Monrovia — A former Commissioner of the erstwhile Truth and Reconciliation of Liberia (TRC) Madam Massa Washington, says the West African region, especially Liberia and Sierra Leone, remains threatened as a result of the release of notorious Russian illegal arm dealer, Viktor Bout. from prison by the United States government at the time his business partners are holding key positions in the two post-conflict countries.
The TRC was established to “promote national peace, security, unity and reconciliation,” and at the same time make it possible to hold perpetrators accountable for gross human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law that occurred in Liberia between January 1979 and October 2003.
Viktor Bout, who is widely known as the “Merchant of Death” was arrested in a hotel by officers of the
United States Drug Enforcement Agency in Thailand in 2008.
He was infamous and disputably the world’s best-known illegal arms trafficker and his capture was the end of a nearly decade long hunt by the U.S. to stop him from engaging into the illegal act.
He was being held in a US prison for 12 years after being extradited.
But on Friday, December 9, the governments of the US and Russia agreed to a swap deal for the exchange of jailed US basketball star Brittney Griner for the notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Griner was arrested at the airport in Moscow in February this year for possessing cannabis oil and last month she was sent to a penal colony. Following the move, the US government proposed a prisoner swap deal with Russia in July.
Bout has been released and taken to his hometown in Russia, while Griner has also arrived in the United States.
But speaking in an interview with the BBC shortly after the exchange was finalized, former TRC Commissioner Washington confirmed the involvement of Bout in the Liberian and Sierra Leonean civil conflicts, through the provision of arms to the notorious rebel groups National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) of ex-President Charles Ghankay Taylor and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of FodaySankoh.
She made specific reference to Bout’s name being mentioned in various reports, including the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and at the trial of Mr. Taylor in The Hague as arms supplier for Mr. Taylor and Mr. Sankoh.
“Viktor Bout is a name that became infamous during the wars in Liberia; because we learned that he was the major arms dealer that was supplying arms to the national patriotic forces of Mr. Charles Taylor, the NPFL. And later when the NPFL took the war to Sierra Leone on behalf of FodaySankoh of the RUF, Viktor Bout again name resurfaced because he was also a major arms supplier to the RUF and also the NPFL of Mr. Taylor to rage the war in Sierra Leone. And we know it caused the deaths of an estimated of 50,000 people in Sierra Leone and 250,000 to 300,000 people in Liberia. There were several massacres that took place both in Liberia and Sierra Leone.”
She continued: “This guy was the one supplying what were used to slaughter people. It was confirmed that he was a major arm dealer to Mr. Charles Taylor and to Mr. FodaySankoh.”
She pointed out that the wars which took place in the two countries had devastating impacts on the lives of the citizens, mainly civilians.
Madam Washington noted that a little over 30,000 child soldiers were also recruited to actively participate in the wars.
She recalled that the effect of the wars also destroyed infrastructures in both nations and as such, the decision taken by the U.S and Russia to swap prisoners was not in the interest of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Crimes not the same
Madam Washington observed that though the crimes committed by Griner and Bout do not have the same magnitude, the US and Russia went ahead and entered into a deal that was not befitting.
She maintained that a perpetrator who committed harsh crime was released for someone who committed lesser evil.
“The sentence of her (Griner) was too harsh and I think it is ok for her to go home to her family. But my concern is the person who was exchanged for her freedom. Maybe, I wouldn’t be concerned if it was someone else of lesser evil, culpability or crime. Perhaps it could have been other people who didn’t commit such horrible crimes.”
Bout’s business partners in Liberia
Madam Washington expressed fear that Bout would engaged into his previous actions by illegally selling arms to his business partners in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
She observed that Bout business partners, who are former warlords and fighters, have excelled into various high positions in the Liberian society.
Nimba County Senator Prince Y. Johnson of the erstwhile Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) and George Boley of the Liberia Peace Council (LPC) are the two former notorious rebel leaders currently serving as Senator and Representative respectively in the 54th National Legislature in Liberia.
Senator Johnson’s rebel group captured humiliated, tortured and killed ex-Liberian President Samuel Kanyon Doe on September 9, 1990.
“This guy (Viktor Bout) was released yesterday. So what’s the implication for the whole of the West Africa sub-region, especially for countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone where he has business partners, most of them former fighters, rebel leaders who are in high offices, especially in Liberia? What’s the implication for Liberia?”
Madam Washington observed that the high level of impunity in Liberia continues to discourage citizens that those who committed war crimes and atrocities will not be prosecuted for their actions.
She added that those who committed mayhem and atrocities against peaceful Liberians continue to enjoy tax payers’ monies and political powers in Liberia.
“Yes (I am scare that Vikot Bout could come back, sell arms and bring havoc) because Liberia is a land of impunity where people can go to the church and killed more than 700 people and nothing comes out of it. We have major warlords in the Senate and these are people who committed horrible atrocities against the Liberian people. Most of them are in public offices in Liberia.”
Madam Washington said Liberia, a country that has failed to promote accountability and protect its citizens, cannot prevent Viktor Bout, who is also known for breaking United Nations sanctions and embargoes from engaging into the illegal sale of arms to his business partners in the country.
She observed that the 25-years sentence of Bout was indirectly because of his “infamous” role he played in the civil conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
According to her, the conviction of the notorious arm dealer by the US was not felt at the time in both Liberia and Sierra Leone because; a lot of “geopolitics” was played leading to his conviction.
Bout’s contributions to Taylor’s invasion
Bout supplied arms to former President Charles Taylor of Liberia, to rebels in Sierra Leone and has brokered or sold weapons that also fueled conflicts in Afghanistan, Angola, Congo, Rwanda and Sudan.
Several reports released by the United Nations linked him to arms smuggling activities. In one of those reports, the UN reported how 37 arms flights were operated by him to supply the former rebel group, Unita, in Angola in 1997 and 1998, when the rebels were subject to a UN embargo.
The UN also stepped up its several years later with a Panel of Experts, who looked into violations of an arms embargo on Liberia, then run by former President Charles Taylor, who is currently facing war crimes charges at The Hague.
The panel was investigating the trade in “blood diamonds” which were used by Mr. Taylor to buy weapons for the RUF for rebels in the brutal Sierra Leonean war.
In its report presented in December 2000, the Panel recognized that Victor Bout is a well-known supplier of embargoed non-state actors – in Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere.
“He (Bout) oversees a complex network of over 50 planes and multiple cargo charter and freight-forwarding companies, many of which are involved in shipping illicit cargo. Bout has used the Liberian aviation register extensively, operating mainly out of the United Arab Emirates. Sharjah Airport is used as an ‘airport of convenience’ for planes registered in many other countries. One of Bout’s aircraft, an Ilyushin 76, was used in July and August 2000 for arms deliveries from eastern Europe to Liberia,”, the report added.
It pointed out that this aircraft and an “Antonov” made four deliveries, on July 4 and 27, and August 1 and 23, 2000.
The report added that the cargo included military helicopters, spare rotors, anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, missiles, armored vehicles, machine guns and ammunition.
“It is difficult to conceal something the size of an Mi-17 military helicopter, and the supply of such items to Liberia cannot go undetected by customs authorities in originating countries unless there are false flight plans and end-user certificates, or unless customs officials at points of exit are paid to look the other way.
The constant involvement of Bout’s aircraft in arms shipments from eastern Europe into African war zones suggests the latter.”
According to the report, there have been few significant cases of aircraft with weapons being grounded at important fueling points such as Cairo, Nairobi or Entebbe, or anywhere in West Africa.
It added that although some countries have temporarily or permanently stopped aircraft registered in Liberia from entering their airspace, the Liberian register continues to be used fraudulently.
“The practice has clearly been organized from Liberia in cooperation with shrewd businessmen abroad, and Liberian-registered planes remain prominent in many African countries, particularly in countries at war. In short, Liberia is actively breaking Security Council embargoes regarding weapons imports into its own territory and into Sierra Leone. It is being actively assisted by Burkina Faso. It is being tacitly assisted by countries allowing weapons to pass through or over their territory without question, and by those countries that provide a base for the aircraft used in such operations.”
Benoni Urey and Bout
In 2000, the United States government placed sanctions on Mr. Benoni Urey, a closed ally of former President Taylor for his alleged role in arms procurement for Charles Taylor’s rebels and his relationship to Taylor.
Mr. Urey is currently the Political Leader of the opposition All Liberian Party (ALP).
He previously served as Commissioner of the Liberia Maritime Authority (formerly Bureau of Maritime) during the regime of the National Patriotic Party (NPP) of Mr. Taylor.
In November 2015, the US Treasury Department lifted sanctions against a number of Liberians, including Mr. Urey and former First Lady Madam Jewel Howard Taylor (now Vice President of Liberia).
On June 21, 2022, the Warlord Accountability Project released a documentary describing Mr. Urey as the “most wanted notorious war criminal.”
In the documentary, the ALP Political Leader was accused of “money laundering and terror financing.”
In 2009, a leaked cable penned by then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted: “Benoni Urey continues to pose an ongoing threat to the peace and stability in Liberia and the sub-region.”
He was also accused of purchasing weapons from the notorious Viktor Bout. According to the Project, Mr. Urey’s arms purchased were used to commit genocide against women, children and others.
The Project claimed that Mr. Urey has been spending “millions of his ill-gotten wealth to get back into power and avoid accountability.”
However, Mr. Urey has consistently denied the allegations, claiming that the U.N. investigated the matter for 15 years and “found no magnitude”.
“Why would Benoni Urey, a peace-loving citizen of Liberia who has never really been involved in war, who doesn’t know what arms and ammunition is, why would I get involved in purchasing arms and ammunition?” he said.
Mr. Urey said he simply carried an order given him by Charles Taylor’s finance minister to pay out a certain amount of money.
“He said the president of Liberia has directed him to instruct me to transfer $620,000. Who am I? The finance minister calls me and gave me a directive. I just wrote a letter to my Comptroller and I said by order of the president as communicated to me through the finance minister, you are hereby instructed to instruct our agent to transfer the money. Where did I go wrong,” Urey asked.
Mr. Urey is one of those recommended by the TRC to face prosecution for alleged economic crimes he committed. Despite his indictment, he’s on record for calling for the establishment of a war and economic crimes court in Liberia.
The group is demanding justice for perpetrators of alleged war crimes committed by Mr. Urey during the Liberian civil conflict.
NPFL, Taylor’s forces, committed 41 percent of the crimes committed during the war and recorded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the highest number of any faction. Taylor had formed the National Patriotic Reconstruction Assembly Government (NPRAG) in Bong’s capital Gbarnga, after his Christmas Day invasion into Nimba from Ivory Coast in 1989.
Taylor envisaged a future Liberian capital be moved here from Monrovia, a call that resonated with people here. It was from there that Taylor launched attacks on rival warring factions in the southeastern, northern and western parts of the country. He also ordered attacks on Monrovia, where the Interim Government of National Unity (IGNU), led by Dr. Amos Sawyer, sat.
The interim government had taken over in the aftermath of the murder of President Samuel Doe by forces loyal to Prince Johnson.
On April 26, 2012, the Special Court for Sierra Leone sitting in the Hague unanimously ruled and found Mr. Taylor guilty of all 11 counts of “aiding and abetting” war crimes and crimes against humanity, making him the first (former) head of state to be convicted by an international tribunal since Karl Donitz at the Nurenberg trials.
He is currently serving the remaining of his 50 years jail term at HM Prison Frankland in County Durham, England.
On March 23, 1991, the RUF, led by FodaySankoh and backed by Charles Taylor, launched its first attack in villages in Kailahun District in the diamond-rich Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.
The RUF became notorious for brutal practices such as mass rapes and amputations during the civil war. Sankoh personally ordered many operations, including one called “Operation Pay Yourself” that encouraged troops to loot anything they could find. After complaining about such tactics, Kanu and Mansaray were summarily executed.
In March 1997, Sankoh fled to Nigeria, where he was put under house arrest and then imprisoned.
From this time until Sankoh’s release in 1999, Sam Bockarie performed the task of director of military operations of the RUF. During the ten-year war, Sankoh broke several promises to stop fighting, including the Abidjan Peace Accord and the Lome Peace Accord signed in 1999.
Eventually the United Kingdom and ECOMOG intervened with their own small, but professional, military forces, and the RUF was eventually crushed.
Sankoh was later arrested on May 17, 2000 after his soldiers gunned down a number of protesters, killing 19 people, including journalist Saoman Conteh, outside his Freetown home on 8 May 2000.
His arrest led to massive celebrations throughout Sierra Leone.
He was handed to the British. Under the jurisdiction of a UN-backed court, he was indicted on 17 counts for various war crimes, including use of child soldiers and crimes against humanity, including genocide, enslavement, rape and sexual slavery.
Sankoh died in hospital of complications arising from a stroke whilst awaiting trial on the night of 29 July 2003.In a statement by the UN-backed war crimes court, chief prosecutor David Crane said that Sankoh’s death granted him “a peaceful end that he denied to so many others.
He was buried in his hometown of Magbruka in the northern province of Sierra Leone.
Fear has gripped Liberians and Sierra Leoneans both home and abroad since news of Bout’s release broke out last week.
There are fears that Bout, 55, who emerged as a kingpin in the global illegal arms trade during the 1990s, and was accused of fueling some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, particularly in Africa would source weapons again for insurrections in countries who are perceived to be allies to the United States.
The presence of his business partners, many of who have already accumulated both financial and political powers, in Liberian and Sierra Leone, continue to cause panic among the citizens.
In Liberia, many warlords and fighters are against the establishment of a war and economic crimes court.
They may revert to protecting their wealth and political powers through illegal or violent means or actions if steps are taken to ensure that they are prosecuted for their past actions.