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

Trial witness claims ‘El Chapo’ gave Mexico’s ex-president $100 million bribe

Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ GuzmánA high-profile witness has told the trial of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán in New York that the accused bribed the then President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, with $100 million in order to stay out of prison. Guzmán, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa drug cartel, was arrested in February 2014 in Mexico. In January 2017, he was extradited to the United States, where he faces a litany charges ranging from conspiracy to import and distribute drugs to money-laundering and homicide. His trial began at the Federal District Court in Brooklyn, New York, last November.

All of last Tuesday was taken up by the testimony of Alex Cifuentes Villa, a Colombian former drug lord from Medellin who, until his arrest in 2012, was one of Guzmán’s closest collaborators. Villa told the court that Peña Nieto employed mediators to reach out to the Sinaloa cartel soon after he was elected president in 2012. He alleged that the mediators offered to strike a bargain with Guzmán, according to which he would stay out of prison in return for a $250 million bribe. The bribe would be shared between Peña Nieto and his closest government aides and advisors, said Villa. In return, the Mexican president would call off a national manhunt to capture the Sinaloa cartel leader. Following prolonged negotiations, Guzmán agreed to pay Peña Nieto $100 million, said Villa, in order to secure his freedom.

This is not the first time that a witness in the trial of Guzmán has alleged that the Sinaloa cartel leader bribed senior Mexican government officials, including police and military leaders. However, it is the most sensational allegation to have emerged the trial so far, and —if true— points out that even the highest echelons of the Mexican state have succumbed to the moneyed power of the drug cartels. Last November, when Guzmán’s trial began, his lawyers hinted that claims of corruption would be aired against the highest levels of the Mexican government, including two of its recent presidents, which they called “completely corrupt”. At the time, Peña Nieto’s office issued a statement condemning the allegations and saying that the former president had never received bribes from anyone.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 January 2019 | Permalink

Shiite militias ‘acting like mafia gangs’ in Iraq’s former ISIS-held areas

Popular Mobilization ForcesThe Shiite militias that fought in the war against the Islamic State are now “engaged in mafia-like practices” in former Islamic State strongholds, enraging Iraqi Sunnis and sparking fears of another Islamist insurgency, according to a leading article in The Washington Post.  In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed Islamic State— was largely aided by Sunni Arabs’ belief that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015. Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS.

But there signs that about 50 Shiite militias, which were supported by the Iraqi state throughout the war against ISIS, are now becoming highly autonomous armed gangs that are undermining the central government in Baghdad. These militias —many of which are politically aligned with Iran— are essentially armed wings of Shiite political parties that control more than a quarter of the seats in the Iraqi parliament. In 2014, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government attempted to utilize the power of the militias by uniting them under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). PMF troops participated in every major front of the war against ISIS and today are an officially recognized military force with rank and salary structures that are equivalent to those of the Iraqi military and police. Technically, the PMF operate under the command of the Iraqi prime minister. In reality, however, the militias that make up the PMF are led by their respective Shiite commanders, many of whom are ideologically allied to Tehran.

The PMF militias are today in control of much of Sunni-dominated Western Iraq, which they helped retake from ISIS. According to Washington Post correspondents Tamer el-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim, the militias are now using their newfound territorial power to make large sums of money. Various PMF militias operate countless checkpoints across Western Iraq, on roads between cities or —increasingly— within cities such as Mosul, imposing toll fees on supply trucks and even on individual motorists. The two Washington Post correspondents warn that these 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.

Additionally, PMF commanders make arbitrary decisions about which of the nearly 2 million Iraqi Sunnis, who were displaced in refugee camps due to the war, are allowed to return to their homes. Many of these homes and land that used to belong to Iraqi Sunnis are now being expropriated by PMF commanders, who claim that their previous owners collaborated with ISIS, often without evidence. This practice, say el-Ghobashy and Salim, is rapidly altering the demographic balance between Sunnis and Shiites throughout Western Iraq. The two authors forewarn that these mafia-like practices by the PMF are “fostering local resentments […] and revive the kind of Sunni grievances that underpinned the Islamic State’s dramatic rise three years ago”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 11 January 2019 | Permalink

Analysis: Iraq’s revenge campaign against Sunnis fuels new pro-ISIS wave

Iraq security forcesA campaign of revenge by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government against Sunni Arabs in regions once controlled by the Islamic State is aiding Islamists and fueling another rebellion in the country, according to a new report. In 2014, the meteoric rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria —ISIS, later renamed to Islamic State— was largely aided by the strong belief among Iraqi Sunnis that they were second-class citizens in a Shiite-dominated Iraq. In addition to its Sunni credentials, the Islamic State was also able to appeal to Iraqi Sunnis by portraying itself as pious, efficient and trustworthy. This image was in a sharp contrast to the widespread provincial view of politicians in Baghdad as corrupt, indifferent and ineffectual. Popular support for the Islamic State among Iraq’s Sunni Arab minority took the Iraqi government by surprise and almost enabled the militant group to conquer Baghdad in 2015.

Today, after the destruction of the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate, Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security and intelligence services have returned to Sunni-majority regions that were once ruled by ISIS. But their systematic campaign of human-rights violations against Sunnis, whom they see as ISIS collaborators, is playing into Islamist propaganda and fueling a new wave of rebellion against Baghdad, according to a new report by the Washington-based Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The report, authored by The New Yorker staff writer Ben Taub, warns that the Iraqi government has no strategy on how to reach out to Iraq’s disaffected Sunni Arabs. Even worse, a state-sanctioned campaign of revenge and intimidation is taking place throughout western Iraq, in which “hundreds of thousands of civilians are suffering at the hands of their liberators”, says Taub.

In areas that until a few months ago were ruled by ISIS, anyone —regardless of age or sex— perceived as having previously supported ISIS is outright killed or sent to concentration camps. For Iraqi security forces, says Taub, civilians who did not flee ISIS are seen as inherently suspicious. Bearded men are often viewed as displaying evidence of ISIS support, even though the militant group had a policy of punishing any man who did not grow a beard in accordance with Quranic directives. Most of these people, says Taub, are fired from their jobs, sent to prison, or worse are executed by the dozens and even hundreds. A handful are tried in a court of law each month, but these are usually show trials with a conviction rate of 98 percent, he adds. Family members of the accused rarely show up in court, fearing immediate arrest and imprisonment, which appears to be a regular occurrence. It is “not uncommon for relatives [of accused ISIS supporters] to be rounded up by the security forces and sent to remote desert camps, where they are denied food, medical services, and access to documents”, reports Taub.

These arbitrary arrests are happening alongside an untold number of battlefield executions —many captured on video by jubilant Shiite soldiers and militia members— and killings of prisoners in detention centers. Taub quotes an anonymous senior official in the Iraqi intelligence services who says that “this is not just revenge on ISIS. It is revenge on Sunnis”. The widespread criminality and brutality of the Iraqi security and intelligence forces “plays directly into the jihadis’ narrative”, says Taub, by convincing Sunni Arabs that they “cannot live safely under a government dominated by Shiites”. Ultimately, what is at stake is “whether the Iraqi government can win over the segment of the population for whom ISIS seemed a viable alternative”, concludes Taub, and warns of the possibility of another armed rebellion against Baghdad by what is left of Iraq’s Sunni minority.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 18 December 2018 | Permalink

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

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

South Korean ex-president took millions in bribes from spy agency, say prosecutors

 Park Geun-hyeSouth Korea’s disgraced former president, Park Geun-hye, has been charged with accepting bribes amounting to millions of dollars from the country’s spy agency, according to reports. Park made history in 2013, by becoming the first woman president in South Korean history. However, almost as soon as she assumed office, her administration became embroiled in successive corruption scandals. By 2016, Park’s presidency had been brought to a standstill due to mass protests urging her removal from power, while increasing numbers of officials and administrators were refusing to work with her. She was eventually impeached in 2017, after the Constitutional Court of Korea found that she had violated the country’s laws by promoting the interests of personal friends and private corporations in return for cash and favors. She is currently in custody awaiting trial for 18 different charges, including abuse of power, coercion, blackmail and bribery.

On Thursday, government prosecutors charged Park with accepting between $50,000 and $190,000 in monthly bribes from the National Intelligence Service (NIS). The monthly sums were allegedly delivered to Park almost as soon as she assumed the nation’s presidency, in 2013, and continued until the summer of 2016. Prosecutors allege that the monthly bribes total in excess of $3 million. Prosecutors allege that the cash was delivered to Park’s aides in deserted parking lots and side streets located near the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential palace. The cash allegedly came from what the prosecutors described as “special operational funds” and was meant for highly secret undercover operations. It was therefore not subject to parliamentary oversight or annual audits, according to court documents. The secret funds were allegedly used by Mrs. Park and her aides for bribes in exchange for political favors, according to the indictment.

In November, prosecutors charged three former directors of the NIS with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to Park. The three men, Nam Jae-joon, Lee Byung-kee and Lee Byung-ho, headed the NIS between 2013 and 2016, when Mrs. Park was head of state. The new charges will add two more counts, one of embezzlement of funds and one of bribery, to Park’s long list of accusations. The disgraced former president is expected to remain in custody until March 3.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 05 January 2018 | Permalink

Luxembourg to further-probe Jean-Claude Juncker’s role in spy scandal

Jean-Claude JunckerA judge in Luxembourg has launched a criminal investigation into whether officials working for the country’s former Prime Minister and current European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, tried to conceal his role in a spy scandal. Until he stepped down from his post in 2013, Juncker, a member of Luxembourg’s Christian Social People’s Party, was Europe’s longest-serving elected leader, having served as Prime Minister since 1995. His resignation from his post came after a parliamentary inquiry found that the country’s State Intelligence Service (SREL) had engaged in serious criminal activity.

The investigation was launched in 2012, after a local newspaper alleged that SREL’s Director, Marco Mille, employed a surreptitious recording device disguised as a watch to record a private conversation with Juncker. This led to revelations that the SREL had carried out countless illegal wiretaps around the country and that it maintained extensive secret files on over 13,000 citizens and residents of Luxembourg. The report also alleged that SREL set up a front company in order to facilitate the transfer of $10 million from a corrupt Russian businessman to a Spanish intelligence operative, as a personal favor to the Russian. The probe also examined, but did not confirm, allegations that the Grand Duke of Luxembourg had been a trusted informant of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service. The release of the report prompted calls for Juncker to resign, because, according to Luxembourg law, the Prime Minister is directly responsible for the conduct of the country’s intelligence services, including SREL.

Now Judge Eric Schammo has launched a new criminal investigation into whether government officials working for Mr. Juncker deliberately falsified crucial evidence during the 2012 parliamentary investigation and the subsequent judicial investigation. Government prosecutors believe that a small group of officials falsified evidence in order to protect Mr. Juncker and shield him from any political fallout caused by the scandal. According to reports, former SREL Director Mille, who is currently on trial over his role in the spy affair, has in its possession a recording of a private conversation with Juncker. It is said that the recorded conversation shows that Juncker was aware of and approved the wiretap operation. This evidence was allegedly shared with members of the parliamentary inquiry in 2012. However, according to reports, pro-Juncker officials deleted it from the committee’s files. Juncker denies having had any knowledge of, or having authorized, SREL’s illegal activities.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 13 December 2017 | Permalink

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