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Canada knew for a decade accused Liberian war criminal was living here

Canadian authorities knew that accused Liberian war criminal Bill Horace was alive and well and living in Ontario for at least a decade. The reason he was never prosecuted might lie in the fact Canada spends only slightly more on pursuing war criminals than it did on refrigerators for Loblaws in 2019.

A justice group says its calls to prosecute Bill Horace for civilian massacres were ignored

Two police officers talk to each other from their patrol cars on Pochard Lane, outside of the home where Bill Horrace was gunned down by four masked men. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Canadian authorities knew an accused Liberian war criminal was alive, well and living freely in this country for at least a decade before he was gunned down during a violent home invasion in London, Ont. 

Bill Horace died early Sunday morning after he was rushed to hospital by paramedics. He was found sprawled in front of a neighbour's house following an altercation with four masked men who stormed a home in a quiet neighbourhood in the Gore Road and Clarke Road area of east London.

On Tuesday, the London Police Service confirmed the Bill Horace killed in the Sunday morning home invasion was the same Bill Horace who served as a rebel commander under Charles Taylor a former African warlord and convicted war criminal. 

CBC News tracked down one of Horace's childhood friends through social media and a group that pushed for his arrest for almost a decade. 

Justice group pushed for Horace's arrest in Canada

The house where four masked men stormed through the door on early Sunday morning. Police said an altercation between the intruders and Bill Horrace likely spilled out of the home and onto a neighbour's yard. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The group Global Research and Justice Project (GRJP), based in Liberia, has wanted Horace tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law, said Hassan Bility, the executive director GRJP.  

"We tried. We tried to have the Canadian government bring some charges against him but certain laws in Canada wouldn't permit it," he said. "There's some restrictive measures embedded in the Canadian law and that makes it difficult. I can guarantee you that we have been looking at him for eight to nine years. It's just difficult."

Bility said unlike authorities in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Finland, Switzerland and Belgium, who aggressively pursue the prosecution of international war criminals, Canada is a laggard that is rarely stirred into action, even when a monster accused of murdering unarmed civilians may be living in our midst. 

"Canada is not very enthusiastic," he said. "The Canadian authorities they just don't get moved."

Rising through the rebel ranks

Baltimore Verdier grew up with Horace in Buchanan City, Liberia, and saw him quickly rise through the ranks of Charles Taylor's rebel army, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia.

"By 1991, Bill fell in love with Taylor daughter Zoe, where he became so famous amongst Taylor elite forces," Verdier wrote to CBC News. "I can confirm it is Mr. Bill Horace who fought with Taylor forces." 

Horace accused in massacre of 60 civilians, other atrocities

This undated image of Bill Horrace was taken from social media. (Facebook)

Bility said the allegations against Horace include the murders of dozens of unarmed civilians, including the massacre of 60 people at an abandoned Liberian palm plantation, the alleged execution-style killings of five people in the Liberian port of Buchanan City, the alleged murder of an American logging magnate named Rob Huff and an unspecified number of alleged killings while serving directly under Charles Taylor at his wartime headquarters in Bonga City. 

Bility would neither confirm nor deny the GRJP gave Canadian authorities evidence against Horace because it doesn't want to jeopardize cases against other suspected Liberian war criminals living in Canada, but he said the federal government would have known about Horace's ties to National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), a rebel group that carried out a number atrocities during the vicious and brutal 1989-1996 Liberian civil war. 

"I'm very much confident the Canadian authorities knew that because in one of his immigration interviews in 2009 he did admit he was fighting with the NPFL. Of course, he didn't say he committed crimes but he did admit it. I have a copy of that document as well."

Canada rarely prosecutes war criminals living here

Neighbours said Bill Horace was found sprawled in front of this house when first responders had arrived. It was one of two homes he reportedly tried to seek help after he was fatally shot by four masked men. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Valerie Oosterveld, a law professor and expert on war crime law at Western University, said the reason for that has nothing to do with law or justice. Rather, it all comes down to money. 

"These cases are relatively rare because of budgetary reasons, to be honest," she said.  

Dejan Demirovic (File Image)

Oosterveld said the Canadian government has the power to prosecute under what's called universal jurisdiction, a legal term used in cases where something terrible like a crime against humanity happens somewhere else, but the accused criminal is living here in Canada. Oosterveld said while Canada has the power, it uses it very rarely. 

"We've only done that twice in recent memory," she said.

One was the successful conviction of Désiré Munyaneza for crimes during the Rwandan genocide in 2009, the other was the unsuccessful case against Dejan Demirovic, who was accused of murdering more than a dozen villagers in cold blood during the Yugoslavian civil war.

Canada took him to court, but when the prosecution faltered, Canada instead deported him to Serbia in 2005

War crimes trials are very expensive because investigators must be sent to the country where the crime occurred, Oosterveld said. 

"You have to send investigators from Canada, for example, and if we're talking about [the Horace] case to Liberia, to gather evidence and then identify witnesses who could testify," she said. 

If they can't testify in Canada, then sometimes the court will even travel to the country, which happened in the Munyeneza case, where the judge and lawyers traveled to Rwanda. 

Loblaws refrigerators cost slightly less than Canada's war crimes budget

Because of the expense, Canada must choose carefully which crimes it would like to prosecute because the war crimes program only has a budget of $15 million. 

To put that in perspective, that's only $3 million more than the $12 million the federal government gave to Loblaw's to buy new refrigerators last April. 

Perhaps more surprisingly, Oosterveld said that $15 million budget hasn't changed in the 22 years since the program was created in 1998 under Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien. 

"Their yearly budget has barely increased and in fact it's decreased because of inflation over the years," she said. 

Cheaper to hold up immigration claims than to prosecute 

This undated photograph was published in Front Page Africa, a daily newspaper based in Monrovia, linking Bill Horrace to war crimes in a bloody civil war that raged from 1989 to 1996. (Front Page Africa)

Because of a limited budget, the difficulty, time and expense needed to prosecute war criminals, Canada usually doesn't, Oosterveld said. Instead, it revokes a suspected criminal's citizenship or holds up their permanent resident status. 

Its why Canada revoked the citizenship of a 94-year-old ex-Nazi translator in 2018 and Oosterveld said it could also explain why Bill Horace's permanent residency application was still undetermined at the time of his death. 

"Perhaps there is something going on in the government. I frankly don't know if maybe the war crimes program was engaged in that way, but that kind of an overview, not in respect to his case per say, but generally, why we don't see so many universal jurisdiction applications here."  

The federal justice department did not respond to multiple requests for comment from CBC News Wednesday. 

On its website, the federal justice department states, "the War Crimes Program has made significant headway in ensuring that war criminals are denied impunity and held accountable for their actions."

"Through visa and entry screening processes, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) work together to ensure that perpetrators never get past our borders."

"When suspected perpetrators are identified as living in Canada, the Department of Justice and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) collaborate closely with the CBSA and CIC to make sure that the correct course of action is taken."

About the Author

Colin Butler

Video Journalist

Colin Butler is a veteran CBC reporter who's worked in Moncton, Saint John, Fredericton, Toronto, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton and London, Ont. Email: colin.butler@cbc.ca

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