Dutch national faces eight year prison sentence for arms trading in Liberia

A Dutch businessman begins an eight year prison sentence on Wednesday after a Dutch court found him guilty of violating a UN arms embargo on Liberia, officials said.

Guus Kouwenhoven, 64, was given the maximum prison sentence for providing weapons to former Liberian President Charles Taylor but acquitted of other charges of war crimes in that country for lack of evidence.

It is the first time a court in Europe has convicted a national for breaking a UN arms embargo.

The court in The Hague found that Kouwenhoven as managing director of Liberia’s main timber firm, the Oriental Timber Company (OTC), had illegally imported weapons by sea between 2001 and 2003, to support Taylor’s embattled regime despite a long-standing UN arms embargo on Liberia.

The accused had “acted willingly and knowingly in breach of international law [and] contributed significantly to violations of international peace and to the destabilization and insecurity in the region”, Dutch press reports quoted Judge Roel van Rossum as saying.

But the court said there was insufficient evidence to convict Kouwenhoven of war crimes. According to prosecutors, militias of the timber company had used the weapons to indiscriminately kill civilians including children.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 Liberians died in the 14 years of civil war that ended when international pressure forced former rebel leader Taylor to step down in August 2003.

Taylor is currently in the custody of the UN-backed Special Court in Sierra Leone, which neighbours Liberia, where he has been indicted for war crimes.

Prosecutors had demanded a 20-year prison sentence and a 450,000 euro ($577,000) fine for Kouwenhoven, arguing that he had benefited financially from the arms deals. Kouwenhoven pleaded not guilty.

Environmental group Global Witness, which helped bring details of Kouwenhoven’s close cooperation with Taylor to light, said in a statement it welcomed the conviction.

“The barbaric regime of Charles Taylor was financed and maintained by the revenues generated from the timber trade, in which Kouwenhoven was the biggest player,” the statement said.

“This conviction will send a stark warning to individuals who feel that they can profit with impunity from trading in a conflict region.”

PB/ SS