Monday, June 18, 2007

Former Liberian leader's personal fortune still exists, panel suggests

DAKAR, Senegal: When Charles Taylor's long-awaited trial on 11 war crimes and crimes against humanity opened in The Hague on June 4, Taylor upended the proceedings by refusing to appear, saying he was too poor to afford his own defense and unhappy with the one provided by the court, despite having amassed a personal fortune estimated at half a billion dollars while in power in Liberia.

But a confidential report by a panel of experts advising the UN Security Council suggests that Taylor may still have access to considerable wealth, salted away in investments in Nigeria and Liberia.

The Nigerian government refused to allow the panel, a group of financial analysts and specialists in the timber and diamond trades, to travel to Nigeria to investigate Taylor's finances, according to the report. Nor have Nigeria and Liberia frozen assets believed to be connected to Taylor, in part because they have not done so for several other prominent local officials whose assets the United Nations has said should be frozen as well.

The report, which was sent to the Security Council on Wednesday, found evidence documenting payments Taylor received during his presidency from a timber company that was connected to an arms dealer convicted last year in a Dutch court of smuggling weapons for Taylor.

There was also evidence suggesting that Taylor retained links to one of Liberia's biggest cellphone companies.

Taylor's claims of penury are a surprising turn of events for a man believed to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from Liberia and neighboring Sierra Leone, which he dragged into a civil war that lasted more than a decade. Taylor built a fortune in kickbacks from sales of the rich array of natural resources from both countries.

A court spokesman said that Taylor still had a court-appointed lawyer, Karim Khan, and that although Taylor said in a letter to the court on June 4 that he was firing Khan, he cannot. Only the court can make that change, the spokesman said. Taylor also said in his letter that he wanted to defend himself. But for that he will have to ask the court's permission, and it may not be given, the spokesman said.

The court spokesman also said that a second defense lawyer was expected to join Khan. The Taylor defense team, paid by the court, at present includes two legal assistants and two researchers.

No one knows what happened to Taylor's money. In the Nigerian city of Calabar, where Taylor lived in exile for three years under a deal in which he gave up power in 2003, he lived in style with a handful of luxurious villas for himself and his entourage.

In an earlier report last year, the UN panel of experts said evidence suggested that Taylor had "made significant investments in Nigeria, such as in real estate," the report said.

But efforts to trace his fortune have bumped up against resistance in Nigeria, where the panel of experts says he has made a number of investments, and Liberia, where he is connected, through intermediaries, to one of the country's biggest cellphone networks.

When Taylor was arrested as he tried to flee Nigeria last March, he had with him a large amount of cash, but that money has also disappeared, the report said.

In his time as a warlord and later as president of Liberia, Taylor extracted millions in exchange for tax breaks and a wide range of other favors for businessmen who hauled off billions' worth of treasure from Sierra Leone and Liberia in the nearly two decades they spent embroiled in interconnected civil wars.

He built his first fortune as a government official in the 1980s, pocketing close to $1 million before fleeing an embezzling charge. He ended up in the United States, where he was arrested for extradition to Liberia but mysteriously escaped a Massachusetts prison.

After several years of wandering around Africa, including a spell in a Libyan militia training camp, he launched his offensive on Liberia from Ivory Coast in 1989. By wresting control of the most mineral- and timber-rich regions of the country, he gained, by some estimates, $100 million a year in the early 1990s.

The report details one such deal between Taylor and Natura Holding, which hauled thousands of tons of hardwoods from Liberia during the civil war. According to a 2001 statement of account from the Ministry of Finance of Liberia unearthed by researchers, a subsidiary of the timber company, Natura, was credited for paying $2 million in taxes on July 17, 2000. The next day, a deposit from Natura for almost the same amount appeared in Taylor's personal account, according to a bank statement.

"Millions more may have been deposited into Taylor's accounts, but definitive information on the ownership of these bank accounts has been difficult to obtain," the report said.

He is believed to have entered into similar deals with Oriental Timber, which was partly owned by Guus van Kouwenhoven, a Dutch businessman convicted in a Dutch court in 2006 of smuggling arms for Taylor. He was but one of a number of businessmen suspected of helping funnel arms for Taylor's insurgents and later his army to fuel the civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Former Liberian leader's personal fortune still exists, panel suggests - International Herald Tribune