MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — The former head of Liberia's state forestry agency has been arrested and indicted for allegedly defrauding the country of millions of dollars by issuing bogus permits that allowed foreign companies to exploit the country's hardwood forests between 2006 and 2012.
Moses Wogbeh, former managing director of the Forestry Development Authority was being held at Monrovia Central Prison Friday night, said Information Minister Lewis Brown, who told The Associated Press that a lawyer for the agency has also been arrested and seven other officials are being sought on the same charges.
The illegal permits defrauded the government of 12 to 15 million dollars, said Brown.
Wogbeh was dismissed last year when an investigation panel found that he and others misused Liberia's forests by granting illegal contracts.
The permits should only be issued to allow commercial logging of privately-owned land. But Wogbeh and other former forestry officials granted permits to allow logging on community and public lands, according to the panel's report.
Wogbeh and others in the forestry agency "took advantage of the lack of regulations in ways that were unconscionable, illegal, and a violation of the public interest," stated the report.
The multiple-count indictment served on Wogbeh and others alleges that they committed "economic sabotage and criminal conspiracy."
The indictment said the former forestry officials issued up to 61 illegal permits for logging by foreign companies on nearly 2.5 million hectares (6.1 million acres), representing 23 percent of Liberia's forests.
Liberia's timber sector came under international sanctions during the regime of former President Charles Taylor when his government was accused by international environmental watchdogs, including Global Witness, of deforestation and using earnings from tropical hardwoods to fund conflicts. Taylor is now serving a 50-year sentence in a British jail after he was found guilty of supporting war in neighboring Sierra Leone in the 1990s.
The ban on Liberia's timber was lifted in 2006 when Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became president. But the misuse of the country's vast forests did not cease, prompting Sirleaf's government last year to halt all logging under the private use permits until proper management could be implemented.
Liberia has about 40 percent of the remaining rainforest in West Africa.