Viktor Bout: How A Russian Arms Dealer Matters to Liberia

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A file picture dated 4 October 2010 of then alleged Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout inside a cell at the criminal court in Bangkok, Thailand. Picture Credit: EPA

By James Harding Giahyue with The DayLight

MONROVIA – The United States has proposed a prisoner swap deal with Russia to release Viktor Bout, the convicted arms dealer serving a 25-year term, in exchange for Brittney Griner, the American basketball player recently sentenced to nine years by a court in Moscow for possessing and smuggling drugs, and an ex-U.S. marine serving a 16-year jail term for espionage.

Freeing Bout, who played well-documented role in the First and Second Liberian civil wars, would be a setback to have him account for the crimes he allegedly committed in Liberia, security experts and justice advocates say.

Between 1989 and 2003, Bout sold weapons to Liberian warring factions—most notably former President Charles Taylor—busting several United Nations arms embargoes.  Within that time, Taylor’s forces and rivals illegally exploited the country’s timber and mineral industries to buy Bout’s weapons. Some 250,000 people were killed in the conflict, which spiraled to other countries in the region. The conflict degraded Liberia’s forest and the country became synonymous with “Logs of war” and “conflict timbers” across the world. The chaos stirred the reform in the logging sector.

In 2009, Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recommended that Bout be investigated for his role in the country’s crises but this is yet to happen more than a decade on.

“[Bout’s] possible release is a dent in the quest for justice in Liberia,” says Hassan Bility, the executive director of Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP), which helped convict Liberian war criminal Alieu Kosiah and United States immigration fraudsters Mohammed Jabbateh and the late Thomas Woewiyu whose crimes were linked to Liberian civil wars.

“His imprisonment did bring some relief and justice to Liberia. The US, in line with its interest in justice, at least did something which we appreciate,” Bility adds.

Bout was active in Afghanistan, Colombia, Angola, the former Yugoslavia, Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. But it was his deals with Taylor that capped the former Soviet soldier’s career as the world’s most notorious gunrunner—or that led to his downfall.  

While Bout busted arms embargos to supply Taylor with arms and ammunition in Liberia, Taylor illegally exploited the country’s logs and minerals and abused its huge shipping registry—the second-largest in the world—to pay Bout. The two men met personally, according to eyewitnesses cited by American journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in their 2007 book “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible.”

Earning other aliases: “Sanctions-buster,” “Lord of War” and “The McDonald’s of Armed Trafficking,” Bout broke a number of United Nations arms embargos on Liberia between 1992 and 2003. His fleet of ships and airplanes transported the weapons to Liberia, using different pseudonyms and shell companies, transiting through countries like Gambia, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger. That fitted well with his mastery of speaking English, Russian, Portuguese, French, Arabic and other languages, a benefit of his training as a translator in the Soviet military. In 2005, the United States Treasury Department said Bout controlled one of the largest networks of ships worldwide. He had ties with other gunrunners, including Sanjivan Ruprah, a Kenyan arms dealer, who was arrested in Belgium in 2002. Ruprah has stayed in Liberia and carried several Liberian passports, which identified him as the deputy commissioner of maritime affairs.

“[Bout’s] possible release is a dent in the quest for justice in Liberia… “His imprisonment did bring some relief and justice to Liberia. The US, in line with its interest in justice, at least did something which we appreciate.”

Hassan Bility, executive director of Global Justice and Research Project (GJRP).

Taylor’s illegal timber operations were equally organized. It comprised the Forestry Development Authority (FDA), the then Ministry of Mines and Energy, militiamen led by his son Chuckie Taylor, logging companies, and combatant miners. At least 17 logging firms, including Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and Exotic Tropical Timber Enterprise, played a role in illegal arms trafficking, and civil instability in Liberia, according to the TRC. A report by the UN-backed Forest Concession Review Committee found that logging companies paid US$7.9 million in Taylor’s personal account. In one transaction, OTC paid Taylor US$3-5 million, according to a 2002 Global Witness report, citing sources.

An old OTC camp in River Cess. The DayLight/Eric Opa Doue

Taylor ran his illegal operations with Bout mainly through Guus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch gunrunner, who owned OTC.  By 2000, the company controlled 1.6 million hectares of forestland, or 42 percent of the country’s concessional forest. The United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia cited a transfer of US$500,000 by OTC’s parent company in Singapore, Borneo Jaya Pte Ltd to San Air, one of Bout’s airlines. OTC-chartered ships supplied weapons to Taylor at the Port of Buchanan three times between September and November 2001. The supplies contained 7,000 boxes of ammunition, 5,000 rocket-propelled grenades, 300 howitzer shells and other equipment,  according to a report by Farah in the Washington Post. Meanwhile, OTC wasted logs to build bridges, polluted villagers’ water sources, desecrated ancestral graveyards, and, among other things, failed to fulfill promises it made to affected communities. Taylor’s forces protecting the company’s interest committed several human rights abuses. The Inquirer newspaper reported in 2000 allegations that the company operated a “private prison and barracks.” The UN imposed sanctions on Liberian timbers (and diamonds) to curtail the carnage. That sanction was only lifted after the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf agreed to reform the sector. New laws and regulations were created, a system to track logs from harvest to export was established, and communities’ benefits were guaranteed. 

Amid those things, an insurgency against Taylor’s government, coupled with international pressure and prolonged sanctions, weakened Taylor. In 2003, the Liberia United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), which had launched its rebellion against Taylor in 1999, attacked the capital. With American President George W. Bush stating he “must leave Liberia” and Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo offering him exile, Taylor resigned in August 2003.  And that marked the end of the 14 years of civil unrest.

The following year, Bout and Taylor were subjected to UN and U.S. sanctions, travel ban and assets seizure similar to the one placed on three officials of the current Liberian government. It took more than a decade for the asset freeze and travel ban to be lifted.

Bout moved on with his illegal arms deals after Taylor’s fall, surviving an International Criminal Police Organization or Interpol notice, and forgery charges in the Central African Republic. In July 2004, Bush issued an executive order, freezing the assets of Bout, Taylor, Taylor’s relatives and some members of the Liberian government. Taylor’s ex-wife and now Vice President of Liberia Jewel Howard Taylor, and opposition figure Benoni Urey were subject to the measure.

“The actions and policies of former Liberian President Charles Taylor and other persons, in particular, their unlawful depletion of Liberian resources and their removal from Liberia and secreting of Liberian funds and property, have undermined Liberia’s transition to democracy and the orderly development of its political, administrative, and economic institutions and resources,” the executive order read. The assets freeze followed a similar one by the UN Security Council earlier that year.

Bout ignored the sanctions and went on with his operations. In 2008, he was arrested in an Interpol operation in Bangkok, Thailand.  Bout had offered to supply weapons to rebels of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). It turned out the rebels were actually officers of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Royal Thai Police.

Initially, American prosecutors charged him with conspiracy to kill U.S. nationals, conspiracy to kill US officers and employees and conspiracy to provide surface-to-air missiles and other weapons to a foreign terrorist organization. But while the U.S. Justice Department pressed for Bout’s extradition from Thailand to America, prosecutors happened upon a new development. Bout had been negotiating to buy a plane on U.S. soil, which violated the sanctions Washington imposed on him and Taylor. Additional charges were filed against him: illegal purchase of aircraft, wire fraud and money laundering. He was convicted by a New York court in 2012 and sentenced to 25 years in prison, 15 years of supervised parole and forfeiture of US$15 million. The court dismissed his initial charges, saying they only originated from the deceptive operation that led to his arrest.   

That drew the curtains on the career of perhaps the world’s most infamous arms trafficker, born Viktor Anatolyevich Bout on January 13, 1967, in the former Soviet Union now Tajikistan. His life has inspired a number of documentaries, TV series and movies, including “Lord of War,” which exposed the nature of the international illicit arms trade.

Former President Charles Taylor (far left), and Guus Kouwenhoven. Picture credit: Global Witness

Bout’s conviction was followed by those of Taylor and Kouwenhoven. A UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) found him guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity in 2012 and sentenced him to 50 years in a British prison. The Netherlands-based court found Taylor aided and abetted murder, rape, conscription of child soldiers and pillage, among other crimes, in the neighboring country that killed an estimated 50,000 people. Prosecutors proved that Taylor supplied the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels with arms and ammunition in exchange for diamonds. Five years after his conviction, a Dutch court sentenced Kouwenhoven in absentia to 19 years for illegal arms trafficking and war crimes in Liberia and Guinea.  He had fled to South Africa on medical grounds. Dutch authorities tried to extradite him but a South African judge denied the motion on grounds that his crimes were not committed in the Netherlands.

Liberia’s failure to Prosecute Bout

The TRC recommended Bout face trial for alleged human rights abuses linked to the extractive sector. The allegations included illegal arms dealings, illegal extraction of natural resources, aiding and abetting economic crime actors, fraud, and tax evasion. It also recommended Taylor and Kouwenhoven face charges for war and economic crimes. 

Liberia has not prosecuted warlords living in the country for one of Africa’s bloodiest conflicts, least to mention a Russian national. Calls for Liberian war crimes court have increased since former football superstar Geroge Weah was elected president in 2018 but his government has not mustered a political will to do so.

“I would urge countries that have suffered the wars armed by Bout, like DRC, Liberia and Sierra Leone, to seek his extradition from the US,” says Patrick Alley, a campaigner at Global Witness, who investigated Menin and Ruprah. Liberia has had an extradition treaty with the United States since 1939.

There is a good chance Bout could be released in the prisoner swap. The Americans are seeking the release of Griner and Paul Whelan, another U.S. citizen and former marine, who is serving a 16-year prison term in Russia for espionage. Meanwhile, Russia wants Bout, who has not spoken a word to the Americans about an apparent link between his trafficking network and the Russian government. “No American will be exchanged unless Bout is sent home,” Steve Zissou, his U.S.-based lawyer warned last month. Russian news agency Tass reported last week, that Alexander Darchiev, the director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs, confirmed the deal.

Arthur Blundell, a security expert who worked with the U.S. government and the UN on Liberia’s forestry reform, says his release would add salt to the country’s wounds.  

“Bout in prison at least meant that he was not able to conduct his arms-trafficking and other illegal operations,” says Blundell tells The DayLight via email. “This undoubtedly saved thousands of lives in conflict zones around the world. 

“And thus, it is a sad day for countries like Liberia to see a convict go free before his prison term has been served.”  

This story was originally published by The DayLight and is being republished here by permission.  

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