2010/04/21

Tuesday, April 20

Gus Kouwenhoven on trial again – Dutch Supreme Court orders

Two years ago – on March 10, 2008 - I commented on the acquittal of Gus Kouwenhoven, also known as Guus van Kouwenhoven, a Dutch timber trader and business partner of Charles Taylor, accused of illegal arms trade for his business partner, and I lauded the Dutch judiciary system – see my March 10, 2008 blog posting. Today I repeat my praise. I just heard the news that the Supreme Court of the Netherlands has overturned the acquittal of Kouwenhoven and ordered a new appeal hearing. The Dutch Supreme Court said that appeals judges had been wrong to reject a prosecution request to hear two anonymous witnesses. Consequently, Mr. Gus, as he is known in Liberia, will have to stand trial again. Meanwhile he remains a free man.

‘Mister Gus’

The Dutch businessman Gus Kouwenhoven first came to Liberia in the late 1980s after shady deals in the USA where he had been convicted and sentenced to two years jail. In Liberia he became General Manager of the famous Hotel Africa, near Monrovia, later he went into the logging business and became Chairman of the Malaysian Oriental Timber Company, one of the largest timber companies in the country, and Managing Director of the Royal Timber Company. He also was a member of the Board of the Forestry Development Authority, a Liberian governmental institution mandated to regulate and supervise forest exploitation and timber production in the country.

In 2000, it was reported that Gus Kouwenhoven belonged to Taylor’s ‘inner circle’ and in the UN’s Expert Panel Report on Sierra Leone (2000) he was accused of active involvement in arms smuggling. He subsequently was hit by an UN travel ban though this did not prevent him from seeking refuge in Congo. In March 2005 he was arrested in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where he had travelled to visit his family. In 2006, the District Court of The Hague sentenced Gus Kouwenhoven to 8 years in prison for illegal arms trade, but on March 10, 2008 the Dutch Court of Appeal overturned the 2006 conviction and acquitted Kouwenhoven of all accusations including allegations that he had participated in war crimes in Liberia.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL)

In December 2009 one of Charles Taylor’s secret bank accounts was revealed by Prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian during the cross-examination of Charles Taylor at the SCSL in The Hague. Nicholas Koumjian ended the last hearing of the year with a sensational piece of evidence: a hitherto unseen statement from a personal bank account opened by Taylor in December 1999. Even more sensational was Taylor’s admission that it was a “covert account opened up by the Government of Liberia during this period, to fight our war”. According to the evidence two major deposits were made in 2000: US $ 2 million from Natura Holdings, owned by Gus Kouwenhoven, and US $ 3.5 million from the Taiwanese embassy in Monrovia. Taylor admitted that the money was used to buy arms.

Taylor’s statement seemingly contradicts previous statements by Kouwenhoven denying accusations that money from his company or companies was ever used to buy arms. The UN Expert Panel Report of 2000 had already linked him to arms purchases from the notorious arms dealer Victor Bout, an allegation that was also rejected by mister Kouwenhoven.

Oscar Wilde in his The Importance of Being Earnest already acknowledged that ‘The truth is rarely pure and never simple’.

I wish the Dutch judges all the wisdom they need to arrive at the right conclusion and a fair judgement that does justice to the interests of all victims of the Second Liberian Civil War (1999 - 2003).

2010/04/11

Sunday, April 11

April 12, 1980 – 2010

I can’t help but think of April 12, 1980 when the anniversary of Samuel Doe’s bloody coup d’├ętat approaches. I happened to be in Monrovia on that historic day, en route to Burkina Faso, then still called Upper Volta, where I was to witness three more coup d’├ętats of which Thomas Sankara’s seizure of power was the most impressive.

1980 – 2010. Liberia underwent more changes in the past thirty years than in the century before. Doe’s People’s Redemption Council marked a U-turn in the history of Africa oldest Republic where the roots of the recent turmoil had been developing since 1822. In that year the first freed slaves and free-born blacks set foot here on West African soil. Despised and unwanted in the land where their forefathers had been brought under coercion, they established a Republic based on the model of the land where they had been born and had grown up. And like the slave masters had treated them, they treated the aboriginal population they met on what used to be called the Pepper Coast.

1980 – 2010. In these thirty years Liberia had one military dictator-president who was the country’s first President of tribal origin, six Interim Presidents among whom Africa’s first female Head of State, one elected warlord-president who was forced to step down, one Vice President who after becoming President had the shortest Administration in the country’s history - three months. He was succeeded by a ‘caretaker’-not called President who in his turn was succeeded by Africa’s first elected female Head of State. Compare that with the previous 130 years which had known only 23 presidents, 12 of them born in the USA or the Caribbean, 11 born in Liberia, among whom the country’s longest serving President, 27 years.

1980 – 2010. The people of Liberia suffered from two civil wars which cost over 200,000 people their lives. Many more suffered, were wounded, and remained traumatized after the wars had ended. In the early years of the third millennium, Africa’s oldest republic had gained the reputation of a ‘failed ‘state’, a conclusion which I personally do not share, for various reasons.
But undoubtedly true is that when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took over, in 2006, the modern economy was in ruins, the foreign investors had left, like most of the political and intellectual elite, and the people were poorer and more divided as ever. The latest census revealed that the total population now numbers more than three million, not much for a country well endowed with natural resources, but too large in view of the actual National Budget of about US $ 350 million. Compare that with total public expenditures thirty years earlier, which amounted to US $ 324 million, in 1979, and it may be difficult not to despair looking at this budgetary standstill.

However, I do not share this feeling of hopelessness, I also disagree with the qualification ‘failed state’. Yet I am puzzled how it can be possible that people inflict upon other people the cruelties which we have seen in Liberia. Though Liberia is not the only country in the world where people underwent these sufferings. What to think of the United States of America where a major civil war raged between 1861 and 1865, divided the country, and costs half a million people their lives? By the way, isn’t it an ironic coincidence that the US civil war started on April 12?

Who would have qualified the USA in 1865, when the civil war ended, as a ‘failed state’? And what about Europe? There may be no other continent where so many wars raged, yet most European countries rank among the richest in the world nowadays. And look at Asia, take the example of Vietnam. This country was virtually destroyed by the Americans in the 1970s. Nowadays it is one of the emerging Asian economies, with Indonesia, India and China.

Liberia, once Africa’s leading iron ore exporter and the third largest iron ore exporter in the world, with many other precious minerals, with the largest mercantile fleet in the world and the world's largest rubber plantation within its borders, has the economic potential to recover from the wars and their aftermath. Liberia has many strong and intellectual people, the organization of the civil wars proofs it, as contradictory as this may sound. Both within and outside the national territory there are many hard working, capable and motivated people who in good combination with the nation’s natural wealth can turn the ‘Land of Liberty’, the previous ‘Pepper Coast’, into a small paradise where people harmoniously live together. The recipe? It is not as difficult as people tend to think. Good policies, in combination with investments in people, infrastructure and institutions have proven to be the road to take, leading to economic growth, development and prosperity.

Liberia can realize another U-turn, I am absolutely sure. The economic changes which the country underwent in the 1950 – 1980 period are proof of that – despite the ravages of the last 30 years. Government revenues rose from less than US $ 4 million (!) in 1950 to US $ 200 million in 1980. The National Product (GDP) was roughly some US $ 35 million in 1950, at the end of the 1970s it had grown to US $ 750 million. This was considered a phenomenal performance in those days despite the criticism and the conviction of many that Liberia could have done better had it managed better its economy and controlled more some foreign investors.

Liberia and Liberians should learn from the past if the next U-turn is to be realized. Yes, it can!

2010/04/04

Sunday, April 4

Ritualistic Murders, Voodoo and the Rule of Law

Eleven days ago, March 24, I wrote about ritual killings in Lofa County, Liberia, as well as in a number of other countries and the involvement of high ranking people, politicians and rich businessmen. Two days later a high profile ritual murder case was unearthed in Maryland County, involving several high-ranking government officials.

Former Interior Minister and Maryland Superintendent under previous Administrations, and at the moment of his arrest Ambassador-at-Large appointed by President Sirleaf, Dan Morias, former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and former Maryland County Attorney Cllr Fulton Yancy, together with at least eight other persons, were arrested following a string of ritual murders. They are now in custody in the county capital’s jail, according to the Harper police 'for protective reasons’. Some sources even report the arrest of as many as nineteen suspected ritual killers.

The circumstances surrounding their arrests caused President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to warn against voodoo justice and raise many questions about the rule of law in Liberia.

Maryland County is notorious for its history of ritualistic killings, one of the most sensational being the ritual killing of Moses Tweh in 1977 for which ultimately seven persons were condemned and publicly executed, among whom a member of the House of Representatives, Allen Yancy, older brother of Fulton Yancy, and Maryland Superintendent James Anderson, son of the Chairman of the True Whig Party, in those days the only legalized political party. Not surprisingly, Marylanders’ past of ritual killings and fears resurfaces, as reported by Tom Kamara in The New Democrat Online. Besides, the famous Liberian journalist presents a chilling report on the interrogation techniques (read: torture) of the Liberian police in the Moses Tweh murder case.

The list of disappeared and ritually murdered people in Maryland County is long, but nobody knows how long. When the Minister of Justice, Christiana Tah, visited the County in the wake of the recent arrests she met with citizens who told her that between 1999 and 2010, 16 people had been reported missing and are believed to be victims of ritualistic killings. The minister acknowledged ‘that there are still lots of unresolved cases of this nature.’ Meanwhile Government has deployed additional and more police officers to Maryland to ensure security in the area.

Cllr Fulton Yancy is accused of killing the 7-month pregnant Tomo Allison and pulling the unborn child out, killing the baby too. The circumstances surrounding the discovery of evidence in his home are astonishing. The Liberia National Police used the services of a witch doctor or voodoo priest who reportedly went into Mr Yancy’s house and with the ‘aid of a young girl’ discovered two bottles of blood and human parts, and the intestines of the unborn child. The woman and child were reportedly killed four months ago. The use of traditional doctors or voodoo priests to solve crimes is not new. President Samuel Doe hired a Kissi voodoo high priest Contabu who was even officially employed by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. It has been reported that citizens of Bong County are now demanding that traditional priests are employed to solve ritualistic murders in their county.

The Harper Police handling of the ritualistic case is increasingly being criticized, both by the media and individuals like Dr. James Elliot, a Liberian pathologist based in the USA. Also President Sirleaf was very outspoken. She was closely involved in the arrests and investigation. She warned local people in Maryland against ‘sassywood’ or voodoo justice.

Cllr Fulton Yancy denies any involvement in the ritual murder of Tomo Allison, her unborn baby and others. So does the other top official arrested, Dan Morias. The latter accused unnamed Liberians of attempting to destroy his ambitions to become a Senator in the forthcoming elections of 2011.

Dan Morias is not an unknown in Liberian politics. The former Superintendent of Maryland County and Interior Minister was a close ally of warlord-president Charles Taylor and also on good terms with Taylor’s successor Guyde Bryant – who hails from Maryland County - and since he was nominated Special Envoy by President Sirleaf I assume that Morias also enjoys (enjoyed??) President Sirleaf’s confidence.

I remember that in 2008 Morias' name was mentioned at a TRC hearing. Survivors recounted before the Truth and Reconciliation Committee the massacre of 369 civilians in 2003. In that year, militiamen loyal to Charles Taylor rounded up 369 inhabitants of Glaro and massacred them at various locations in River Gee County, which borders Maryland County. The killings, witnesses said, were executed by fighters of the ‘Mountain Lions Brigade’ under the supervision of former Maryland County Superintendent Morias and General William Sumo.

The definition of rule of law is a complicated issue and I will not attempt to provide one here. Nevertheless, a basic principle is that ‘Nobody is guilty unless found guilty after a fair trial.’ But who is meanwhile protecting ordinary people - men, women, children, babies even unborn -their basic human rights, in particular their right to freedom of fear?

Not only in Liberia this basic question remains increasingly unanswered, also in Uganda and South Africa, to name but two countries where new cases of ritual killings continue to emerge, criminals get away with their heinous crimes, and impunity is rather common than exception.

I am afraid the last statement of my March 24 posting is more valid than ever.