Liberia: Russia-US Prisoner Swap ‘A Big Blow’ to Victims of Civil War
Monrovia – When murmurs began to surface that the United States of America was considering a proposed swap deal with Russia for the release of 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, Sam Gaye had some reservations.
By: Rodney D. Sieh
Gaye, a retired Supervisory Special Agent with both the U.S. Dept of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration, as well as a former Director, Executive Protective Services, during the reign of former President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, played a key role in the tracking and arrest of Bout as well as another Russian, Konstantin Yaroshenko who was arrested in Monrovia in May 2010 and convicted of a drug smuggling plot.
On Thursday, Gaye’s worst fears became a reality after it was announced that Griner had been swapped for Bout.
Griner, a star with the Phoenix Mecury in the US WNBA, was detained at the Sheremetyevo International Airport in Moscow for carrying illegal vape cartridges with hashish oil. She was traveling to Russia to play for the country’s premier league team UMMC Ekaterinburg during the WNBA offseason, as she did every year. She was sentenced to nine years in prison back in August and was since moved to a penal colony in the Mordovia republic in November after losing her appeal.
In August, Griner was convicted of deliberately smuggling drugs into Russia and sentenced to nine years of jail time, in a case that raised concerns that she was being used as a political pawn in Russia’s war against Ukraine.
US President Joe Biden, under pressure to seek Griner’s release, said recently that the process to bring the 32-year-old home involved “painstaking and intense negotiations,” without going into too many details.
On the eve of Griner’s release, President Biden said: “This is a day we’ve worked toward for a long time. We never stopped pushing for her release,” as he declared that Griner would be on U.S. soil in the “next 24 hours.”
Following the announcement Monday that the deal between Russia and the US had become a reality, Gaye’s worst fears came to life.
Gaye told FrontPageAfrica shortly after Griner’s release that while he sympathizes with her ordeal, the swap put a lot of agents who was involved in the capture of Bout at risk.
Said Gaye: “The release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a US/Russia prisoner swap is a big blow to international cooperation. Viktor Bout is a dangerous Russian former intelligence officer. He was responsible for supplying Charles Taylor with sophisticated weapons in violation of UN embargo during the Liberian civil war. Bout was on US intelligence radar as illegal arms dealer who will supply anyone in need of high tech weaponry. So, we used a confidential informant to contact him with a proposal to buy weapons for war.”
Gaye said Bout wasted no time to offer his services. “We lured him from Russia to Thailand, where he negotiated with undercover agents to supply surface to air missile to Colombian rebel group FARC, in order to kill Americans. Armed with this evidence, Bout was arrested in Thailand and turned over to US agents.”
Due to his role in the arrest of both Bout and Yaroshenko, Gaye has become a target of the Kremlin and was among scores of people placed on Russian sanctions last year.
Bout’s well-documented role in the First and Second Liberian civil wars and his subsequent release from custody, is seen by some as a setback in terms of having him account for the crimes he committed in Liberia.
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.
It was Bout’s initiatives that proved helpful in transporting weapons to Liberia, through several West African countries.
The release of notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in a US/Russia prisoner swap is a big blow to international cooperation. Viktor Bout is a dangerous Russian former intelligence officer. He was responsible for supplying Charles Taylor with sophisticated weapons in violation of UN embargo during the Liberian civil war. Bout was on US intelligence radar as illegal arms dealer who will supply anyone in need of high-tech weaponry. So, we used a confidential informant to contact him with a proposal to buy weapons for war. He wasted no time to offer his services. We lured him from Russia to Thailand, where he negotiated with undercover agents to supply surface to air missile to Colombian rebel group FARC, to kill Americans.– SAM GAYE, Supervisory Special Agent (Retired), U.S. Dept of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration, Former Director, Executive Protective Services, Liberia –
At the time, Bout who had closed ties to Taylor and the Dutch businessman, Guus Kouwenhoven, owner of Oriental Timber Company (OTC), ran the largest timber company in Liberia.
In 2002, a 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 Viktor Bout’s airlines. OTC-chartered ships supplied weapons to Taylor at the Port of Buchanan three times between September and November 2001, the UN experts said.
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. Taylor’s forces protecting the company’s interest committed several human rights abuses. Liberia’s Inquirer newspaper reported in 2000 allegations that the company operated a “private prison and barracks.”
This is not the first time that the US and Russia have exchange prisoners with ties to Liberia.
In April, the two countries swapped prisoners amid their most tense relations in decades over the war in Ukraine, with former US Marine Trevor Reed released in exchange for Russian pilot Konstantin
Yaroshenko, who was arrested in Liberia in 2010.
At the time, US officials said President Biden commuted the sentence of Yaroshenko. Russia had proposed a prisoner swap for Yaroshenko in July 2019 in exchange for the release of any American. The swap occurred in Turkey, and the United States thanked Turkey, a NATO ally, for its help in the exchange. Russian news agencies reported that Yaroshenko then flew from Ankara to Sochi and finally to Moscow.
For Gaye, the Bout/Griner swap marks the second high level prisoner swap with ties to Liberia. “These guys belong in jail. But I understand the political considerations in all of this.”