By Tommy Trenchard
FREETOWN (Reuters) - Sierra Leone deported an associate of former Liberian president Charles Taylor a week before he was due to stand trial for crimes committed during the West African nation's 1991-2002 civil war, prompting an outcry from 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, 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, food, medical supplies, fuel and equipment to forces that committed atrocities during the 1991-2002 conflict in which more than 50,000 people died.
Bah has been targeted by a U.N. travel ban and asset freeze since 2004 for his alleged links to arms and diamond trafficking but has so far avoided prosecution despite pressure from rights groups.
He had been due to stand trial on Monday in Sierra Leone on charges including false imprisonment, kidnapping, assault, and making death threats in the diamond-rich Kono district in 2000, in a case brought by a private citizen.
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.
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 body, which the U.N. mandated with pursuing those most responsible for crimes during the war, rights 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 David Evans)