Top: (R-L) Hasan Uzan and Umit Gungor at the police station in Nimba on Thursday. Picture Credit: Forestry Development Authority

By Mark B. Newa

  • Police have arrested two Turkish nationals for alleged illegal logging between Ganta and Sanniquellie, Nimba County.
  •  Hasan Uzan and Umit Gungor are undergoing preliminary investigation, while authorities are in pursuit of two other Turkish nationals  
  • There is still no action against Assistant Minister of Trade Peter Somah and another Liberian who helped the company smuggle timber  

MONROVIA – Police in Nimba County have arrested two of a number of Turkish loggers for illegal logging activities, forestry authorities said.

Hasan Uzan and Umit Gungor of Askon Liberia General Trading Inc. are in police custody following their arrest last night, according to Cllr. Yanquoi Dolo, the head of the Forestry Development Authority’s legal team.

“Two of the Turkish guys were arrested last night by FDA rangers,” Dolo told The DayLight via WhatsApp. “They are currently in police custody.”

Forest rangers had been in pursuit of the men and other Turks for illegal logging operations between Ganta and Sanniquellie. They abused the terms of their sawmill license by harvesting timber in some of Nimba County’s vast rainforests, the FDA said in a press release on Tuesday.  

The FDA has also banned Askon from forestry activities and barred Hasan Uzan, Faith Uzan and Yeter Uzan.

Authorities are still looking for Yeter Uzan and Faith Uzan, Askon’s two other shareholders. Hasan Uzan holds the majority of the company’s shares (80 percent) of Askon, a company he cofounded in November 2017, according to it’s legal documents. Yeter Uzan holds 10 percent and Faith Uzan five percent. The other five percent of shares are outstanding.  Hasan Uzan and Gungor did not respond to WhatsApp messages. Efforts to talk to Yeter and Faith Uzan did not materialize.

Askon`s campsite with block wood seen piled up TheDayLight/Gerald Koinyenneh

Umit Gungor, the man arrested alongside Hasan Uzan, works for Askon. Gungor arrived in Liberia in 2020, according to Askon’s tax payment record.  

The two men are undergoing a preliminary investigation in Saclepea, according to Dolo.

“This is a criminal offense, so the police are investigating them,” Dolo said. “They were arrested last night, and tomorrow being Friday, by Monday, they will be arraigned for the court.”

In March, an investigation by The DayLight brought Askon’s illegal activities to light. The investigation showed Askon harvested timber from Nimba in huge volumes and smuggled them via containers.  

Analyzing Hasan Uzan’s social media accounts, online business platforms, and an illegal export permit, the story proved Askon trafficked timber outside of Liberia’s legal system.   

For instance, in October 2020, Askon smuggled two containers of first-class, expensive timber to India. Hasan Uzan declined to comment on the operation for that story.

Tax payment record shows that Askon did not obtain resident and work permits for its foreign workers.

Felling trees without a contract is an offense under the Regulation on Confiscated Logs, Timber and Timber Products. The Turkish nationals face a six-month prison term, a fine of three times the price of timber they harvested, or both, according to the regulation.

No Action Against Assistant Minister

The FDA has not taken any actions against   Assistant Minister of Trade Peter Somah, who assisted Askon to smuggle timber, and Sylvester Suah, another Liberian accomplice.     

It was Somah who issued a permit to Askon to export timber to India. He collected US$19,800 for the two containers, the permit shows. Akson’s tax payment record also shows that the money did not go to the Liberian government. That was a violation of forestry legal frameworks, which require all payments made to the Liberia Revenue Authority (LRA).  Somah did not respond to WhatsApp messages. He had not spoken directly to questions posed to him during the course of The DayLight’s investigation.

The permit issued to Askon by the assistant minister of commerce, Peter Somah
Peter Somah, Assistant Minister for Trade at the Ministry of Commerce awarded an illegal permit to Askon leading the Turkish company to ship two containers of timber to India in 2020. Picture credit: Facebook/Peter D. Somah

Suah, on the other hand, helped establish Askon. He made a number of trips to Istanbul between November 2015 and December 2016, according to his Facebook account. Pictures he posted on  Facebook show him taking selfies and having dinner with his would-be business associates. Not long after, Askon was established.

Suah did not reply to WhatsApp messages. “When I am ready, I will write my own story,” Suah said in March when quizzed on his connection with Askon.

This story was a production of the Community of Forest and Environmental Journalists of Liberia (CoFEJ).

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