Viktor Bout For Brittney Grinner: A Prisoner Exchange That Forgets Liberia

Viktor Bout, born in former Soviet Union, was once the world’s most infamous arms dealer. He was accused to have fueled many wars across the world, in particular in Liberia. In 2012 he was sentenced to 25 years in jail by a U.S. court. Now he may be released in exchange of American basketball player Brittney Grinner and an ex-marine detained in Russia.

According to CNN, the United States has proposed a prisoner swap deal with Russia to release Viktor Bout, a convicted arms dealer serving a 25-year term, in exchange for Brittney Griner, the American basketball player recently sentenced to nine years by a court in Moscow for possessing and smuggling drugs, and Paul Whelan, an ex-U.S. marine serving a 16-year jail term for espionage. But Bout’s release would come as a setback for justice in Liberia, warned justice campaigners, security experts and a former UN chief prosecutor.

Bout had been active in Afghanistan, Colombia, Angola, the former Yugoslavia, Yemen, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But it was his deals with former Liberian president Charles Taylor that capped the former Soviet soldier’s career as the world’s once most notorious gunrunner.

Between 1989 and 2003, Bout sold weapons to Liberian warring factions—most notably Taylor—busting several United Nations arms embargoes. During that time, Taylor’s forces and rivals illegally exploited the country’s timber and mineral industries to buy Bout’s weapons. While Bout busted arms embargos to supply Taylor with arms and ammunition in Liberia, Taylor illegally exploited the country’s logs and minerals, and abused its huge shipping registry—the second-largest in the world—to pay Bout. The two men met personally, according to eyewitnesses cited by American journalists Douglas Farah and Stephen Braun in their 2007 book “Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible.”

Viktor Bout’s fleet of ships and airplanes transported the weapons to Liberia, using different pseudonyms and shell companies, transiting through countries like Gambia, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire and Niger. (Bout is reported to speak English, Russian, Portuguese, French, Arabic and other languages, a benefit of his training as a translator in the Soviet military.) In 2005, the United States Treasury Department said Bout controlled one of the largest networks of ships worldwide.

Taylor ran his illegal timber and arms operations with Bout mainly through Guus Kouwenhoven, a Dutch businessman who owned Oriental Timber Company (OTC) and ran the largest timber company in Liberia at the time, according to Swiss NGO TRIAL International. By 2000, the company controlled 1.6 million hectares of forestland, or 42 percent of the country’s concessional forest. In one transaction, OTC paid Taylor US$3,5 million, according to a 2002 Global Witness report. A United Nations Panel of Experts on Liberia cited a transfer of US$500,000 by OTC’s parent company in Singapore, Borneo Jaya Pte Ltd to San Air, one of Viktor Bout’s airlines.

OTC-chartered ships supplied weapons to Taylor at the Port of Buchanan three times between September and November 2001, the UN experts said. The supplies contained 7,000 boxes of ammunition, 5,000 rocket-propelled grenades, 300 howitzer shells and other equipment, according to a report by Farah in the Washington Post. Taylor’s forces protecting the company’s interest committed several human rights abuses. Liberia’s Inquirer newspaper reported in 2000 allegations that the company operated a “private prison and barracks.”

Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven (right) is the third actor to be prosecuted, along with former Liberian president Charles Taylor (left), in the judicial saga of arms and timber trafficking in war-torn Liberia.© Global Witness

Some 250,000 people were killed in the Liberian conflict, which spiraled to other countries in the region. The chaos stirred reform in the global trade of minerals and timbers, creating the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme

Source: CNN

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