There will be no “blood diamonds” trial of Michel Desaedeleer, the first person to be charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in blood diamond trading that fuelled civil war and serious human rights abuses in Sierra Leone. Desaedeleer, 64, died in a Belgian prison in September this year. But Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima, which fought to help bring the case, says it will continue the fight “for justice in the name of forgotten victims of international crimes”.
Desaedeleer, who had both Belgian and American nationality, was arrested in Malaga, Spain, in August 2015 on allegations that he had committed the war crimes of inhuman and degrading treatment and pillage, as well as the crime against humanity of enslavement through his participation in the "blood diamond" trade in Sierra Leone. Desaedeleer allegedly engaged in trade with former Liberian President Charles Taylor and the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), a Sierra Leonean rebel group that committed atrocities during the country’s civil war (1991- 2002).
The civil war left more than 50,000 people dead and many more mutilated and injured. Taylor is currently serving a 50-year jail sentence for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sierra Leone. He was convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) and is serving his sentence in the UK under a special agreement with that Court.
Civitas Maxima director Alain Werner says Desaedeleer’s death in jail, ending the historic case against him, was a “big blow”. “The lawyers, investigators and others who have worked alongside the victims share their disappointment,” he told JusticeInfo. “The Belgian authorities have also worked hard on this case and must also be disappointed that it ends in this way.”
Swiss NGO Civitas Maxima was set up in 2012 in collaboration with lawyer Luc Walleyn, and the Center of Accountability and Rule of Law (CARL) in Freetown, Sierra Leone. “I started investigating Michel Desaedeleer’s activities during the Sierra Leonean civil war when I was working for Aegis Trust (an NGO working against genocide) in London,” says Werner. “In Sierra Leone, I met victims of slavery in the diamond mines, and we decided with Belgian lawyer Luc Walleyn to file a judicial complaint in Belgium against Michel Desaedeleer in January 2011 for looting as a war crime and forced labour as a crime against humanity. He was arrested only in August 2015, in other words four years after the initial complaint was filed.”
This case, if it had been brought to trial, could have set an important precedent. A businessman was being prosecuted for looting and trafficking of natural resources in a civil war context. As for Desaedeleer, he argued that the contract he signed with RUF leader Foday Sankoh was legal. The only other similar case to date was against Dutch businessman Guus Kouwenhoven, who was accused of war crimes for selling arms to Charles Taylor in exchange for forestry concessions in Liberia. The Trial Court sentenced him to 8 years in jail but dismissed the war crimes charges. The Appeals Court threw out all the charges on the basis of lack of evidence.
Civitas Maxima, however, is continuing its investigations into other financial players involved in blood diamond trafficking. “We are continuing to explore other paths regarding the involvement of other people in diamond trafficking in Sierra Leone from around 1999-2001,” says Werner. “We ask anyone who has information on this to contact us.”
Alain Werner also hopes that the work of the Belgian authorities will serve as an example to other countries in the fight against impunity. “This procedure only strengthens our conviction that bringing such cases is necessary,” he says, “despite the way it ended in this specific case.”
Separately, Civitas Maxima also worked for the arrest in Switzerland in September 2014 of Alieu Kosiah, a former commander of the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO). He is suspected of war crimes committed in western Liberia between 1993 and 1995. Investigations into his case are still under way in Switzerland.