Mandela charity ex-boss says not guilty to 'blood diamonds'

15th June 2011, Comments 0 comments

The former head of the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund pleaded not guilty Wednesday to keeping rough diamonds that proved pivotal in the war crimes trial of ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Jeremy Ractliffe, once chief executive of Mandela's Children's Fund, told a Johannesburg court that he was innocent because he did not know the three stones were diamonds, apparently given by Taylor to supermodel Naomi Campbell in 1997.

"I have pleaded not guilty because in my mind I did not believe that my possession of the stones, if they are shown to be diamonds, was in any way unlawful," Ractliffe said in a statement read in court by his lawyer, Mike Hellens.

"I did not know that they were diamonds. I merely knew that they were said to be diamonds," he said.

"In addition, I did not know that it would be unlawful for me -- either at all, or in particular in the circumstances in which I came to be holding these diamonds for and behalf of Naomi Campbell -- for it to be a criminal offense for me to hold such diamonds for her."

Ractliffe faces up to 10 years in prison and a 250,000 rand ($37,000, 25,650 euro) fine if convicted of violating a South African law that forbids the possession of uncut diamonds without a licence.

He stepped down from the board of the Children's Fund 12 days after acknowledging he had kept the diamonds for more than a decade, telling officials about them only when the stones came under the spotlight at the special Sierra Leone tribunal in The Hague.

Police have already determined that the gems are diamonds.

The existence of the stones had gone unnoticed for more than a decade, until Campbell took the stand last year at The Hague to testify in Taylor's trial for arming Sierra Leone rebels who paid him in "blood diamonds", which are from a conflict zone.

Campbell testified that she had received a pouch of "dirty-looking stones" as a late-night gift she assumed came from Taylor after a 1997 dinner hosted by then-president Mandela.

She told judges she gave the three uncut diamonds to Ractliffe, then the chief executive of the Children's Fund, to "do something good with."

After Campbell's testimony at The Hague, Ractliffe confirmed that Campbell gave him the stones on September 26, 1997, as they and other guests of Mandela were on the luxurious Blue Train.

Campbell had wanted the fund to use them but Ractliffe said he did not want to involve the charity in any possible illegal activities.

"In the end I decided I should just keep them," he said last year.

Taylor is still awaiting a verdict after his trial at The Hague closed on March 11.

War crimes prosecutors wanted to link Taylor to the gift to Campbell to back claims that he had taken a consignment of uncut diamonds to South Africa to sell or exchange for weapons for Sierra Leone rebels.

The first African head of state to face an international tribunal, Taylor pleaded not guilty to 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity on claims that he armed Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in exchange for illegally mined "blood diamonds".

His trial heard gruesome testimony from victims of the Sierra Leone conflict, including a witness who said he pleaded with RUF rebels to cut off his remaining hand so they would spare his toddler son.

© 2011 AFP

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