Pakistan removes judge who accused spy agency of trying to rig general election

Shaukat Aziz SiddiquiThe government of Pakistan has dismissed a High Court judge who accused the country’s powerful intelligence agency of interfering with the judicial process in order to rig the outcome of last July’s general election. On July 25, the governing center-right Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) was unseated by the conservative-centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by former cricket star Imran Khan. The elections took place amidst a corruption scandal that saw Nawaz Sharif, former prime minister of Pakistan and leading member of PML-N, arrested on charges of fraud. Sharif was charged following the release of the so-called Panama papers, the massive data leak of documents belonging to Panamanian offshore firm Mossack Fonseca. The leak disclosed that Sharif and his family were owners of a large number of high-end properties in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world.

Shortly after the revelations, Sharif moved to Britain, where he and his children cared for his ailing wife. During his absence, he was sentenced in absentia to ten years in prison. Sharif chose to return to Pakistan on July 13, less than two weeks prior to the general election, and was arrested upon arriving in Islamabad. His supporters claim that the media spectacle surrounding his imprisonment severely hurt PML-N’s electoral performance. Last month, the High Court in Islamabad suspended Sharif’s prison sentence and ordered his release on bail, saying that the prosecution had failed to prove conclusively that the high-end properties in the UK belonged to him. Sharif’s release prompted renewed accusations of electoral rigging by PML-N supporters, who claim that Sharif could have been released from prison before the elections, and that the High Court deliberately withheld its decision until this month in order to hurt PML-N.

In July, Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, a High Court judge, publicly added his voice to those claiming that Sharif’s arrest had been politically motivated. In a speech given before the Rawalpindi Bar Association, the High Court judge accused Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) of exercising pressure on High Court judges in order to delay the decision to release Sharif on bail until after the general election. Justice Siddiqui’s charges made national headlines and prompted strong denials from the Pakistani military, which governs the ISI, and the Pakistan High Court. The latter launched an investigation of Justice Siddiqui, following a complaint issued by the country’s military leadership.

On Friday, the panel of judges that carried out the investigation on Justice Siddiqui, accused him of “conduct unbecoming of a judge of a high court” and recommended his removal from the High Court. On the same day, the Ministry of Justice of Pakistan announced that the country’s President, Arif Alvi, was “pleased to remove Mr. Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui […] from his office with immediate effect”. The announcement did not elaborate on the precise reasons that led to Justice Siddiqui’s removal from the country’s High Court. Siddiqui’s firing marks the first time that a judge has been dismissed under an elected government in Pakistan. In the past, such incidents have occurred only under military dictatorships, which have ruled Pakistan for prolonged periods since the country’s independence in 1947.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 15 October 2018 | Permalink

Advertisements

Malaysia charges senior intelligence officials with stealing government funds

Azam Baki MalaysiaEight senior officials of Malaysia’s external intelligence agency, including its former director, have been arrested, allegedly for stealing over $16 million from government coffers. The arrests represent a dramatic widening of the anti-corruption campaign that has gripped the Asian nation of 31 million since it was launched in May of this year. The campaign is led by a special task force within the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). The task force was set up by Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, with the aim of probing the so-called 1MDB scandal. The acronym refers to the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, a government-owned strategic development company spearheaded by Malaysia’s then Prime Minister, Dato Sri Najib Razak, with the aim of raising funds to match foreign direct investment in the country.

However, in 2015 opposition politicians began to allege that hundreds of millions of dollars had gone missing from the fund. In May 2018, when Malaysia’s current prime minister took office, the MACC launched a nationwide investigation into the allegations. Meanwhile, Western governments, including the United States, alleged that several billions in 1MDB funds invested from abroad were stolen and used to purchase a superyacht, private airplanes and other luxury items, such as jewelry, clothing and fine art. By August, the 1MDB probe had turned into the largest corruption investigation in Malaysia’s history. On August 6, former Prime Minister Najib Razak was charged with several counts of money laundering and was barred from leaving the country.

On Thursday, MACC’s Operations Commissioner, Azam Baki said at a press conference in Kuala Lumpur that police had arrested eight current and former member of the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization (MEIO). The eight included officials, case officers, and the agency’s former Director, Hasanah Abdul Hamid, said Baki. He added that during the arrests police seized over $6 million in cash and luxury items from several locations, including from MEIO’s headquarters in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative center located 25 miles south of Kuala Lumpur. A ninth person, an unnamed Malaysian businessman who lives in London, had also been arrested, said the MACC official. According to a government press release, the eight current and former members of MEIO are connected to a transfer of $16 million from the 1MDB fund to private bank accounts in Malaysia and abroad. All eight have denied the charges through their lawyers.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 31 August 2018 | Permalink

Vietnam arrests deputy security minister in unprecedented anti-corruption campaign

Phan Van Anh VuIn a move that has stunned Vietnamese society, authorities in Hanoi have arrested one of the country’s most powerful security officials, allegedly for helping a business tycoon and former intelligence agent escape abroad. The move, which observes described as “unprecedented” in modern Vietnamese history, signals a widening of the anti-corruption campaign that started in 2016 and is now affecting Vietnam’s powerful intelligence agencies. Vietnam boasts one of Asia’s fastest-growing economies, but its economic performance is severely hampered by corruption, which is endemic in the communist country of 93 million. In its most recent Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International ranked Vietnam 107th out of the world’s 180 countries, behind nations like Colombia, Albania and Zambia. Two years ago, the Vietnamese government launched an anti-corruption campaign, which has so far resulted in a wave of arrests and demotions of senior officials in the country’s lucrative energy and banking sectors. The moves have stunned the Vietnamese public, which is not used to witnessing public discussions of corruption, let alone the open punishment of state officials.

Until this week, one major area of government appeared to have been spared from the anti-corruption probe: the feared security and intelligence community. This largely means the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), which is the most powerful civilian agency in the country and has traditionally been off-limits during previous transitional periods in Vietnam’s turbulent history. The MPS is in charge of the country’s extensive police force, its civilian intelligence wing, and its nascent cyber security units. The size of its employee base is classified, though it is believed to be vast.

But now the traditional shielding of the MPS from the unprecedented changes taking place in the Vietnamese government appears to have ended. On Wednesday, authorities announced the arrest of Bui Van Thanh, MPS’ deputy minister and the country’s second most powerful intelligence official. A press statement issued by the government said that Thanh had committed “serious violations in his work”. Consequently, he had been dismissed and his military rank would be lowered from lieutenant general to colonel. Government officials said Thanh came under suspicion for facilitating the escape of Phan Van Anh Vu, a government employee who became a property tycoon after amassing a large personal fortune while working as an MPS agent. Vu was wanted by Hanoi for allegedly selling state secrets in exchange for money, but managed to leave the country. In January, however, he was arrested in Singapore and extradited to Vietnam. He reportedly told authorities that a fake passport in his possession had been given to him by Thanh. He also said that Thanh helped him buy state property by giving him inside information affecting the sale prices. In July, Vu was jailed or nine years for espionage and corruption, following a closed-door trial. The precise charges against him remain unclear.

Earlier this week, the Vietnamese government announced that a “major restructuring” would be taking place in the MPS, with the aim of reducing its size and maximizing its efficiency. Government media reported that “hundreds of departments” would be merged and the overall structure of the organization would be heavily scrutinized. Many observers believe that more arrests and demotions will follow in connection with this announcement. Some critics have argued, however, that political infighting is fueling the anti-corruption probe and that it is a concealed attempt to neutralize intra-party opponents of the current administration in Hanoi.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 10 August 2018 | Permalink

 

 

Argentina’s spy chief allegedly implicated in Brazil money-laundering scandal

Gustavo ArribasThe director of Argentina’s spy agency has been accused by security officials in Brazil of being implicated in a multi-million dollar money-laundering scandal that involves dozens of senior officials across Latin America. The allegations were made in the context of the so-called “operation car wash”, known in Portuguese as Operação Lava Jato. The term refers to a money-laundering probe that began in 2014, following allegations of illegal financial practices by a number of private import-export companies in Brazil. Soon, however, Lava Jato led to the exposure of large-scale corruption, nepotism and bribing practices at the core of Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras. Today, four years later, the constantly expanding investigation has implicated nearly 200 people —many of them well-known politicians— in numerous Latin American countries, including Mexico, Peru and Venezuela.

On Thursday, the car wash probe appeared to implicate for the first time a senior state official in Argentina. The figure at the center of the allegations is Gustavo Arribas (pictured), the Director General of the country’s Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI). A former sports tycoon, who made his fortune as a footballers’ representative, he surprised many in December 2015 when he was appointed spy director by Argentina’s President, Mauricio Macri. Arribas has financial dealings with Brazil, where he owns real estate. But these properties may become liabilities after Arribas was accused by Victor Ferreira, a federal police official and Lava Jato investigator, of having received nearly $1 million in a money-laundering scheme involving fraudulent invoices submitted for financial compensation to the Brazilian government by bogus companies. The money was allegedly sent to Arribas via a wire transfer that was routed to him through a bank in Hong King. The transfer had not been approved by the Central Bank of Brazil, which is supposed to supervise all overseas money transfers involving government contracts.

Brazilian prosecutors served several suspects across Brazil with search warrants on Thursday, in an attempt to uncover more information about the alleged illegal money transfer. Arribas, however, issued a statement later on the same day, in which he denied any connection with Lava Jato and said that allegations against him were motivated by malice. In 2016, Arribas was accused in Argentina of having received nearly $600,000 from corrupt officials of Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which is implicated in operation car wash. However, he was cleared by a federal judge, who threw the case out of court. In his statement issued on Thursday, Arribas stressed that he had not been officially charged with any crime in Argentina or Brazil.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 02 March 2018 | Permalink

Discovery of cocaine in Russian diplomatic luggage leads to numerous arrests

FSB drug arrestsA Russian former diplomatic employee and an Argentine police officer are among six people arrested following the discovery of nearly 1000 pounds of cocaine inside the Russian diplomatic compound in Buenos Aires. The arrests took place last Thursday and were announced in Argentina by the country’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich. She told reporters that the arrests came after a 14-month investigation in Argentina, Russia and Germany. She added that the investigation unveiled “one of the most complex and extravagant drug-dealing operations” in Argentina’s history.

The 14-month probe dates to December of 2016, when Victor Koronelli, Russia’s ambassador to Argentina, and thee members of Russia’s Federal Security Service, discreetly approached Argentinian authorities. They informed the Argentinians that they had discovered 16 pieces of luggage filled with drugs inside an annex of the Russian embassy in Buenos Aires. Argentinian authorities were given permission to secretly enter the embassy grounds and inspect the suitcases. They confirmed that they contained more than 850 pounds (390 kilos) of cocaine, with a street value of more than $60 million. The suitcases were intended for transfer to Russia via a diplomatic flight. Cargo transferred on diplomatic flights cannot be searched by international customs officials due to the privilege of diplomatic immunity.

According to Bullrich, diplomatic counter-narcotics officers secretly transferred the bags to a separate location, where they replaced the cocaine with flour and fitted the suitcases with GPS tracking devices, before returning them to the Russian embassy annex. The luggage was eventually transferred to Russia via airplane in December 2017, a year after it was bugged by the Argentinians. Several Argentinian customs officers traveled to Russia to monitor the transfer of the shipment, in coordination with Russian authorities. The latter arrested two Russian citizens who tried to collect the suitcases. Another Russian citizen, and former staff member of the Russian embassy in Argentina, Alia Abyanov, was arrested in Moscow. Officials said Abyanov helped plan the transfer of the suitcases to Russia.

Two Argentines with dual Russian citizenship were also arrested in Buenos Aires. One of them has been named as Iván Blizniouk, a police officer, who is believed to have mediated between the drug smugglers and corrupt Argentine customs officers. A seventh suspect, identified only as “Señor K.” by the Argentine authorities, remains at large. He is believed to be living in Germany and is currently wanted by Interpol pursuant to an international warrant that has been issued for his arrest.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 27 February 2018 | Permalink

Latvia warns of ‘hybrid war’ as central bank corruption probe widens

Ilmars RimsevicsLatvian defense officials have hinted that Russia is trying to destabilize Latvia’s economy, as a Western-backed anti-corruption probe at the highest levels of the Baltic country’s banking sector deepens. Developments have progressed at a high speed since Monday of last week, when Latvia’s Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau arrested Ilmars Rimsevics, the longtime Governor of the Bank of Latvia —the country’s central bank. Bureau investigators said Rimsevics’ arrest related to charges that he received bribes in order to facilitate money laundering from Russia.

Rimsevics became deputy governor of the Bank of Latvia in 1992, just months after the country seceded from the Soviet Union. In 2001 he was promoted to governor, a post that he has held onto ever since. When the small Baltic country joined the European Union, in January 2014, Rimsevics automatically became a member of the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB), which directs the Eurozone’s monetary policy and monitors the performance of the euro. But last week the Latvian government rescinded Rimsevics’ security clearance and a scheduled meeting of the ECB in Frankfurt took place without him.

This dramatic development underscores the troubled state of Latvia’s banking sector, which is a notorious reputation as one of Europe’s most lucrative money-laundering hubs. Soon after it gained its independence, the small country of 2 million became an attractive conduit for Russia’s nouveau riche seeking to funnel their money westward. The country’s sizeable Russian-speaking minority allowed the local banking sector to offer highly sought-after services in the Russian language, which further-facilitated its contacts with wealthy Russian clients. This was further-enhanced by Latvia’s integration into the economic structure of the European Union in 2014. But Western countries began voicing concerns about close links between Latvia’s banking sector and Russian oligarchs in 1996. By 2011, the United States Department of the Treasury had identified numerous Latvian banks as serious violators of laws designed to prevent money laundering. In 2014, and again in 2017, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project identified Latvia as part of an extensive international money-laundering scheme dubbed “the Russian Laundromat”.

Notably, Rimsevics was arrested less than a week after Washington vowed to impose penalties on ABLV, Latvia’s third largest bank, for “institutionalizing money laundering” and violating a host of financial sanctions imposed by the United Nations, including sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear program. There is no question, therefore, that Rimsevics’ dramatic arrest was designed to combat what The Financial Times recently called “a banking scandal on the Baltic”. In the past few hours, reports from Riga indicate that ABLV may be on the brink of collapse, being unable to withstand the financial effects of the public scandal that emerged in recent days.

But things are never simple in the Baltic region. Soon after Rimsevics’ release on bail, reports in the Latvian media pointed to alleged efforts by Russia to defame him, in an effort to further-tarnish the already damaged reputation of Latvia’s banking sector. On Tuesday of last week, the Latvian Ministry of Defense said it had evidence that Rimsevics was targeted in a “disinformation operation” directed from abroad. It added that there was a “high probability that [a] massive information operation” had been launched for “foreign centers” aimed at destabilizing Latvia’s banks. No evidence or further information about the allegation was revealed. But the Defense Ministry’s allegations seemed to be supported by an analysis of the relevant news reporting by the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab in Washington.

On February 23, Latvia’s Prime Minister, Maris Kucinskis, and President, Raimonds Vejonis, seemed to endorse the Defense Ministry’s allegations. Despite the fact that both politicians have urged Rimsevics to resign “for the sake of the financial system”, they also warned that Latvia was under attack in an information war. The two men did not make specific allegations, but said that the information attacks experienced by Latvia were “identical” to those seen in recent years in France, Germany, and the United States. Meanwhile, shortly after his release, Rimsevics held a press conference in Riga, where he denied all charges against him. He accused Latvia’s private banks of conspiring against him and said he was the victim of “death threats” to destabilize the country. On the same day Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russia had no comment on the situation in Latvia. “This is an internal political matter for our Latvian comrades [and] we wouldn’t want to get involved”, he said.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 February 2018 | Permalink

Bulgarian ex-spy director jailed for embezzling millions from public coffers

Kircho KirovA former director of Bulgaria’s intelligence service, who headed the agency for nearly a decade, has been jailed for embezzling millions of dollars from public funds. General Kircho Kirov, 67, was director of the Bulgarian National Intelligence Service (NIS) from February 2003 until January 2012. After stepping down from his post he was appointed national security advisor to Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, Boiko Borissov. But he soon fell out with Borrisov and was fired after just two months on the job. Now Borissov’s administration has jailed Kircho for 15 years, accusing him of misappropriating funds intended for NIS operations.

Government prosecutors said that during his tenure as NIS director, General Kircho conspired with a subordinate NIS employee, Dimitar Lidarev, to siphon NIS funds to a private account. They told a court in Bulgarian capital Sofia that General Kircho and Lidarev falsified documents to allow them to divert nearly $3.2 million to private accounts for their personal use. Most of the funds were stolen between 2007 and 2011, according to court documents. On Tuesday, the court handed General Kircho a 15 year jail sentence and ordered the confiscation of 50 percent of his personal assets. Lidarev, who was General Kircho’s co-defendant at his trial, was sentenced to three years in prison with another five years’ probation, for aiding and abetting General Kircho’s embezzlement by forging documents. The court decision quashed General Kircho’s appeal against an earlier sentence, delivered in 2015, that jailed him for 10 years for embezzling nearly $4 million of state funds between 2007 and 2011.

Throughout his latest trial, General Kircho insisted he was innocent and accused government prosecutors of carrying out a politically motivated campaign against him, directed by his former ally, Prime Minister Borissov. The former spy director added that he was targeted as part of a deliberate effort to convince the European Union that Bulgaria is targeting financial corruption. Next week, Prime Minister Borissov’s government will be facing a no-confidence vote in parliament, over claims that corruption remains rife in the Balkan country of 7 million people.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 23 January 2018 | Permalink