Court chases $375m from Charles Taylor's banks

Prosecutors for Sierra Leone’s war crimes court are trying to track down $375-million they say vanished from two United States bank accounts held by former Liberian President Charles Taylor when he was forced from power in 2003.

But lawyers defending the former warlord against charges of fomenting civil war in Sierra Leone to obtain diamonds challenged prosecutors to produce evidence that Taylor had salted away state funds for his personal use.

Taylor is on trial before a United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone set up to try those most responsible for that country’s 1991 to 2002 civil war, in which drug-taking rebels killed, raped and hacked limbs off terrified villagers.

Taylor denies all charges and has requested donor funds to pay his lawyers because he says he is broke.

The Special Court’s chief prosecutor, Stephen Rapp, said a London law firm working with the court had found records of two bank accounts in Taylor’s name at Citi bank in New York.

“These accounts were closed and a total of $375-million was transferred from them over time into other bank accounts in the US and elsewhere,” Rapp told Reuters in an interview this week.

The accounts were closed in December 2003, four months after Taylor stepped down as president and went into exile, he said.

“The amount of money is truly remarkable ... It seems at least 80% of the revenues of Liberia—from timber, ship money, customs, other things—ends up in Taylor’s own private accounts,” Rapp said.

“Customs receipts would be delivered to him at the end of the day. There are examples of paying nearly $2-million into the government treasury in the morning and that same afternoon that same exact figure—$1 999 975—going into Taylor’s account.”

‘Put up or shut up’

Taylor’s lawyers challenged prosecutors to produce evidence.

“To date we have not seen a shred of evidence to support the fact that former president Charles Taylor has salted away millions whilst he was in power,” Courtenay Griffiths, Charles Taylor’s lead defence lawyer told Reuters in The Netherlands.

“We say they ought to put up or shut up on this issue.
There is no charge on the indictment relating to him stashing money away overseas. Finding the money is totally irrelevant to the indictment. The sole relevance of finding that money would be to contradict his assertion that he is indigent and that the court should pay for his defence,” Griffiths said.

Taylor, who escaped from a US jail where he was being held on embezzlement charges in 1985, emerged victorious from the first phase of Liberia’s 14-year civil war and was elected president in 1997, only for rebels to force him out in 2003.

The trial is being held in The Hague for fear of destabilising West Africa. Last month a former fighter told the court he had killed men, women and babies on Taylor’s orders and had eaten the heart of a former rebel leader.

Rapp said he was working closely with the United Nations Sanctions Committee, which has the power to freeze Taylor’s assets anywhere in the world, to accelerate the search for the cash, which could potentially be used to compensate war victims.

“The one thing we don’t know is how much is left, so to speak, at the end of the rainbow,” he said.

“But ... we would be very surprised if a substantial amount were not still out there in bank accounts, potentially in banking havens, countries with strong bank secrecy laws, and in the names of persons other than Mr Taylor,” Rapp said.

Even if the funds were found and seized, Liberia and Sierra Leone would need to agree how to divide it up.

“There’s two claims on the money, and Sierra Leone is not entitled to all of the money. Some gain-sharing should be worked out between the two countries,” he said. - Reuters 2008

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