An international timber trader who used his business as cover for smuggling weapons into West Africa in defiance of a UN arms embargo has been sentenced to 19 years in prison.
Guus Kouwenhoven, 74, was convicted by the Dutch appeal court of being an accessory to war crimes and arms trafficking for selling weapons to Liberia’s then President Charles Taylor during civil wars that involved mass atrocities, the use of child soldiers and sexual slavery.
He had denied the charges.
Kouwenhoven, whose past exploits include deportation from the US in the 1970s for trying to sell stolen Rembrandt paintings, was not in court for the ruling.
The campaign group Global Witness, which investigates corruption and environmental despoliation, said it believed the case was the first war crimes conviction for a businessman profiting from conflict resources.
Global Witness gathered evidence about his company, the Oriental Timber Company, which Dutch prosecutors cited when they initially brought charges against him more than a decade ago.
The case against Kouwenhoven, who was born in Rotterdam, has been fought for years through the Dutch courts, reaching the Supreme Court before eventually being sent back to the appeal court for a retrial.
The Oriental Timber Company gained trading concessions from Taylor when he was President of Liberia at a time when conflict between rival militias spilled over into neighbouring Sierra Leone, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives.
Shipments for Kouwenhoven’s timber operation in Liberia carried caches of hidden arms between 2000 and 2003.
“These weapons were used by Taylor in an armed conflict with rebels, in which over a period of many years countless civilians were victimised,” the Dutch judges said in a written summary of their ruling.
Kouwenhoven “has right up to the present day denied the facts and not given any clarity about his motives”, they added. His conviction would serve as an example to others that do business with governments such as Taylor’s “that they can thereby become involved in serious war crimes”.
Taylor, who was subsequently extradited to face trial at an international tribunal in The Hague, was sentenced in 2012 to 50 years in prison for aiding and abetting war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone. He is currently serving his sentence in a British jail.
Patrick Alley, the director of Global Witness said: “This verdict sends a clear message to those who profit from war.
They can and will be held to account. If you buy natural resources like timber in full knowledge that you’re helping to fund a conflict or trafficking arms, there’s only a cheque book between your company and the murder of thousands of people, in this case 250,000.”
Alley said that some of Kouwenhoven’s exported Liberian timber had been bought by blue-chip European timber companies.
“We believe this is the first case where a buying conflict resource has resulted in a war crimes conviction,” Alley said.
Report by Owen Bowcott, The Guardian