Page last updated at 16:47 GMT, Monday, 10 March 2008

Profile: Guus van Kouwenhoven

Guus van Kouwenhoven
Kouwenhoven went from importing luxury cars to selling timber
A Dutch appeals court has acquitted timber merchant Guus van Kouwenhoven of smuggling arms to former Liberian President Charles Taylor in exchange for logging rights.

He was convicted in 2006 of selling weapons to Mr Taylor's government between 2001-03 in violation of a UN embargo, but acquitted of war crimes charges.

The weapons he had allegedly smuggled were used by militias to commit atrocities against civilians in West Africa.

The appeals court overturned the weapons conviction, saying the prosecution witnesses who linked Mr van Kouwenhoven to arms dealing were unreliable.

Entrepreneurial figure

Mr van Kouwenhoven was born and brought up in Rotterdam.

After military service he went into business, "starting with tax-free cars for Nato personnel and moving on to bulk supplies of rice from South-east Asia", according to a report in the Independent newspaper in London.

It said that by the 1970s he was an entrepreneurial figure on the international scene, and was spotted at diplomatic parties in Beirut and Los Angeles.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor
Kouwenhoven became a business associate of Charles Taylor

His career nearly ended in LA, when he was caught in an FBI sting trying to sell stolen paintings, including a Rembrandt, and sentenced to two years, the Independent says.

He served 17 days and was deported, before resurfacing in Liberia in the late 1980s during the time of the late President Samuel Doe.

He settled in the country, marrying a Liberian woman with whom he had children.

At first, he ran a business importing luxury cars and oversaw the revival of the Hotel Africa near Monronia, which became popular with international businessmen.

Later, during the country's civil war, the Hotel Africa was reduced to a shell - but it was reportedly still frequented by Europeans in the business of running guns or smuggling diamonds.

It was not until 2000, when Charles Taylor was running the country, that Mr von Kouwenhoven became a key player at the Malaysian-based Oriental Timber Company - the largest single foreign investor in Liberia - and director of the country's Royal Timber Company.

Operating under various names, OTC exported tonnes of Liberia's tropical hardwoods to places as far apart as France and China, using its own fleet of ships.

Letters entered as court exhibits indicated that Mr van Kouwenhoven brought Mr Taylor's regime millions of dollars in profits from the logging trade.

Allegations surface

In 2000, the UN said the businessman was part of Mr Taylor's "inner circle".

The UN's Expert Panel Report on Sierra Leone, whose own civil war was closely linked to that in Liberia, alleged Mr van Kouwenhoven was closely involved in arms smuggling.

Logs - file photo
The UN eventually banned the export of Liberian timber

"Guus van Kouwenhoven," the report summarised, "was responsible for the logistical aspects of many of the arms deals.

"Through his interests in a Malaysian timber company project in Liberia, he organises the transfer of weaponry from Monrovia into Sierra Leone."

OTC was based in the port city of Buchanan, which, according to lobby group Global Witness, had become a primary location for arms imports by sea.

It was his activities as a timber merchant that brought him to the attention of Global Witness, which campaigns to expose the link between natural resource plunder and human rights abuse.

Pressure was stepped up for Mr van Kouwenhoven's arrest and the UN placed a travel ban on him. He remained elusive and sought refuge in Congo.

Despite the travel ban, he travelled regularly to residences in Europe, according to Global Witness, and was arrested at a train station in Rotterdam in March 2005.

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