The man who brought down a tyrant

Cindor Reeves helped bring Liberia’s brutal dictator, Charles Taylor, to justice. Now Canada may kick him out.

The man who brought down a tyrantIt was June 2002 when Cindor Reeves was first tipped off that his brother-in-law, the president of Liberia, had sent a team of assassins to murder him.

At 30 years of age, Reeves was already a seasoned gunrunner and diamond smuggler. His brother-in-law was Charles Taylor, who in 1989 had launched a long-running civil war with his rebel fighters in the National Patriotic Front of Liberia that killed more than 200,000 but left Taylor in charge of much of the country. (He was elected president during a brief lull in the fighting in 1997.) The Liberian war also spilled over its borders. Taylor had created a proxy army next door in Sierra Leone that called itself the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF. Since 1991, the RUF and its legions of drug-crazed child soldiers had terrorized Sierra Leone, killing and hacking off the limbs of tens of thousands of civilians, and enslaving thousands more to mine for diamonds.

It was these diamonds that Taylor got in exchange for arming and funding the RUF. Reeves had the job of ensuring that the diamond and gun pipeline flowed smoothly. Taylor appointed Reeves as one of his main envoys to the RUF in 1998. Often working as an aide to Ibrahim Bah, a Senegalese veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and Taylor’s main diamond handler, Reeves would escort the weapons in and the diamonds out. Taylor trusted Reeves because he was family. Taylor married Reeves’s sister in 1981 and invited Reeves to live with them in 1989, just before the civil war started.

But in 2002, when Reeves was warned that his life was in danger, Taylor’s fortunes had changed. The United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was established that January, with funding from more than 50 countries, including Canada, to try those who bear “greatest responsibility” for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Sierra Leone civil war. Taylor, who is now on trial in The Hague, would not be indicted until 2003 for his role in the conflict that consumed Liberia’s neighbour. But even then he knew the court would come after him. He needed to cover his tracks.

“He started whacking people,” says Douglas Farah, a former Washington Post reporter who was stationed in West Africa at the time. Anyone who could link Taylor to the RUF was at risk. Dennis Mingo, an RUF commander known as Superman and feared for his widespread abduction of children, was murdered, as was Reeves’s friend, Daniel Tamba, despite Reeves urging him to get out of Liberia. Reeves was in Accra, capital of Ghana, at the time, but he wasn’t safe there. A friend who was a senior commander in Taylor’s commando unit made a risky phone call. “A hit team is coming for you,” he told Reeves. “I gave the order.” Reeves went into hiding with his wife and infant daughter. The assassins eventually returned to Liberia.

Relations between Reeves and Taylor had been deteriorating for months before. When an incriminating story about Taylor ran in a Western newspaper in August 2001, Taylor mistakenly thought Reeves was the source and ordered that he be detained. Reeves was warned in advance and evaded arrest, so Taylor’s men jailed his pregnant wife instead. When Reeves bought her freedom for $500 three weeks later, she needed to be hospitalized. The couple moved to Ghana.

Reeves was able to patch things up with Taylor, at least outwardly. What Taylor didn’t know was that Reeves had been preparing to turn against him for years. When Reeves made his move, at enormous risk to his own life, he helped bring Charles Taylor, one of the most wanted war criminals in the world, to justice. Despite this, Reeves faces an uncertain and dangerous future. Canada is in a position to protect Reeves—but appears to want nothing to do with him.

In interviews with Maclean’s, Reeves described growing up in Taylor’s house almost like being under his spell. “If he told me to do something, I would do it without question. You would do it with confidence. You think, ‘Oh, he likes me.’ If Taylor says hello, you’re happy for a month.”

But the more Reeves witnessed the suffering and devastation Taylor caused, the more his faith crumbled. He began collecting documents linking Taylor to illegal timber exports, weapons and diamonds smuggling, and the RUF. “As early as 1991, I felt like a lot of innocent people were dying,” says Reeves. The conflict that Taylor and his NPFL started in Liberia was ostensibly to get rid of Samuel Doe, the previous president, but he was dead by 1990 and still war raged on. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that things were getting out of hand. Even as much as you’re living good, seeing people going through this suffering, you’re not happy. I said, ‘What can I do to stop this?’ I was on the inside.”

Reeves stands out among many of the leading figures in the RUF and Taylor’s NPFL because he is literate and has some education. When discussing past events, his recollection of names and dates is astounding. But Reeves knew little about the mechanics of international justice and wasn’t sure what to do with the information and documents he had. He thought he might somehow get them to Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, then president of Sierra Leone, or perhaps to the UN. But neither of these ideas seemed all that feasible.

Then, in 2000, Reeves met Farah, the Washington Post reporter, and the two became friends. The following year Farah put Reeves in touch with an agent from MI6, the U.K.’s foreign intelligence branch. The British wanted information about the RUF in Sierra Leone, where they had intervened in 2000 and still had troops. His MI6 handler convinced Reeves to pretend to reconcile with Taylor. Reeves did so with the help of Burkina Faso’s president, Blaise Compaoré, who acted as peacemaker. Taylor was wary. “I want to see you before I go to bed, and I want to see you when I wake up,” he told Reeves. Although Taylor had split up with Reeves’s sister, he still accepted Reeves back into his house. Reeves gathered documents about weapons shipments for the RUF and the arrival of foreign mercenaries. He was frequently back in Ghana to visit his family, who continued to live there. It was during these trips, and also in the Ivory Coast, that he would meet with MI6.

It is possible that pragmatism played a role in Reeves’s decision to spy on Taylor. A warlord’s luck is precarious, and perhaps Reeves wanted an insurance policy in case Taylor’s ran out. But the fact that Reeves never tried to profit from his work against Taylor suggests he was guided by principle. When he was risking his life for MI6, Reeves did not ask for or receive any compensation. “In the beginning I got involved myself,” Reeves said. “I was looking for people to help me, because I wanted to stop Taylor. If Taylor was stopped, the war would stop. And I didn’t know anything about spying or how much money could be made.”

Reeves balked at only one request from his MI6 handler. Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, al-Qaeda operatives Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, who have both been indicted by the U.S. for their suspected role in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, visited Liberia to launder money through blood diamonds. Taylor gave Reeves the job of hosting them. Ghailani and Mohammed spent much of their time watching videos of suicide bombings in a guest house that they plastered with posters of Osama bin Laden. One tried to convince Reeves’s wife to leave him.

According to Farah, whose book, Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror, chronicles the links between al-Qaeda and the West African diamond trade, British and American intelligence obtained information that four suspected al-Qaeda operatives, including Ghailani and Mohammed, were in Liberia in the weeks after 9/11. They were reportedly staying at Camp Gbatala, a military facility that was the home base for Taylor’s Anti-Terrorism Unit and the South African mercenaries who trained them. Reeves’s MI6 handler asked him to go to the camp. Reeves did, and although he confirmed the presence of two Arabs, he did not see Ghailani and Mohammed. Reeves’s MI6 handler asked him to return with a tracking device to hide in their guest house. He refused.

Meanwhile, the Special Court for Sierra Leone was gearing up and looking for potential witnesses. Alan White, chief of investigations for the court from 2002 to 2005, reached Reeves through Douglas Farah. Reeves agreed to co-operate. As with MI6, Reeves did not ask for or receive compensation. But in December 2002, when the court discovered his life was again in danger, they acted to save it. “We received notice from our asset within Taylor’s inner circle that he had launched a team to kill CR and his family,” David Michael Crane, the Special Court’s chief prosecutor from 2002 to 2005, told Maclean’s. Like many who knew Reeves when his identity needed to be protected, Crane often refers to him by his initials. “Because of his importance to us, we launched a team to get him.”

Reeves and his family were in Accra at the time, where Reeves met regularly with both MI6 and members of the Special Court. A court official gave Reeves $400 and told him to check his family into a hotel. Early the next morning, they climbed into the back seat of a car with blackened windows and sped toward the airport. Reeves was afraid Taylor’s men would intercept them there. But with lookouts keeping watch, they boarded a small plane and took off. Crane later heard from his source that the assassins arrived at the airport an hour after Reeves escaped.

By then Reeves was flying over West Africa. A new and unknown life lay ahead. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he might have recalled something Taylor had told him the previous year, when Taylor knew the Special Court would come looking for insiders willing to testify against him. “These white people, the international community, when they need something from you, they will treat you like a newborn baby,” Taylor said to Reeves. “They will use you to make a case against me. But after, they will dump you.”

Today Cindor Reeves lives in Toronto with his wife and their two children. The man who was once responsible for shepherding millions of dollars worth of gems and guns worked for a modest wage at Canadian Tire until he lost his job this spring due to cutbacks. He can no longer afford the rent for their subsidized apartment and is considering moving his family into a shelter. But he’s glad he came. His children like it here. He has some friends. And, he says, unlike in Liberia, the police are neither corrupt nor arbitrarily violent.

Reeves’s journey to Canada began when the plane that took off from Accra rolled to a stop on a baking runway in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Reeves spent six weeks there, providing the Special Court with detailed testimony, as well as the means to contact other Taylor insiders who might be willing to co-operate. Because potential witnesses trusted Reeves, they trusted the court. Farah, who is familiar with Reeves’s testimony, describes him as the “Rosetta stone” in the case against Taylor, the key that made everything else possible.

“I am willing to go on the record and confirm that CR provided invaluable information that led to the indictment of Charles Taylor and others who were ultimately convicted,” Alan White said in an email to Maclean’s. David Michael Crane, the Special Court’s former chief prosecutor, gave a similar assessment. “CR was what we call a lead witness, someone who would corroborate or someone who would help us connect some dots as to how the overall joint criminal enterprise for West Africa was configured,” he told Maclean’s. “Then we would go out and verify his story with other assets. And it was largely correct.”

White arranged for Reeves and his family to be placed in witness protection programs, first in Holland and then in Germany. Reeves was deeply unhappy in both countries. He says he received only 200 euros a month for food. Every season someone would come to take his family shopping for clothes. He wasn’t allowed to work in Germany, though his wife was lucky enough to get a job in a hair salon at a nearby American military base. By then Reeves had little contact with anyone from the Special Court and often argued with them about his living arrangements when he did. He took German classes and grew restless.

According to Crane, however, the court did what it could for Reeves in difficult circumstances. Court officials spirited Reeves out of West Africa to protect him and didn’t have a long-term plan for where he might live. They tried to negotiate arrangements with European countries, but most didn’t want him for more than a year lest he apply to stay there permanently. “Whatever the terms of their acceptance, we had to dance to that drum,” says Crane. “He became frustrated, sure, but there was nothing we could do about it.” The alternative was Reeves’s expulsion back to West Africa, Crane says. “His life would have been in extreme jeopardy.” Even after he was forced from office in 2003, Taylor had allies everywhere, and his henchmen were busy bribing or killing potential witnesses.

By 2006, Reeves’s frustration was reaching a tipping point. He decided to get out of Germany, even though the Special Court had not arranged a permanent place for him to live. He left, without the court’s permission, for Canada.

With the benefit of hindsight, it now seems obvious that however bad things were in Germany, coming to Canada was a mistake. When Reeves departed Europe, he lost the protection of the Special Court and became just another refugee claimant with a murky and complicated past. Arriving at Pearson International Airport on Sept. 4, 2006, Reeves hid nothing. He told customs who he was and what he had done. His daughter and infant son watched as officers led him away in handcuffs to be detained for 45 days. He was eventually released while authorities considered his case. He got an apartment and a job and tried to rebuild a life.

The Special Court gave Reeves $500 shortly after he arrived in Canada, and has met with him twice here. Reeves remains committed to working with it. He wants to see Taylor brought to justice. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m married to the Special Court,” he told a court official last summer. “If you wake me up at midnight and say it’s time to go to the Netherlands, I’m ready. Any time you need me, I’m ready.”

The Canada Border and Services Agency has, meanwhile, carried out its own investigation. Tatiana Bragina, an inland enforcement officer with CBSA, said Reeves should not be allowed to stay in Canada. “There are reasonable grounds to believe that by virtue of his association and occupying positions of trust within Taylor’s regime and the RUF, Mr. Reeves is complicit in crimes against humanity and war crimes committed by the RUF and C. Taylor’s regime,” she said in an April 9 report to the minister of immigration.

Bragina provides no evidence that Reeves committed war crimes himself, and it is unlikely that any such evidence exists. David Michael Crane investigated Reeves before taking him on as a key witness for the Special Court. “I don’t have any direct evidence that he was someone who perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Crane says. “He is certainly not somebody that I would have prosecuted.” If everyone who once associated with Taylor is complicit in his crimes, you would have to indict thousands, Crane adds. Even Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Liberia’s current president, initially supported Taylor’s rebellion before turning against him. She met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa two years ago. Other former fighters in Taylor’s NPFL live in Canada today, unknown and unmolested by authorities.

Douglas Farah spent a great deal of time with both the RUF and Reeves in 2000 and 2001. He too was worried that Reeves might have blood on his hands and asked as many people as he could about him. “Nobody had any recollection of ever seeing him with a gun, much less in combat,” he says.

Reeves entered Charles Taylor’s orbit because Taylor married his sister when he was nine years old. He had no choice in the matter then, and not much more when he was older. His relationship with Taylor tainted him, but also kept him away from the front lines, where the war was fought by men and boys in wigs and masks who ate the bodies of their enemies. In many ways Reeves was trapped. “It is my genuine belief that he didn’t like what was going on in Sierra Leone,” Alan White told Maclean’s. “His only way out of the situation was to leave the country.”

But Reeves didn’t just run from Taylor. He tried to bring him down. “It was a tremendously courageous thing to do. He took a risk when there were no guarantees,” says Farah. “I believe that there would not be a significant case against Taylor—or at least it would have taken significantly longer—if Cindor had not come forward at a time when there was considerable danger to himself and no one knew if the court was going to survive. They may have been able to build a case, but it would have taken them years longer to do it. He was the Rosetta stone at the beginning, at a time when he was quite vulnerable. He was never well protected. And he never demanded a lot of things that others demanded.”

David Michael Crane describes Reeves as “a witness who had the courage to step forward and tell us the parameters of the horror story that took place over a decade in West Africa.” And that, he adds, “should be given great weight as to any decisions taken by the appropriate authorities.”

Both Crane and White left the Special Court in 2005. No one with the court today has approached the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board to vouch for what Reeves has done, though Stephen Rapp, the current chief prosecutor, says he would give a full account if asked. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter. The Canada Border Services Agency knows Reeves co-operated with the court but didn’t consider it worth mentioning in its report; it would not comment on Reeves’s case, nor would Citizenship and Immigration Canada. The department initially told Maclean’s it would discuss the case if Reeves agreed to sign a consent form giving them permission to do so. He did, and they refused anyway. Canada, among the largest funders of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, doesn’t appear inclined to shelter one of the men who made sure Charles Taylor is now before it.

The British haven’t lifted a finger for Reeves, despite the spying he did for MI6. Nor have the Americans, having seemingly forgotten that Reeves risked his life to identify al-Qaeda operatives whom the U.S. holds responsible for the murder of more than 200 people, including 12 Americans. Reeves says he isn’t bitter. He co-operated with anyone he thought could bring Taylor to justice. He never asked for or was promised anything in return, and doesn’t think he’s owed anything now.

Reeves’s fate will be decided at an admissibility hearing held by the Immigration and Refugee Board, likely later this year. A good lawyer might be able to argue his case, but he can hardly afford one. Reeves faces being deported to Liberia. He won’t be safe there, says Crane. Some will seek revenge. Others will want to protect themselves against what Reeves might say at future trials to address war crimes committed in Liberia. “If word ever got out that he was there,” says Crane, “I would not give him long.”

If Reeves is deported, his life will have unfolded pretty much as Charles Taylor predicted when he warned Reeves not to testify against him because the international community would use and then discard him. Taylor might have been a brutish dictator and war criminal, but he got that right.

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