. Kouwenhoven used his logging firm, Oriental Timber Company (OTC), to smuggle weapons into Liberia which were used by militias loyal to Taylor to kill civilians, including children and babies.

But the court acquitted Kouwenhoven of war crimes charges, dismissing the prosecution's claims that because Kouwenhoven supplied the weapons he could be directly linked to the atrocities. The court also found insufficient evidence to prove that Kouwenhoven had a 2,500-strong militia at his disposal.

More than 250,000 people were killed during Liberia's 14-year civil war. Taylor launched a rebellion against the military dictatorship in 1989, before eventually being elected president in 1997. The country descended into civil war again two years later, which only ended in 2003 after Taylor stepped down and fled to Nigeria.

During the conflict, Kouwenhoven - known in Liberia as Mr Guus - was busy running various lucrative businesses. Timber was Liberia's most valuable commodity, with exports totalling about $100m a year. It is estimated that Kouwenhoven controlled around 40 per cent of the country's timber market as the trade increased tenfold in the space of four years.

The environmental damage was enormous. Liberia's 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.

As well as running two of Liberia's largest timber firms, Kouwenhoven also owned the luxurious Hotel Africa. With its swanky cocktail bars, swimming pools, casino and opulent villas, Hotel Africa was the place for Monrovia's elite to see and be seen. Former colleagues and employees of Kouwenhoven claim that a procession of politicians and influential businessmen visited the Dutchman at his hotel base.

"Mr Guus" was no stranger to Liberia's most powerful players. Taylor is said to have called the Dutchman his "pepper bush", a local reference to someone very close. According to a UN report submitted to the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Kouwenhoven was part of the warlord president's inner circle.

In yesterday's ruling, Judge Roel van Rossum alluded to just how close the two men were. The judge said Kouwenhoven "contributed significantly to violations of international peace and to the destabilisation and danger in the region around Liberia".

The ruling said Kouwenhoven imported weapons through the port of Buchanan using the OTC in co-operation with Taylor, who was the target of a UN arms embargo imposed in 2001. "He acted only with regard to his financial interests... even though he knew about the embargo," the judge said.

Kouwenhoven's lawyer said his client would probably appeal. Prosecutors may also consider an appeal after the failure to convict Kouwenhoven on the more serious charges of committing war crimes.

Either way, "Mr Guus" may soon be seeing more of his old friend Taylor. The former warlord, who fled Liberia in 2003, was arrested in Nigeria earlier this year and is currently in Sierra Leone awaiting trial for war crimes. West African leaders are still hopeful that the trial will be moved to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.