places in the world have seen such brutal carnage in recent
years as Sierra Leone, where tens of thousands of civilians
have been killed and mutilated in a decade-long civil war. The
madness in Sierra Leone reached ghastly proportions in January
1999, during a three-week rebel siege of the capital city, Freetown.
More than 4,000 people were slaughtered as rebel forces took
control of the city. Women were randomly raped and thousands
of children were conscripted.
Responding to the violence in Sierra Leone, the U.N. sent the
largest peacekeeping force in the world to enforce peace. The
U.N. also sent "expert panels" of investigators to report on
how illegal weapons were continuing to flow into the region
in spite of U.N. sanctions and arms embargoes. Although they
don't carry badges or issue subpoenas, these U.N. "detectives"
use their investigative skills to "name and shame" the violators.
U.N. arms expert Johan Peleman, a
chain-smoking Belgian, was trying to turn up leads in Sierra
Leone when he got a lucky break. Peleman learned of a cocaine
bust in Milan, where Italian police discovered four prostitutes
in a hotel room with a Ukrainian businessman named Leonid
Minin. The police also discovered more than $35,000 in cash,
a half-million dollars in diamonds, and more than 1,500 documents
detailing a tangled web of business dealings in oil, diamonds,
timber and gun shipments to Africa.
Among the documents were flight records of a plane that had
once belonged to the Seattle Supersonics basketball team, and
now belonged to Leonid Minin. The flight records helped Peleman
crack the case of an illegal arms deal in 1999 that delivered
missiles, grenade launchers and thousands of AK-47 assault rifles
to Liberia. These same weapons ultimately made their way into
the hands of the rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone.
It so happened that the U.S. State Department had spotted the
same illegal arms shipment from the Ukraine, but decided to
take no action beyond filing a demarche -- a written reprimand
-- to the Ukrainian government. Washington, sources say, was
more concerned with "loose nukes" in Ukraine and Russia than
the export of small weapons to Africa.
Ukraine was once a vital part of the Soviet military machine, and
it is now ranked 8th in the world for weapons sales to other
countries. A Ukrainian arms export official tells FRONTLINE/World
he has no knowledge of Ukrainian weapons being diverted
to embargoed nations, "So how could we bear any responsibility
for this?" But sources say that Minin told Italian investigators
that Vadim Rabinovitch, one of Ukraine's wealthiest businessmen,
was connected to the 1999 arms shipment to Liberia -- a charge
The U.N. Security Council has extended the arms embargo on Liberia,
but has not acted to crackdown on Ukraine. Meanwhile, Leonid
Minin sits in an Italian jail on charges of violating a U.N.
arms embargo. Minin's prosecution -- the first of its kind --
is considered an international test case.
But State Department arms expert Tom
Ofcansky warns that shutting down Minin won't eliminate
the problem of global gun smuggling. "It's a systemic problem. The international climate ...
allows this activity to go on. That has to change."
Producer/Correspondent: Rick Young
Young is an independent producer who has worked on more than
a dozen FRONTLINE documentaries. He is based in Washington,
Co-Producer/Reporter: William Kistner
Kistner is a producer and reporter based in Washington D.C., and
he is an associate of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
A co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting,
The nonprofit Center
for Investigative Reporting
conducts media investigations of underreported issues in the
public interest. CIR's most recent television investigation
with KQED San Francisco, "GunShots," just received the Sigma
Delta Chi Award for documentaries.
Additional funding for this story provided by
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
United States Institute of Peace