JOHANNESBURG — The party to raise money for Nelson Mandela’s children’s charity started with an odd guest list: Dining among the celebrities was Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, also known as the “Butcher of Monrovia.”
Before the night was over, supermodel Naomi Campbell says she had been given a pouch of “dirty-looking stones” by two men who knocked on her door as she slept.
Now South African authorities want to know why the man she passed them to aboard a luxury train kept the precious stones for 13 years — and whether they are “blood diamonds.”
Prosecutors hope details from that star-studded dinner at the presidential mansion on Sept. 26, 1997 — and what transpired later that night — will help prove Taylor traded in illegally mined diamonds to arm rebels in Sierra Leone.
The man who received the uncut stones, a well-respected South African businessman, Jeremy Ratcliffe, finally handed them over to authorities last Thursday after Campbell testified in Taylor’s war crimes trial under threat of contempt.
On Friday, tests determined with certainty that they are indeed diamonds.
“They were taken to the Diamond Board for authenticating and yes, they are diamonds and they are authentic,” Musa Zondi, a spokesman for the police special investigations unit, told The Associated Press.
But whether diamond experts will be able to trace their origins to the West African conflict zone remains far from clear.
In South Africa, the mere possession of a rough diamond is illegal because of possible links to conflict zones, money-laundering and other crimes — raising questions about whether Ratcliffe or even the 40-year-old Campbell could face legal proceedings.
“Obviously if a person is in possession of uncut diamonds in this country, that person has contravened the law. We will investigate the possible contravention,” Zondi said, adding that anyone found guilty could be fined up to $34,000 or jailed for up to 10 years.
The chances of pinning down the gems’ origin are remote, experts say.
There is no science yet for pinpointing the exact geographic origin of a diamond, according to Ricardo Baretzky of the South African firm Dialab, whose company has patented a method for taking a kind of “DNA” test of a diamond’s carbon print.
This could be used in the future to create a database of diamonds and help ensure a particular diamond is conflict-free, but that is still in the development stages, Baretzky said.
A photograph of the guests at the 1997 soiree at Mandela’s presidential mansion shows the then 27-year-old Campbell, at the height of her supermodel success, looking elegant in a white gown with spaghetti straps, a large crucifix around her neck. Beside her stood Taylor, his arm outstretched and a big grin on his face.
Also in the photo are President Mandela, his hand gripping that of Graca Machel, his future wife, as well as music producer Quincy Jones, actress Mia Farrow, Hong Kong actor Tony Leung and Pakistani cricket legend Imran Khan and his wife at the time, English socialite Jemima Khan.
It’s hard to see where Taylor fits in with this celebrity crowd.
Taylor had only just been elected Liberia’s president. But before that he had invaded Liberia in 1989 and was the architect of back-to-back civil wars that would ultimately kill some 200,000 people until 2003. He is also accused of trading guns to rebels in neighboring Sierra Leone in exchange for uncut diamonds during that country’s 1992-2002 civil war, which left more than 100,000 dead.
In Liberia, Taylor drafted children into his army and had them drugged to perform horrific acts including cannibalism. Taylor’s men systematically raped, razed, slaughtered and maimed, and journalists had been writing of his alleged atrocities for years by 1997.
Campbell, who had long been involved in helping Mandela raise money for his charities, testified last Thursday that she had never heard of Taylor, nor of Liberia.
While the country often made front-page news during the war, she apparently had never seen the photos of Taylor’s men dressed in drag or wearing Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse masks as they indiscriminately killed children, the elderly, Catholic nuns and other civilians. They twice besieged the capital, Monrovia, in 1991 and 1996 — earning him the moniker “Butcher of Monrovia.”
Campbell said she received the stones from two men who knocked on her door as she slept in one of the guest villas at Mandela’s presidential complex in Pretoria — comfortable two-story structures that are fully staffed, with bedrooms on the upper floor.
The fashion icon said that over breakfast the next morning fellow guests Mia Farrow and Carole White, Campbell’s former agent, said the stones must be diamonds and were probably a gift from Taylor.
While Campbell testified she had never heard the term “blood diamonds” and would never have guessed the “dirty-looking pebbles” were diamonds, she gave them to Ratcliffe in hopes that Mandela’s charity could benefit.
Ratcliffe, then head of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, said Friday that he kept the stones and did not report them to authorities in a bid to protect the reputations of Mandela, Campbell and the charity, of which he was a founder and remains a trustee.
“I took them because I thought it might well be illegal for her to take uncut diamonds out of the country,” said Ratcliffe, who is former financial director of an international engineering firm and established a foundation that educates underprivileged South African children.
In a statement, Ratcliffe indicated he knew there could be wrongdoing, saying “I told her (Campbell) I would not involve the NMCF (Mandela’s children’s charity) in anything that could possibly be illegal.”
“In the end I decided I should just keep them,” he said.
Campbell’s testimony may be over, but that dinner in 1997 could still be a factor at Taylor’s war crimes trial: Farrow and White took the stand in the Netherlands on Monday.