Arms Dealer Bust Embargoes With Impunity


By Arthur Max

June 11, 2006

"Mr. Gus" was a flamboyant figure in West Africa. He hosted champagne parties, backslapped with cabinet ministers and rebel generals, flew his helicopter to war zones and barely hid the fact that he was trading arms for timber. On Wednesday, a Dutch national court sentenced Guus Kouwenhoven, 64, to eight years in prison for breaking a U.N. weapons embargo. It acquitted him of war crimes.

Kouwenhoven's is a rare case of justice delivered. U.N. investigators and human rights activists say hundreds more embargo busters are trading weapons for wealth with impunity. The Kouwenhoven trial - the second war crimes case in the Netherlands in a year - demonstrated a newfound determination by some countries to pursue businessmen who fuel and finance civil wars, rebellions and tribal conflicts in faraway lands.

But as an isolated success, it underscored the difficulty of jailing the money men who enable the wars that have killed hundreds of thousands in Africa and trouble spots around the world. Kouwenhoven's example is "still very rare," said Alex Vines, who investigated the Dutchman as a member of a U.N. panel from 2001 to 2003. "The evidence needed to achieve a successful prosecution is very high."

Some names repeatedly appear in reports about illicit dealers. Suspected Russian arms trader Viktor Bout allegedly has been trafficking weapons to Central and West Africa since the early 1990s. U.N. reports say he set up a network of more than 50 aircraft around the world. Though Bout has been investigated by police in several countries, he has never been prosecuted for arms dealing.

But he is among more than 60 people under a U.N. travel ban for their association with former Liberian President Charles Taylor. Kouwenhoven was arrested shortly after returning to the Netherlands in 2005. The U.N. Security Council has imposed arms embargoes on Somalia, Ivory Coast, the Darfur region of Sudan, and several provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The embargo on Liberia is to be lifted later this year.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court created in 2002 to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity, said early in his tenure he would consider pressing charges against businessmen suspected of financing serious crimes. But he has quietly backed away in the face of the difficulties.

The Netherlands has invoked "universal jurisdiction" to prosecute businessmen implicated in war crimes: Dutchman Frans van Anraat in December became the only European businessman convicted so far of war crimes when he was jailed for 15 years for selling banned chemicals to Saddam Hussein's regime.

Examples of suspected traders evading prosecution are easier to find. Italy arrested Ukrainian-born Leonid Minin, an Israeli citizen living in Milan, in 2001 on suspicion of dealing in so-called conflict diamonds and timber.

Italian prosecutors traced nearly 200 tons of assault and sniper rifles and grenade launchers and 9 million rounds of ammunition shipped from Ukrainian suppliers to Liberia using false end-user certificates, shell companies and phantom airlines, according to a summary by Amnesty International. But an Italian court found it had no jurisdiction since the illegal shipments did not pass through Italy. Minin was later fined $51,000 for illegally possessing $636,750 in diamonds.

Global Witness, a private group that gathered much of the evidence in the Kouwenhoven trial, said it is hoping to reopen the case against Minin with new documents. The London-based group investigates the trade in arms for natural resources. Beyond merchants like Kouwenhoven, who flaunt their power and connections, are 300 to 400 more businessmen quietly engaged in illegal weapons trading, said Alex Yearsley, a Global Witness activist.

"There's a whole other strata that no one really knows about," Yearsley said. "They are more skilled operators, not so brazen." Yearsley said prosecutors also should focus on the lawyers, bankers and money managers who set up and run the complex businesses and launder the profits, arguing that the traffic would wither if "there was no place to hide their ill-gotten gains."

Vines said the Kouwenhoven conviction may have a deterrent effect, but it may drive the arms trade even further underground. "As the price goes up, I suspect investigations will get more difficult," he said. "People are getting more careful."

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