TOBY STERLING, JUNE 7, 2006
THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – A Dutch businessman was convicted of defying a U.N. embargo on the regime of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and sentenced to eight years in prison Wednesday.
A human rights group called the conviction of Guus Kouwenhoven a fresh warning that merchants who deal with pariah states will be held accountable for war profiteering.
Kouwenhoven, 64, traded guns for logging rights and used his lumber company to smuggle weapons used by militias to commit atrocities against civilians in West Africa, The Hague District Court ruled. He was acquitted of war crimes charges.
In December, the same court imprisoned Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat for 15 years for selling chemicals to Saddam Hussein’s regime that were later used for deadly gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds in Halabja.
“These proceedings are setting the international legal precedent that exposes the role played by some businessmen in armed conflicts,” said Alex Yearsley of the nonprofit group Global Witness, which helped bring the Kouwenhoven case to the attention of Dutch authorities.
Presiding Judge Roel van Rossum said Kouwenhoven “contributed significantly to violations of international peace and to the destabilization and danger in the region around Liberia,” which led to “countless victims.”
Kouwenhoven “acted only with regard to his financial interests … even though he knew about the embargo.”
The ruling said Kouwenhoven imported AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades using the Oriental Timber Co., in which he held a 35 percent share.
Kouwenhoven acknowledged cooperating closely with Taylor, who received half of the company’s proceeds. Taylor’s regime was embargoed by the U.N. in 2001, and Kouwenhoven was on a U.N. travel ban for trading with him.
Taylor, who is awaiting a war crimes trial in Sierra Leone, is accused of funding Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front fighters, infamous for hacking off the lips, ears and limbs of their civilian victims before that country’s 10-year civil war ended in 2001.
Kouwenhoven, wearing a black suit and tinted glasses, sat calmly while the verdict was read. After consulting with his lawyer, he raised his fingers in a victory salute to friends in the public gallery before being led off. He has been in jail since his arrest in March 2005.
Defense lawyer Inez Weski said she likely would appeal.
The ruling “said that he was involved with the company, that he had financial interest in it, and so did Mr. Taylor, and then suddenly made this huge leap to ‘and so therefore he’s responsible”’ for importing weapons, she said.
Prosecutors sought a 20-year sentence, and spokeswoman Digna van Boetzelaer said they also were considering an appeal. They had argued that by providing militias with weapons used to slaughter and maim civilians, Kouwenhoven shared in the guilt for war crimes.
But the court found that Kouwenhoven’s links with the crimes were too far removed, and that witness testimony was unreliable.
The Dutch government has said that, as host nation to the several international tribunals, it has a duty to set an example by aggressively prosecuting such crimes.
In Liberia, many welcomed the ruling.
“What he did was grave. He was the conduit for arms into the country and sub-region,” Information Minister Johnny McClain said. But “the sentence should have been longer.”
Activist groups also said the ruling did not go far enough.
“We would have liked to have seen a conviction for war crimes, but we know it’s extremely complicated to prove,” Yearsley, of Global Witness, said.
The environmental group Greenpeace said in a statement that: “Europe’s biggest timber traders, who flatly refused to terminate business with Kouwenhoven’s logging companies, must share his guilt.”
Associated Press Writer Jonathan Paye-Layleh contributed to this story from Monrovia, Liberia.