Businessman Michel Desaedeleer was arrested this week in Spain for enslavement and pillage during the conflict in Sierra Leone. Desaedeleer, who has both American and Belgian citizenship, is suspected of involvement in the “blood diamond” trade that financed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group in Sierra Leone. He will be extradited to Belgium for trial under Belgian criminal law.
Together with the RUF and former Liberian President Charles Taylor, Desaedeleer allegedly participated in a scheme to illegally mine diamonds in the district of Kono, in eastern Sierra Leone. He is charged with the war crime of pillage and enslavement as a crime against humanity.
During the 1991–2002 civil war in Sierra Leone, the RUF used forced labor—civilian slaves—to mine diamonds in Sierra Leone. They brought the diamonds to Charles Taylor in neighboring Liberia. From there, the diamonds were sold on the international market and the proceeds were used to support the RUF.
The UN estimated that the RUF diamond trade was valued between $25 and $125 million each year. This money was used to buy weapons and war materiel.
The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) convicted RUF leaders of 16 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including enslavement and pillage. The SCSL also convicted Taylor for 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including aiding and abetting the RUF in crimes including pillage and enslavement. However, the trial of Desaedeleer is the first time a businessman has been arrested for involvement in these international crimes.
In a 2000 report, the United Nations highlighted Desaedeleer’s involvement with the RUF. A man named “Michel” allegedly told RUF leader Foday Sankoh that he could get a private jet to smuggle diamonds out of Kono. According to the UN report, he and another American businessman, John Caldwell, had an agreement with Sankoh giving them authority to broker rights to all of Sierra Leone’s diamond and gold reserves for ten years. At the time, Sankoh was the Chairman of the Commission for the Management of Strategic Mineral Resources of Sierra Leone, a position granted to him through the failed Lomé Peace Accord.
Several Sierra Leonean victims of enslavement, represented by human rights lawyer Luc Walleyn, filed a criminal complaint against Desaedeleer in Brussels in 2011. Belgian authorities opened an investigation and issued an arrest warrant in 2015. Desaedeleer, who lives in the United States, was boarding an airplane in Malaga, Spain, when Spanish authorities arrested him on August 30, 2015.
Belgium has jurisdiction over the case because Desaedeleer is a Belgian citizen. He will be tried under Belgian law—Belgium has incorporated international war crimes and crimes against humanity into its domestic legislation. Under Belgian law, which is a civil law system, victims have the right to participate in the case and—if Desaedeleer is convicted—may be eligible for damages.
Ibrahim Tommy, Executive Director of the Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) in Freetown, Sierra Leone, said that while “most victims of the war are currently preoccupied with social and economic issues, and do not even know that there are ongoing efforts to bring to justice other foreign nationals who participated in the conflict in Sierra Leone” many Sierra Leoneans “think that more needs to be done to go after the other ‘sponsors’ of the war.”
Alain Werner, the Director of Civitas Maxima, noted, “This is a landmark case, the first of its kind, and it will help to raise awareness of the pivotal role played by financial actors in the trade of mineral resources that fuel armed conflicts in Africa and elsewhere.”