FREETOWN Sierra Leone deported an associate of former Liberian president Charles Taylor last week, sparing him a trial for crimes committed during the 1991-2002 civil war due to begin on Monday, to the dismay of human rights campaigners.
Ibrahim Bah has been named by United Nations experts as an intermediary for Taylor's arms deliveries to Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who became notorious for using child soldiers and hacking off the limbs of civilians.
Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison last year by the U.N.-mandated Special Court for Sierra Leone for providing weapons and supplies to rebels who committed war crimes during the 11-year conflict in which more than 50,000 people died.
Bah has been subject to a U.N. travel ban and asset freeze since 2004 for his alleged links to arms and diamond trafficking but has avoided prosecution.
He had been due to stand trial on Monday on charges including false imprisonment, kidnapping and assault in 2000 in Sierra Leone's diamond-rich Kono district, in a case brought by a private citizen with support from human rights campaigners.
However, Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma ordered Bah's deportation to his native Senegal on July 27.
"We do not need a reason," Sierra Leone's Controller of Immigration Operations Abdulai Timbo said in response to a request from Reuters for the grounds of his deportation. "The president does not want him here. He is persona non grata."
Justice Minister and Attorney General Frank Kargbo said he was not aware that Bah was due to appear in court on Monday and the accusations had no bearing on the decision to deport him.
Judge Tonia Mbawa issued an arrest warrant for Bah on Monday when he failed to appear in court, a rights campaigner said.
"The government and attorney general gave us their word they would support us in this case. This is a bad day for justice," said Ibrahim Tommy, head of the Centre for Accountability and the Rule of Law (CARL), which was supporting the plaintiff.
In an interview with Reuters at the weekend, Bah admitted supporting Taylor's rebel National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) but denied dealing in weapons. He described himself as a "revolutionary brother" of RUF leader Foday Sankoh, who died in 2003 while awaiting trial for war crimes.
"I never bought or sold arms in my life. I fought alongside the NPFL but I never fought inside Sierra Leone a single minute," Bah said.
While Bah was not tried by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which the U.N. mandated with pursuing those most responsible for crimes during the war, groups including Human Rights Watch (HRW) have urged Sierra Leone to prosecute him in its own courts.
"Bah's deportation represents a real step backward for Sierra Leone," Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at HRW, told Reuters.
"The government has in effect blocked the private prosecution against Bah and ignored the interests of victims who suffered heinous crimes in which (he) is implicated during the country's civil conflict," she said.
(Editing by Joe Bavier and Robin Pomeroy)