FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — A Sierra Leone court on Monday issued an arrest warrant for one of the most notorious arms dealers of its brutal 11-year civil war, but a justice official later said the ally of imprisoned former Liberian President Charles Taylor had already been kicked out – raising Western fears he will never be tried.
Adding to the confusion, his native Senegal denied it had received him.
Ibrahim Bah has been accused of arranging arms and diamond deals between Taylor and Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front rebel group, which has been accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, rape, mutilation, amputation and forced abductions. Taylor received a 50-year sentence in May 2012 for supporting the rebels.
Judge Tonia Mbawa issued the warrant Monday after Bah didn't appear in court for a case brought by a private citizen on charges including kidnapping and assault. But Attorney General Frank Kargbo said Bah was "expelled" to Senegal in late July, despite pressure from rights groups and the United States to explore options for trying him in Sierra Leone.
Kargbo declined to provide details or give a reason for the decision. Sierra Leone's government has not pursued criminal charges against Bah and the claim that he was expelled raised suspicions that the government was determined to avoid prosecution.
"With Bah's deportation, Sierra Leone has taken a real step backward on promoting justice for grave crimes committed the country's brutal civil conflict that ended in 2002," said Elise Keppler, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. "Sierra Leone has ignored the interests of victims who deserve to see those implicated in the worst abuses be investigated."
In the court case against Bah, the complainant, from the diamond-rich eastern district of Kono, said Bah kidnapped him, injured him and held him for multiple days against his will, while threatening to kill him in 2000. During the hearing, a lawyer for Bah said he was unreachable and that his cellphones had been switched off.
Judges set a new court date for Aug. 15 even as one of the lawyers pursuing the case against Bah, Ronald Gidwani, expressed concern that he was no longer in the country. Officials took hours to say he had already been deported.
Senegal government spokesman Abdou Latif Coulibaly said late Monday that officials had no information on Bah. "The government of Senegal has received no notification concerning Ibrahim Bah," he said. "The interior minister has verified with all of the sections of the police, and they have not received any information about this person."
Justice Minister Animata Toure said by text message that any reports about Bah having been sent to Senegal were "not true."
Taylor received a 50-year sentence in May 2012 for supporting the rebels in Sierra Leone in exchange for "blood diamonds." Defense lawyers have disputed the allegations against Taylor, pointing out that Taylor did not physically travel to Sierra Leone.
But judges at the Special Court for Sierra Leone found there was enough evidence to link Taylor to the crimes, and identified Bah as a "trusted emissary" who served as a liaison between Taylor and the rebels.
Bah was believed to be in Burkina Faso when he was placed under a U.N. travel ban in 2004, but U.N. experts located him in Freetown, the Sierra Leone capital, earlier this year. A report from the experts published May 31 this year included his Freetown address.
The case was being closely monitored by the United States, which provided tens of millions of dollars to support the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone.
On June 24, Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking that the State Department pressure Sierra Leone to pursue criminal proceedings against Bah.
The U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone has urged the government "to investigate the circumstances around Bah's presence in Sierra Leone and to take appropriate legal action," according to a July 2 response to Wolf's letter from Acting Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Thomas B. Gibbons.
Bah was briefly detained in June but was released soon after, Gibbons said in his letter. Officials had confiscated his passport and were requiring him to report daily while the case was being reviewed, he said.
A trial of Bah in Sierra Leone would have provided important information on the trade of "blood diamonds" that fueled the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, said Alain Werner, a former prosecutor in the trial of Taylor and current director of Civitas Maxima, a network of lawyers and investigators building cases on behalf of victims of crimes under international law.
"If Ibrahim Bah was allowed to leave Sierra Leone, then this golden chance to see justice rendered to war victims in a local court of law in Freetown will have been missed, and this would be very unfortunate to say the least," Werner said.
Corey-Boulet reported from Dakar, Senegal. Associated Press writer Babacar Dione contributed from Dakar.