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  • The San Juan Daily Star

In Liberia and across Africa, Viktor Bout’s bloody legacy is still felt

A photo provided by the U.S. Department of Justice shows Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arriving on Nov. 16, 2010 in White Plains, N.Y., from Thailand after he was arrested in a sting operation.

By Ruth MacLean and Dounard Bondo

He trafficked weapons to rebels in Angola. He ran a criminal group that smuggled cobalt out of Congo. He delivered missiles, machine guns and military helicopters to Liberia, when it was in the middle of a civil war.

But convicted Russian arms smuggler Viktor Bout, released by the United States last week in exchange for American basketball star Brittney Griner, was never held to account for any of the acts that have been documented over the years by experts at the United Nations. Instead, he was arrested in a sting operation in Bangkok in 2008 by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informants posing as Colombian revolutionaries, and then convicted of conspiring to kill Americans.

While he was greeted on his arrival back in Russia last week as a “wonderful person,” many of the African victims of the conflicts he supplied with weapons are still enduring the trauma and awaiting any kind of justice.

“This guy’s responsible for the murder, indirectly, of thousands of persons,” said Hassan Bility, director of the Global Justice and Research Project, an organization that documents wartime atrocities in his country, Liberia.

Bout had a network of more than 50 planes that were constantly involved in “arms shipments from Eastern Europe into African war zones,” according to the United Nations.

Bout has not responded yet to an interview request. But speaking to The New York Times in 2003, Bout first said that he didn’t know that what he was delivering were arms. And then he changed tack.

“Illegal weapons?” he said. “What does that mean? If rebels control an airport and a city, and they give you clearance to land, what’s illegal about that?”

One of the war zones where the United Nations flagged arms shipments was Liberia. Bout supplied weapons to Charles Taylor, a former president of Liberia, said Stephen J. Rapp, who as prosecutor of the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone led the prosecution of Taylor, which ultimately ended in his war crimes conviction for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone.

Among them was 1992’s Operation Octopus, in which child and teenage soldiers laid siege to the Liberian capital and thousands of people were killed within a month.

“The way Taylor fought his wars was not by going out and shooting combatants on the other side,” said Rapp. “It was through these violent acts against civilian populations. And so, if you were supplying arms to Taylor, you had a fair sense that they were going to be used in this ‘make them fearful’ — as he would say — kind of fighting.”

For Joshua Kulah, who was 9 when Liberia’s second civil war ended in 2003, that fear is seared in his memory. Kulah, now a 28-year-old lawyer, said that he had friends who were forced to become child soldiers by soldiers and rebels, and cousins and friends who died on the front line. He remembered his parents hiding him every time armed men came to the neighborhood, in case he were abducted and forced to fight, too.

Kulah said he was “indifferent” to Bout’s release because he blamed the people who used the guns, not those who sold them.

But Bility said his organization would begin building a complete dossier on the arms dealer’s activities in Liberia that could be used in a case against him, “and then just wait” for him to leave Russia so he could be extradited or charged elsewhere.

Almost everyone in Liberia suffered one way or another. One woman, now 44, remembered the war Bout supplied weapons to as “just hardship.” Her family had no food, she said, and had to walk for hours to find something to eat.

The woman’s family was already traumatized by the events of the first civil war (1989-97), in which her uncle was killed by rebel forces fighting for Prince Johnson, another warlord. Johnson is best known for ordering the murder of President Samuel Doe in 1990 and drinking beer while watching as he was tortured. But today Johnson is a powerful senator who has such an important political following that he repeatedly plays kingmaker in Liberian presidential elections.

The woman whose uncle was killed wanted to remain anonymous, 32 years later, for fear of repercussions. Johnson’s political power and the fear he still inspires are part of the reason that thousands of victims of the Liberian civil wars have never seen any kind of justice, Bility said.

He said that the release of Bout was “difficult,” but that he would not criticize the United States for it when that country had repeatedly tried to hold to account the Liberian rebels who fled there, while hundreds of war criminals back in Liberia walk free.

“The United States — when it comes to justice — has done more” than Liberia, he said. “Way, way, way more.”

For years, Liberian survivors of the wars, human rights advocates and some politicians have pushed for the creation of a war crimes court — something that was recommended by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But successive governments have resisted it.

Among the commission’s recommendations: investigate Bout.

Initially, George Weah, the former international soccer star who today is president of the West African country, endorsed the creation of the court. But, recently, he has gone silent on the subject.

With African leaders convening this week in Washington for a high-level summit, Bility called on President Joe Biden to speak with Weah about establishing such a court.

Rapp, the prosecutor, said that Bout’s conviction had been a little like that of Al Capone, the Chicago mobster who was eventually jailed for tax evasion — not murder or bootlegging or racketeering.

“I’d prefer that somebody other than Viktor Bout was traded,” Rapp said. “But the fact that he’s done almost 15 years of his 25-year sentence is some solace. Al Capone only did eight.”

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