Executive of Danish bank implicated in massive money laundering found dead

Danske BankThe former chief executive of Danske Bank’s subsidiary in Estonia, which is implicated in a massive money laundering scheme, has been found dead in an apparent suicide in Tallinn. Aivar Rehe, 56, headed the Estonian subsidiary of the Copenhagen-based Danske Bank, one of Northern Europe’s largest retail banks, which was founded in 1871. He belonged to a group of dynamic young entrepreneurs who spearheaded the privatization of the Estonian economy in the post-Soviet era.

But the reputation of the Estonian banking sector was tarnished last year, when a criminal investigation was launched into an alleged money laundering scandal. The investigation focused on customers from Russia and other Eastern European countries who allegedly used Danske Bank’s subsidiary in Estonia to launder billions of dollars in illicit funds. The probe prompted Danske Bank to pull out of the Baltic countries. Meanwhile, the probe extended to Sweden, Germany and the United States. Deutsche Bank, one of the world’s largest financial institutions, is currently being investigated for allegedly helping facilitate Danske Bank’s customers launder money by converting it into United States dollars. The criminal probe has damaged the previously spotless reputation of the Scandinavian banking sector and has made Central European banks hesitant to do business in the Baltics. Some financial observers have even warned that the Danske Bank scandal could drag the Baltic economies into a prolonged recession.

Rehe was not involved in the money laundering scandal. However, much of the money laundering took place between 2007 and 2015, when he was in charge of the Estonian subsidiary of Danske Bank. Under his leadership the bank’s operations were allegedly marred by “deficiencies in controls and governance”, which allowed for criminal activity to occur unnoticed, according to an internal Danske Bank investigation into the money laundering affair. Rehe had been missing from his home since Monday, having apparently left without taking his wallet and cellphone. His body was discovered on Wednesday in the garden of his home in the Estonian capital. Police have ruled his death an apparent suicide and believe that no foul play was involved.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 26 September 2019 | Permalink

Security official confirms ‘unprecedented’ anti-corruption campaign in Iran’s judiciary

Ebrahim RaeesiA senior Iranian intelligence official has confirmed widespread rumors that an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign is taking place at the top echelons of Iran’s all-powerful judiciary, with some senior figures already in prison. The Iranian judiciary is one of the most powerful and secretive institutions in the Islamic Republic. It is nominally supervised by the Iranian Justice Ministry, but its senior officials, including the chief justice (the head of the judiciary), are appointed directly by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. It follows that the judiciary has been a deeply conservative institution throughout the country’s existence, and especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Until earlier this year, the judiciary was headed by Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani, a protégé of Khamenei, who named him chief justice in August of 2009. Throughout Larijani’s decade-long tenure, there were rumors of rampant corruption in the judiciary, but Khamenei never seemed to intervene. However, in March of this year Larijani was suddenly removed from his position and replaced with Ebrahim Raeesi (pictured), a conservative former attorney general with middle-to-low-rank clerical credentials. Almost as soon as he took charge of the judiciary, Raeesi announced a sweeping anti-corruption campaign. In July, rumors began to circulate in the media that Iran’s Deputy Chief Justice, Akbar Tabari, had been arrested.

On Wednesday, Ali Abdollahi, head of the judiciary’s intelligence and security wing, said during a speech that Tabari had indeed been imprisoned for “exerting influence on some legal cases” and “having unlawful and unethical relationships”. He added that a number of other members of the judiciary had been placed under arrest in connection with the investigation on Tabari. On Thursday, Abdollahi said that the arrests had taken place under the direction of Supreme Leader Khamenei and that they would continue both inside and outside the judiciary. There would be “no delay in cleansing the inside and outside of the judiciary”, said Abdollahi. Raeesi and Khamenei have not made any public comments. But observers now believe that the unprecedented wave of arrests would never have reached the upper levels of the judiciary unless the supreme leader had personally given the anti-corruption campaign the green light.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Tension grows between Iraqi state and Shiite militias that helped fight ISIS

Popular Mobilization ForcesA powerful alliance of about 50 Shiite militias, who helped Iraq defeat the Islamic State, is resisting calls by the Iraqi government to surrender its weapons and join civilian life, according to observers on the ground. Much of the territory captured from the Islamic State (known also as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS) in northern Iraq is currently controlled by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a collection of around 40 different Shiite militias consisting of over 150,000 armed fighters. The militias began to form in the summer of 2014, after Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the Iraqi Shiite community, issued a fatwa (religious degree) that called or the destruction of ISIS. The Iranian-supported PMF proved instrumental in the territorial defeat of ISIS. However, the group’s leadership is ideologically aligned with Iran, and many of its members will not cooperate with the Iraqi Armed Forces, because of the latter’s proximity to the United States.

According to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle, northern Iraqi cities like Mosul, Bashiqa and Nineveh are largely under the command of the PMF today, a full 18 months after they were recaptured from ISIS. All political and economic activity in the region is controlled by PMF fighters operating under the command of the 30th Brigade, which is one of the most hardline pro-Iranian militias in the PMF. It is alleged that the militias receive economic kickbacks from Shiite-owned Iraqi firms who are awarded multi-million dollar contracts to rebuild the city. Meanwhile, as The Washington Post and other news media have reported, PMF militia members are beginning to exhibit “mafia-like” behavior, establishing protection rackets and kidnapping motorists at night in order to release them for a fee paid by their families. There are also allegations, made by Deutsche Welle and other Western media, that the PMF has conducted mass executions of Iraqi Sunnis as part of its goal to rid Iraq of Sunni Islam.

Last month, Iraqi Armed Forces tried to dismantle PMF-controlled checkpoints into Mosul, but was confronted by armed PMF forces who refused to cede contro. Following the failed attempt to recapture the checkpoints, Iraq’s Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned the PMF that it had until July 31 to disband. Its members were called to join a newly established gendarmerie under the command of the Iraqi Ministry of Defense. Failure to do so would mean that the militias would be considered outlaws and would be treated as such by the Iraqi Armed Forces, the prime minister warned. But the PMF has requested more time to lay down its weapons, as some of its more moderate commanders are trying to convince the Iran-aligned militias to declare allegiance to a state army that they consider to be pro-American. The future will show how likely that is to happen.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 08 August 2019 | Permalink

Spain’s second largest bank under investigation in massive espionage scandal

José Manuel VillarejoSpain’s second largest bank has been placed under investigation in connection with a probe into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years. The investigation centers on José Manuel Villarejo (pictured), a 67-year-old former police chief, who remains in pre-trial custody following his arrest in November of 2017 for carrying out illegal wiretaps. State prosecutors accuse Villarejo of running an illicit information-collection enterprise that violated the privacy of hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. Villarejo’s victims were targeted by corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. Many were eventually blackmailed by the recipients of the information that was collected by the former police chief and his network.

On Tuesday, Spain’s High Court, the Audiencia Nacional, placed the country’s second-largest bank, the BBVA, under formal investigation in connection with the Villarejo case. Audiencia Nacional Judge Manuel García-Castellón took the decision to investigate the BBVA after government prosecutors argued that the bank was one of Villarejo’s main clients, as shown in documents seized from the former police chief in 2017. According to the prosecution, the bank made illicit payments to a company called Cenyt, which was owned by Villarejo. The payments lasted for over 13 years, during which Villarejo earned close to €10 million ($11.1 million) from BBVA. In return, Villarejo and his employees carried out surveillance operations on behalf of the bank. One of the operations targeted Sacyr, a large Spanish-based construction company, which had tried to purchase BBVA in 2004 and 2005. Spanish government prosecutors now accuse BBVA of bribery, disclosure of sensitive information, and corrupt business practices.

In January of 2018 five active police officers and an employee of the Agencia Tributaria, Spain’s tax revenue service, testified in court about having worked for Villarejo’s network. They disclosed information about Operation KITCHEN, an espionage effort that targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular. The purpose of Operation KITCHEN was to wiretap Bárcenas’ communications without acquiring a court warrant, said the witnesses. Last year Bárcenas was jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case, the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, which brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of 2017. Villarejo’s trial continues.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 31 July 2019 | Permalink

Deposed president’s brother and two former spy chiefs arrested in Algeria

Mohamed MedièneThe younger brother of Algeria’s deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been arrested along with two former directors of the country’s spy services. All three men are known as some of the North African country’s most powerful figures. Saïd Bouteflika, 61, served as senior advisor to his brother for over a decade. In 2013, when President Bouteflika suffered a debilitating stroke, Saïd became what many see as Algeria’s de facto leader and its primary decision-maker. He had not been seen in public since February 22, when mass demonstrations broke out across the country just hours after President Bouteflika, 82, announced that he would run for the highest office in the land for a record fifth time. The massive protests forced Bouteflika, who had held the presidency for two decades, to resign on April 2.

But the demonstrators have continued to protest weekly. They demand that Bouteflika’s inner circle be removed from power. Saïd, who was widely believed to be his brother’s most likely successor to the presidency, topped the protesters’ list. He was reportedly arrested on Saturday afternoon by officers of the Intelligence and Security Department, known as DRS. Another group of DRS officers reportedly arrested General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediène (pictured above, in brown suit), who served as director of the DRS form 1990 until his firing in 2015. His successor, DRS Director General Athmane Tartag, was also arrested by a third team of DRS officers on Saturday, according to reports from Algiers. All three men were delivered to the armed forces and have remained in custody since.

Saturday’s arrests were significant, given the influence of these once all-powerful men. At the moment of his arrest, General Tartag was the head of the country’s feared spy agency, while General Mediène was once known as the world’s longest-serving intelligence director. All three are accused of conspiracy against the popular movement that prompted the end of the Bouteflika regime last month. Their accusers are the leaders of the country’s military, and are led by Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaed Salah, the Army’s chief of staff. General Salah has vowed to launch an anti-graft campaign and rid the country of corruption before surrendering power back to civilian rule. A nationwide election has been scheduled for July 4 of this year.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 May 2019 | Permalink

Libya gave French ex-president Sarkozy $8 million, says Gaddafi’s spy chief

Abdullah al-SenussiA senior intelligence advisor to Libya’s late ruler Muammar al-Gaddafi has reportedly told French investigators that the Libyan government gave $8 million to the election campaign of France’s ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy’s 30-year political legacy has been marred by a series of financial scandals, for which he is currently under investigation. In March of last year, the former French president issued strong denials of accusations that he accepted an illicit multi-million monetary donation from Gaddafi during his 2007 campaign for the presidency. During a 20-minute television interview, Sarkozy described the investigation into the allegations that he acted as an agent of influence for Libya as “a waste of time”, arguing that it was over an alleged donation of less than $45,000, which represented a tiny fraction of his campaign budget.

But according to the French investigative news website Mediapart, a team of French judges was told by Gaddafi’s former spy chief that Sarkozy was given millions of dollars in secret by the Libyan state. Abdullah al-Senussi, who oversaw the Libyan intelligence agencies under Gaddafi, reportedly told the French investigators that the funding was part of a secret deal between the two parties. In 1979, Senussi married the sister of Gaddafi’s wife and remained a trusted confidante of the Libyan leader until his violent death in 2011. According to Mediapart, he told the French judges that he personally supervised the transfer of funds to Sarkozy’s election campaign. He said that the payments entered the campaign’s coffers via a French government minister who received the funds from Libyan agents in two separate installments in 2006. In return, Sarkozy promised to help reinstate Gaddafi’s international image if he was elected president. He also promised to impede attempts by Western countries to arrest Gaddafi and some of his senior government aides —including Senussi— for terrorist crimes. Senussi allegedly said that Sarkozy himself promised him that his international arrest warrants would be quelled with the help of the French president’s personal lawyers. Sarkozy later hosted Gaddafi in Paris in a lavish setting in 2007.

Mediapart said that it accessed Senussi’s testimony before the French judges after getting hold of extracts from his formal statements during his interviews. It added that the information provided by Senussi appears to confirm similar claims made by other witnesses in the investigation about Sarkozy’s alleged illegal campaign funding. The former French president is currently involved in a separate legal dispute concerning alleged illegal spending during his failed campaign for the presidency in 2012.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 21 February 2019 | Permalink

Spanish judge broadens probe into 20-year illegal wiretap network

José Manuel VillarejoA judge in Spain has widened an investigation into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years, in return for payments by wealthy clients. At the center of the case is José Manuel Villarejo, a 67-year-old former police chief, who was arrested in November of 2017 for carrying out illegal wiretaps and remains in pre-trial custody. State prosecutors accuse Villarejo of running an illicit information-collection enterprise that violated the privacy of hundreds of unsuspecting citizens. The latter were targeted by corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. Many of Villarejo’s targets were eventually blackmailed by the recipients of information collected by the former police chief and his network.

The court heard this week that the accused maintained an extensive network of informants with whom he had worked during his time in the police force. These informants worked for telecommunications service providers, the banking sector, and even at Agencia Tributaria, Spain’s tax revenue service. They are accused of providing Villarejo’s network with information that helped him zero in on his targets, such as confidential tax returns, subscriber records of personal telephone calls, bank account numbers, and asset ownership lists. It is believed that several Spanish politicians were among Villarejo’s clients, as was the Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, one of Spain’s largest banks.

On Wednesday, the court heard from five active police officers and an employee of the Agencia Tributaria, who testified about having worked for Villarejo’s network. The six men testified about so-called Operation KITCHEN, which targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular —known as PP, or the People’s Party. The purpose of Operation KITCHEN was to wiretap Bárcenas’ communications without acquiring a court warrant, said the witnesses. In 2018 Bárcenas was jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case, the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, which brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of last year. The trial continues.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 18 January 2019 | Permalink