Former Liberian president Charles Taylor was grilled by prosecutors about bank transfers which they say allowed Mr. Taylor to secretly buy weapons while his country was under a United Nations arms embargo. Mr. Taylor said he could not remember specifically what the money was used for.
The questioning followed a surprising start to the day with Mr. Taylor failing to appear in court. Defense counsel for the former president said Mr. Taylor had reported a security breach in his jail cell and refused to appear at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in time for the trial to start. His counsel, Morris Anyah, told the court that security officers at the detention center had tampered with Mr. Taylor’s confidential documents during their routine inspection of his cell. As the documents were in excess of a million pages, Mr. Taylor thought he needed about a week to cross-check all his materials. The judges refused and ordered Mr. Taylor to appear.
When Mr. Taylor arrived, prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian sought to expose how Mr. Taylor’s Liberian government purchased arms and ammunition in violation of a United Nations arms embargo on Liberia. Mr. Koumjian went through portions of a United Nations Expert report which accused Mr. Taylor and his government of busting UN sanctions, as well as involvement in Sierra Leone’s conflict.
Mr. Koumjian, reading from the UN report told Mr. Taylor that in October 2000, the Bureau of Maritime Affairs transferred 150,000 USD into a bank in Dubai and the said money was used for “sanction busting.”
“Did you know about this?” Mr. Koumjian asked Mr. Taylor.
“Not specifically,” Mr. Taylor responded.
Mr. Koumjian also told Mr. Taylor that during his administration as president of Liberia, a letter originating from the Liberian Ministry of Finance instructed Mr. John Teng, the General Manager of Oriental Timber Company (OTC) in Liberia, to transfer 500,000 USD into a bank in Switzerland. The money, Mr. Koumjian said, was OTC’s tax payment to the Liberian government.
“Were you familiar with this instruction to transfer this tax amount not to the Central Bank of Liberia or the Ministry of Finance but to a Swiss Bank?” Mr. Koumjian asked Mr. Taylor.
In his response, the former president said that “I wouldn’t say specifically but generally, yes.”
Asked what he meant by that response, Mr. Taylor explained that “a letter from the Ministry of Finance to Mr. Teng would have gone through some clearing from the presidency.”
When asked what the money was meant for, Mr. Taylor said that “I do not know. I cannot recollect specifically. All I can say is that an amount like that will need some presidential clearance.”
According to the UN report, Mr. Taylor’s government provided money to Mr. Sanjivan Ruprah, the former Deputy Commissioner of the Bureau of Maritime Affairs in Liberia. As Mr. Koumjian pointed out today, Mr. Ruprah was described by the UN Sanctions Committee on Liberia as “Businessman, Arms dealer in contravention of UNSC resolution 1343. Supported former president Taylor’s regime in effort to destabilize Sierra Leone and gain illicit access to diamonds.”
Mr. Taylor admitted knowing Mr. Ruprah, saying that Mr. Ruprah was an “ambassador at large for Liberia and worked for the Maritime Bureau.” He said that he approved Mr. Ruprah’s diplomatic status.
Mr. Taylor, however, added that he does not know every detail of Mr. Ruprah’s life. Asked if he has been honest about his knowledge of Mr. Ruprah, the former president said that “yes, what I have said is what I know. I do not know every detail of Mr. Ruprah’s life.”
Mr. Koumjian pointed out that according to the January 7 2008 testimony of the prosecution’s expert witness Ian Smilie who was also a member of the UN Panel of Experts, when Mr. Taylor was asked by the UN Panel whether he knew Mr. Ruprah, the former president had said that he does not know him.
“You know that Smilie and I disagree. I disagree with Smilie’s account. I would know of him but I would not know him personally,” Mr. Taylor responded.
“I don’t know Mr. Ruprah, I don’t know him personally. If you bring him now as big as this building, I would not know him,” he added.
The former president also denied Mr. Koumjian’s assertion that in 1999-2000, he authorized the disbursement of 1 million USD to Mr. Ruprah for the purchase of arms and ammunition.
“I did not authorize money to him to buy arms. I would have authorized money to him but the details of it, I do not know. I do not recall the details of why these amounts were paid. All I can say is that I authorized them,” Mr. Taylor said.
“Are you saying you do not know how a million dollars of your country’s money was spent?” Mr. Koumjian enquired further.
The formed president maintained that he could not recall what the money was meant for.
Prosecutors have been seeking to discredit Mr. Taylor’s credibility as a witness, trying to convince the judges that his testimony cannot be relied upon because the former president has not been truthful in his accounts. From July to November 2009, Mr. Taylor testified as a witness in his own defense during which he denied providing support for Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels in Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor denied providing arms and ammunition to RUF rebels, arguing that his government did not have money to purchase arms for his country and so could not have provided any to RUF rebels. The former president also denied sending monies to various banks in foreign countries. Prosecutors now seek to prove that the former president has not been telling the truth.
Also referenced in the UN report today was an interview with former Ivorian leader, the late General Robert Guei, who himself took power by a military coup in Ivory Coast. According to the report, Gen. Guei told that Panel that shortly after the 1999 coup which brought him to power in Ivory Coast, he had requested and received arms and ammunition from Mr. Taylor in Liberia. Mr. Taylor admitted that he had indeed sent arms and ammunition to Gen. Guei in Ivory Coast.
“We sent some of the Ivorians in Liberia and they carried the light arms and ammunition to Ivory Coast,” Mr. Taylor said.
Prosecutors have alleged that as president of Liberia, Mr. Taylor sent arms and ammunition to RUF rebels in Sierra Leone which were used to commit heinous crimes against the people of Sierra Leone. Mr. Taylor has maintained that while he was president, he did not have arms for his own country and so could not have provided any to foreign forces. Prosecutors now seek to prove that he provided said arms to forces outside Liberia, such as those given to Ivorian forces.
Mr. Taylor’s cross-examination continues tomorrow.