Kouwenhoven cleared of war crimes
A Dutch appeals court has acquitted businessman Guus Kouwenhoven of arms smuggling and war crimes. The public prosecutor had demanded a 20-year prison term, but the court judged there was insufficient evidence against him. The witnesses' statements were too contradictory, it said. By Thijs Bouwknegt
The court in The Hague cleared Dutch wood trader Guus Kouwenhoven of accusations of complicity in war crimes, and of arms smuggling in Liberia. It ruled that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate Mr Kouwenhoven's share in the atrocities during the Liberian civil war (1989-2003). The judge criticised the public prosecutor for delivering "sloppy work". Witnesses' declarations were deemed inconsistent and contradictory.
A spokesperson for the public prosecutor admitted in a reaction that it is very difficult to find reliable witnesses in a country that has just overcome a civil war and a state of anarchy. Mr Kouwenhoven was both emotional and relieved following the verdict. He said he had been very surprised by the severe punishment that had been demanded.
Two weeks before, the prosecutor had demanded a 20-year jail term and a 450,000 euro fine for illegally supplying weapons to militias led by his friend, former president Charles Taylor, in 2002 and 2003. Using the weapons, these militias are reported to have committed serious war crimes.
In June 2006, Guus Kouwenhoven found guilty of the charges and handed an eight-year sentence. At that time the judges thought there was sufficient proof that Mr Kouwenhoven had broken the UN arms embargo against Liberia. But they stopped short of declaring him guilty of war crimes.
Both the public prosecutor and Mr Kouwenhoven's lawyer, Inez Weski, lodged appeals. Ms Weski would not accept the eight-year sentence for arms trading, and the prosecutor was unhappy about Kouwenhoven being cleared of war crimes accusations. The accused was allowed to await the trial outside prison.
Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor is appearing before the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He has been charged with crimes against humanity, war crimes and human rights violations in the neighbouring country. In Sierra Leone he supported the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front, who were notorious for randomly chopping off civilians' arms and legs. Mr Taylor was asked by Mr Kouwenhoven's defence counsel to act as a witness. But he refused to speak up for his friend.
Charles Taylor invaded the country in 1989 and became president in 1997. His regime was characterised by chaos and systematic violations of human rights. A new civil war broke out in 1999, prompting the UN Security Council to declare an arms embargo against Liberia in 2001.
The Liberian wars cost the lives of an estimated 300,000 people. Charles Taylor was forced to resign in 2003.
'Mr Gus,' as Guus Kouwenhoven is known in Liberia, arrived in the country in 1983 and established close ties with the then President Samuel Doe. Soon he became director of the luxurious Africa Hotel in the capital Monrovia. Under Mr Doe's successor Charles Taylor, the Dutchman's business continued to flourish. The merciless rebel leader and the Dutch businessman became close friends.
For his companies, the Oriental Timber Company and the Royal Timber Company, Mr Kouwenhoven quickly obtained a lucrative concession for the felling of tropical wood. In 2003, he and Taylor were the richest men of Liberia.
In 2002 and 2003, Mr Kouwenhoven's wood-carrying ships brought considerable quantities of arms on their return trips to Liberia. Though Buchanan port, which was entirely controlled by Mr Kouwenhoven's private militias, the arms could easily be smuggled into the country.
11 March 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands 2008]