'Blood Diamonds' arrest sheds light over grim African trade

Workers pan for diamonds in a government-controlled diamond mine near Kenema, Sierra Leone, in 2001.

Story highlights

  • Belgian citizen Michel Desaedeleer accused of profiting from illicit trade of "blood diamonds" in Sierra Leone
  • He is suspected of having participated with former Liberian President and rebels of Revolutionary United Front
  • RUF ran an horrific regime of enslavement and brutality at mines it controlled in Kono

Malaga, Spain (CNN)Last Friday, a 64-year old Belgian citizen, Michel Desaedeleer, was waiting to board a flight from Malaga in southern Spain to New York. But his name registered on a Europe-wide database of arrest warrants and he was detained by police at the airport, according to Spain's Interior Ministry.

The accusation against Desaedeleer, who also holds U.S. citizenship, is that he profited from the illicit trade of "blood diamonds" during the civil war that ravaged Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002. But it's only in recent years that a case against him has been put together by Belgian authorities, and it's largely based on eyewitness testimony.
    Desaedeleer is suspected of having participated with former Liberian President Charles Taylor and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone in a scheme to mine diamonds illegally in the district of Kono in eastern Sierra Leone.
    The warrant for Desaedeleer's arrest was based on testimony gathered by a Swiss-based NGO, Civitas Maxima from witnesses who were in Kono between 1999 and 2001. According to a statement from Spanish police, the allegation is that Desaedeleer "would have been one of the supervisors in charge of overseeing the extraction works on site" at the end of 1999 and the beginning of 2000.
    Previous trials in international courts have established that the RUF ran an horrific regime of enslavement and brutality at mines it controlled in Kono and elsewhere, including amputation, rape and forced conscription of civilians and suspected rebels, according to Human Rights Watch. But also according to hundreds of pages of judgments issued in the Special Court.
    Alain Werner, the lawyer who helped prepare the victims' case, was previously one of the prosecuting attorneys in the Special Court that tried Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was also involved in the trial of prominent RUF members. He told CNN he had first come across Desaedeleer's name in 2006.
    Werner told CNN that Sankoh and others needed "external actors to market the diamonds they were smuggling out to the Liberian capital, Monrovia." He said the critical element in the complaint presented against Desaedeleer, which runs to some 50 pages, was that former members of the RUF had sworn that he was in Kono.
    Werner said there was no suggestion that Desaedeleer had been personally involved in any abuses. But the complaint held that Desaedeleer was complicit in pillage as a war crime and enslavement through his involvement in the Kono diamond mining.

    Money used for weapons

    A U.N. panel of experts that investigated the trade in blood diamonds reported in 2000 that Desaedeleer first made contact with the RUF while in Togo during the summer of 1999. Within months, according to the U.N. panel, he and an associate had "worked up an arrangement with Foday Sankoh which would give them authority to broker rights to all of Sierra Leone's diamond and gold resources for a 10-year period."
    The U.N. report also said that a letter, signed by a "Michel," "proposed that his Belgian partner 'Charles' could hire a private jet to take the diamonds out directly from Kono" without having to pass through the capital, Freetown.
    In October 1999, a deal was reached between Desaedeleer's company, BECA, and Sankoh. At the time Sankoh had been given the position of Chairman of the Commission for the Management of Strategic Mineral Resources as part of an ill-fated attempt to broker a peace deal in Sierra Leone. He was in essence Minister of Mines.
    Documents later recovered from his compound in Freetown showed that even while in government Sankoh had been trading hundreds of diamonds illicitly. Another document found, and cited by the U.N. experts, was purportedly a fax from Desaedeleer to Sankoh, which mentioned a meeting with his wife, Fatou, in the U.S.
    "I finally explained to Fatou that everything was possible, moneywise, if I could finally meet my partners with some decent inventory," the fax read.
    In an interview with Newsweek in July 2000, Desaedeleer maintained that the contract he signed with Sankoh was legitimate -- because at the time it had been signed Sankoh was a member of the government.
      The sums involved in the blood diamonds trade were huge. The U.N. experts estimated that the RUF was responsible for illegally exporting diamonds amounting to a total value of between $25 and $125 million each year. Much of that money was used to buy weapons on the black market -- weapons that were flown from Ukraine and elsewhere into the neighboring countries of Liberia and Burkina Faso in violation of international law.
      It will now be up to Belgian prosecutors to show -- if the case comes to trial -- that the eyewitness testimony from survivors of enslavement in Kono is credible by itself or can be corroborated by other evidence showing Desaedeleer's complicity in the trade of illicit diamonds. The full indictment itself has not yet been released.