Extradition fight over Russian man held in Greece may point to spies’ use of bitcoin

Aleksandr VinnikAn intense fight between the United States and Russia over the extradition of a Russian cryptocurrency tycoon being held in Greece, is raising questions about the possible use of cryptocurrencies by spies. The tycoon in question is Aleksandr Vinnik, 39, who in 2011 co-founded BTC-e, an international cryptocurrency-trading platform. BTC-e allowed users to buy or sell several popular cryptocurrencies, including bitcoin and litecoin, using Russian rubles, United States dollars, or European Union euro currencies. Although headquartered in Russia, BTC-e’s servers were located in Bulgaria, while its operations were conducted through its offshore components in Cyprus and the Seychelles.

By 2015, BTC-e was reportedly facilitating just over 3 percent of the worldwide daily volume of cryptocurrency trading. But, according to some sources, the company was also facilitating up to 70 percent of worldwide criminal activity involving cryptocurrencies. Washington alleges that the company was built on a model that relied heavily on the activities of criminal entities, as the latter sought the ability to conduct online monetary transactions without being tracked by governments.

In 2017, American authorities seized BTC-e’s website —a move that terminated the company’s operations. Washington also prompted authorities in Greece to arrest Vinnik, while he was vacationing at a Greek resort with his family. The Russian co-founder of BTC-e is today in a Greek prison, awaiting a decision by the Greek authorities to extradite him to the United States. If this happens, he will be tried on 21 counts of international money laundering and a host of other criminal charges.

Interestingly, however, shortly after Vinnik’s arrest, the Russian government filed a court order to have Greece extradite him to Russia, where he is reportedly wanted for relatively minor fraud-related charges. What is more, the Greek government was directly lobbied by no other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin —an unusually high-level approach, when one considers Vinnik’s trivial charges in Russia. France has also sought to have Vinnik extradited there, instead of the United States.

What lies behind these moves? There are many who believe that American authorities moved against BTC-e after realizing that Russian spies used the company to hide their traces while trying to meddle with the 2016 presidential elections in the United States. A recent report by the State Department’s RFE/RL news website claims that a number of London-based observers from groups such as Global Witness and Elliptic Enterprises believe there are strong links between Russian spy agencies and BTC-e. American authorities have managed to access information about the inner workings of BTC-e’s website. They are probably viewing Vinnik as an intelligence asset, who can potentially shed light on the company’s alleged role as a money laundering mechanism for Russian spies —and probably others as well.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 29 November 2019 | Permalink

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

Key Hezbollah financier arrested in Brazil after years on the run

Assad Ahmad BarakatBrazilian police have announced the arrest of Assad Ahmad Barakat, a Lebanese national who is believed to be one of the most prolific international financiers for the Shiite group Hezbollah. Barakat was born in Lebanon but fled to Paraguay in the mid-1980s in the midst of Lebanon’s brutal civil war. He began an import-export business and eventually acquired Paraguayan citizenship. He gradually built a small business empire in Paraguay, which included engineering and construction, as well as transportation firms. Throughout that time, however, Barakat maintained strong connections with Hezbollah, the paramilitary group that has a strong following among Lebanon’s large Shiite Muslim community.

By the mid-1990s, Barakat was one of Hezbollah’s most active representatives in the Americas and operated as the Shiite group’s head of paramilitary and fundraising activities in South America. It is believed that he used his Paraguayan passport to travel to Iran and Lebanon for meetings with Hezbollah’s leadership at least once a year. In 2001, following pressure from the United States, Paraguay charged Barakat in absentia with money-laundering. He was eventually caught in Brazil in 2002 and extradited to Paraguay, where he was tried and sentenced to six years in prison. Upon his release in 2008, Barakat returned to his role as Hezbollah’s fundraiser. Using fake passports, he traveled frequently to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and other Latin American countries, despite having been described by the US government as “one of the most prominent and influential members of the [Hezbollah] terrorist organization”. He was wanted in Paraguay for identity theft and in Argentina for laundering in excess of $10 million in casinos in the north of the country.

Last Friday, the Brazilian Federal Police announced that Barakat had been arrested in the city of Foz do Iguaçu, which is adjacent to the Paraguayan and Argentinian borders. The city of 250,000 is the largest urban center of the so-called Tri-Border tropical region, known for its tropical climate, spectacular mountain views and casinos. Aside from being a year-round tourism center, the area is a known as a hotbed of money-laundering, forged currency smuggling and drug-trafficking activity. It is now known whether Barakat will face charges in Brazil or whether he will be extradited to Paraguay or Argentina.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2018 | Permalink

Probe uncovers massive $3 billion secret bribe fund in Azerbaijan

Ilham AliyevAn investigation by a consortium of European newspapers has uncovered details of a massive slush fund worth nearly $3 billion, which was allegedly used by Azerbaijan’s governing elite to bribe officials, business leaders and journalists at home and abroad. The fund was operated out of Baku, the capital of the former Soviet state, which is routinely accused of human-rights abuses. Western countries, including the United States, censure the government of the oil-rich state for its role in systematic abuses. These involve high levels of public- and private-sector corruption, vote-rigging, politically motivated disappearances, and wide curtailment of basic civil liberties. This new information is bound to add to Azerbaijan’s image as a secretive oil-rich state ruled by corrupt elite connected to the country’s President, Ilham Aliyev, and his family.

The existence of the slush fund was revealed by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an international investigative consortium. The OCCRP’s report was published in Tuesday, following a lengthy investigation by members of 17 European news media, including publications in the United States, Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium. The report states that the fund, which it nicknames “the Azerbaijani Laundromat”, was operational for over two years, from 2012 to 2014. During that time, it participated in “over 13,000 transactions”, many of which were carried out through companies based in the United Kingdom but registered in the British Virgin Islands, Belize and the Seychelles. Payments were processed by the Estonian branch of Danske Bank, a major European banking institution.

According to the OCCRP report, most of the fund’s recipients were politicians, business executives, reporters and other influential people in Western Europe, as well as Turkey and Central Asia. Other recipients included wealthy families in Azerbaijan, who used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle, according to the report. Some foreign recipients of the funds were politicians, journalists or lobbyists who have been vocal in supporting Azerbaijan’s government and its policies. Most of the funds are believed to have originated from Azerbaijani-based companies, primarily Baktelecom MMC. But Russian-based companies, including Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-operated exporter and importer of defense-related technologies, also contributed over $30 million to the slush fund.

Perhaps most controversially, the OCCRP report alleges that some of the secret slash funds originated from senior cabinet members in Azerbaijan, as well as some intelligence officials. It also states that investigators uncovered “ample evidence of [the fund’s] connection to the family of [Azerbaijan’s longtime] President Ilham Aliyev”. Late on Tuesday, a statement issued by President Aliyev’s office rejected the report as “baseless, malicious and […] provocative in nature”. More reactions to the OCCRP report are expected in the coming days.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 06 September 2017 | Permalink

Nigerian spy chief suspended after $43 million cash stash found in apartment

EFCC NigeriaThe director of Nigeria’s powerful intelligence agency has been suspended on orders of the president, after a massive stash of cash totaling $43 million was found in an apartment in Lagos. The money was discovered by investigators working for the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). Based in Abuja, the EFCC is a high-profile body that was created in 2003, in response to accusations by the international community that Nigeria is used as a major base for global money-laundering schemes.

According to media reports, the money was found in a vacant apartment located in Ikoyi, arguably the most affluent neighborhood of the Nigerian capital and one of the wealthiest urban areas in Africa. The cash had been wrapped in transparent plastic sheets and hidden inside several metallic filing cabinets, as well as concealed behind a fake partition in a wooden wardrobe. According to a statement issued by the Nigerian government, the apartment was searched following tip-offs by local residents. The latter allegedly reported that a mysterious woman was seen entering or leaving the apartment with suspicious-looking bags at all hours of the day or night. Some residents told EFCC investigators that the woman may have been a man in disguise.

Government officials in Lagos said on Wednesday that the apartment belongs to the National Intelligence Agency, Nigeria’s primary intelligence organization. An investigation has therefore been launched into how the cash was accumulated in the apartment, and whether it had been authorized by intelligence officials or other government executives. In the meantime, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari ordered the immediate suspension of Ambassador Ayo Oke, who has been serving as director of the National Intelligence Agency. The ambassador is believed to be under house arrest and is not permitted to resume his professional duties until after the investigation has been completed. President Buhari has asked to be given the results of the investigation in two weeks.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 20 April 2017 | Permalink

Analysis: The security implications of the Panama Papers

First Post HAside from their immediate shock value, the Panama Papers reveal the enormous extent of tax evasion on a worldwide scale. This unprecedented phenomenon is inextricably tied with broader trends in globalized finance-capitalism that directly threaten the very survival of the postwar welfare state. National intelligence agencies must begin to view offshore tax evasion as an existential threat to the security of organized government and need to augment their economic role as part of their overall mission to protect and secure law-abiding citizens.

THE BACKGROUND OF THE LEAK

The source of the Panama Papers leak —the largest in history— is apparently a single individual who contacted the widely respected German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung over a year ago. After receiving assurances that his or her anonymity would be safeguarded, the source proceeded to provide the paper with what eventually amounted to over 11.5 million files. They include company emails, banking transaction records, and files of clients that span the years 1977 to 2015. The source asked for no financial compensation or other form of reimbursement in return, saying only that he or she wanted to “make these crimes public”.

Faced with the largest data leak in recorded history, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reporters contacted the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which is the international arm of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity. With ICIJ acting as an umbrella group, the German reporters were eventually joined by 370 journalists representing 100 news outlets from 76 Q Quotecountries. On Sunday, following a year-long analysis of the data, the reporting partners began publishing revelations from the Panama Papers, and say they will continue to do so for several days to come.

THE ROLE OF MOSSACK FONSECA

The documents are from the internal records of Mossack Fonseca, a law firm headquartered in Panama City, Panama, with offices in 42 countries. The company is one of the world’s most prolific registrars and administrators of shell companies in offshore locations. It has created more than 300,000 shell companies throughout its history, most of them in offshore tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, or Guernsey. Its clients are offered the ability to incorporate a generic-sounding company and headquarter it in an offshore tax haven. In exchange for an annual fee, Mossack Fonseca provides the company with a sham director and shareholders, thus concealing the true owner and actual beneficiary of the business.

The power of the leaked documents is that they reveal the actual owners of 214,000 offshore shell companies managed by Mossack Fonseca. The long list of names includes dozens of current and former heads of state, as well as hundreds of politicians, public figures and celebrities. Many of these individuals have failed to declare their earnings from their shell companies in their annual tax Q Quotestatements, which means they have not been paying taxes in their country of citizenship or residency. Thus, there are now thousands of Mossack Fonseca clients in over 100 countries who are preparing to face the legal consequences of tax evasion.

SECURITY IMPLICATIONS

Equally importantly, however, the leaked documents reveal that Mossack Fonseca’s clients appear to include at least 33 individuals and companies that are involved in organized crime or have close contacts with terrorist organizations. This sheds light on the increasingly disappearing line that once separated illicit activities such as tax avoidance and tax evasion, from money laundering, organized crime and terrorism. This phenomenon is assisted by unscrupulous companies like Mossack Fonseca, which act as anonymizing platforms for wealthy celebrities, criminals and terrorists alike.

The leak also shows the extent to which national governments have been unable to stem the tide of unfettered finance-capitalism, which today threatens the stability and cohesion of developed and developing economies alike. Moreover, the sheer scale of offshore capital funds, which, according to one expert, amount to as much as $32 trillion, threaten the economic security of nation states and must be viewed as an existential threat to the ability of states to fund public expenditures though taxation. The political arrangement that led to the creation of the postwar welfare state is today being directly threatened by the inability or unwillingness of organized states to monitor the largely unregulated flow of capital to offshore tax havens.

Today, entire economies, including much of southern Europe, the Balkans, as well as Latin America, are crumbling under the fiscal weight created by mass-scale tax evasion and organized crime. Organized criminals are now actively working closely with the banking sector, thus creating even more opportunities for money laundering and other financial illegality on an unprecedented scale. The Süddeutsche Zeitung revelations demonstrate that the line that separates legitimate economic activity from the rogue underbelly of global capitalism is exceedingly thin. It is high time that Western intelligence agencies viewed this worrying development as an asymmetrical threat against the security of law-abiding societies and began dealing with offshore tax havens with the same intensity that they have displayed against terrorist safe havens since 9/11.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 April 2016 | Permalink

Russian whistleblower who died in 2012 may have been poisoned

Aleksandr PerepilichnyA Russian businessman, who died in London while assisting a Swiss probe into a massive money-laundering scheme, may have been poisoned with a substance derived from a highly toxic plant, an inquest has heard. Aleksandr Perepilichny was an influential Moscow investment banker until he fled Russia in 2009, saying that his life had been threatened after a disagreement with his business partners. A few months later, having moved to an exclusive district in Surrey, south of London, Perepilichny began cooperating with Swiss authorities who were investigating a multi-million dollar money-laundering scheme involving senior Russian government officials. The scheme, uncovered by a hedge fund firm called Hermitage Capital Management (CMP), and described by some as the biggest tax fraud in Russian history, defrauded the Russian Treasury of at least $240 million. The case made international headlines in 2009, when one of its key figures, a CMP lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky, died in mysterious circumstances while being held in a Russian prison. After Magnitsky’s death, Perepilichny said he too had been warned in no uncertain terms that his name featured on a Russian mafia hit list.

On November 10, 2012, having just returned to his luxury Surrey home after a three-day trip to France, Perepilichny went out to jog. He was found dead later that evening, having collapsed in the middle of a side street near his house. He was 44. A postmortem examination by police concluded that he had died of natural causes and pointed to the strong possibility of a heart attack. However, lawyers representing the late businessman’s family told a pre-inquest hearing on Monday that, according to new medical evidence, Perepilichny stomach was found to have traces of a poisonous plant. The shrub-like plant, known as gelsemium, is extremely rare and mostly grows in remote parts of China. One of the lawyers, Bob Moxon-Browne, claimed at the hearing that gelsemium is a “known weapon of assassination [used] by Chinese and Russian contract killers”. The Perepilichny family’s legal team said that further forensic tests are to be carried out, so that the claim of poisoning can be examined in more detail.