Swiss police saw Russian oligarch Abramovich as threat to security, files reveal

Roman AbramovichPolice in Switzerland cautioned that allowing the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich to live there would threaten public security and damage the country’s reputation, according to files released this week. The Soviet-born Abramovich took advantage of Russia’s privatization laws in the early 1990s to gain considerable financial and political influence there. His friendship with Russia’s first post-Soviet President, Boris Yeltsin, was instrumental in his business career, and eventually placed him in close proximity to Russia’s current President, Vladimir Putin. Unlike many other oligarchs, Abramovich is believed to have remained close to Putin, despite living mostly in the United Kingdom in the past decade. The Russian oligarch has been staying in a mansion valued at close to $120 million in London’s exclusive suburb of Kensington. His lawyers have been renewing his British residence visa every six months.

However, the attempted assassination of Russian former spy Sergei Skripal earlier this year prompted the British government to intensify its scrutiny of Britain’s sizeable Russian expatriate community. London introduced tighter regulations that require Russian citizens applying to live in the UK to declare the source of their income in a far greater detail than previously. Soon after the new regulations were put in place, Abramovich’s lawyers withdrew his application to renew his British residency visa. Then, in May of this year, the Russian oligarch acquired Israeli citizenship. He has made it clear, however, that he does not intend to live in Israel. Instead, his legal team focused on an application for Swiss residency, which Abramovich first filed in the summer of 2016. In the application papers, Abramovich wrote that he intended to reside full time in Verbier, an Alpine village in the canton of Valais that is a popular holiday destination for celebrities and royalty.

A year later, following resistance and increasingly persistent questioning from the Swiss government, Abramovich’s legal team withdrew his residency application. Last February, when the Swiss press attempted to investigate the reasons behind the Swiss government’s reluctance, Abramovich’s lawyers secured an injunction forbidding the publication of information regarding his application to live in Switzerland. But the injunction was overturned late last week, and on Tuesday the Swiss media conglomerate Tamedia published some of the relevant documents. They include a letter from the Swiss Federal Police that strongly cautions against allowing the Russian-Israeli oligarch to resettle in Switzerland. The letter remarks that Abramovich has been repeatedly implicated in “suspicion of money laundering” and that the billionaire is “presumed [to have] contacts with criminal organizations”. Additionally, the letter states that Abramovich’s “assets are at least in part of illegal origin”. The letter concludes by strongly cautioning against allowing the oligarch to move to Switzerland, and argues that doing so would pose a “threat to public security” and be detrimental to the country’s international reputation.

The letter has raised eyebrows since its publication, because Switzerland is known for being highly welcoming of foreign billionaires while displaying minimal curiosity about the sources of their fortunes. Moreover, there are no known court rulings against Abramovich for money laundering or connections to organized crime. It is therefore presumed that the Swiss police report is based mostly on confidential informants and other informal sources. On Wednesday, Abramovich’s Swiss lawyer, Daniel Glasl, issued a statement saying that the Russian-Israeli magnate has never been charged with involvement in money laundering. He also reminded readers that his client has a blank criminal record.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 28 September 2018 | Permalink

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Western spy agencies thwarted alleged Russian plot to hack Swiss chemical lab

OPCW HagueWestern intelligence agencies thwarted a plot involving two Russians intending to travel to a Swiss government laboratory that investigates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and hack its computer systems. According to two separate reports by Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, the two were apprehended in The Hague in early 2018. The reports also said that the Russians were found in possession of equipment that could be used to compromise computer networks. They are believed to work for the Main Intelligence Directorate, known as GRU, Russia’s foremost military intelligence agency. The apprehension was the result of cooperation between various European intelligence services, reportedly including the Dutch Military Intelligence and Security Organization (MIVD).

The laboratory, located in the western Swiss city of Spiez, has been commissioned by the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to carry out investigations related to the poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in March of this year. It has also carried out probes on the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Russian-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. In the case of the Skripals, the laboratory said it was able to duplicate findings made earlier by a British laboratory.

Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) reportedly confirmed the arrest and subsequent expulsion of the two Russians. The Swiss agency said it “cooperated actively with Dutch and British partners” and thus “contributed to preventing illegal actions against a sensitive Swiss infrastructure”. The office of the Public Prosecutor in the Swiss capital Bern said that the two Russians had been the subject of a criminal investigation that began as early as March 2017. They were allegedly suspected of hacking the computer network of the regional office of the World Anti-Doping Agency in Lausanne. The Spiez laboratory was a target of hacking attempts earlier this year, according to a laboratory spokesperson. “We defended ourselves against that. No data was lost”, the spokesperson stated.

On April 14, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov stated that he had obtained the confidential Spiez lab report about the Skripal case “from a confidential source”. That report confirmed earlier findings made by a British laboratory. But the OPCW, of which Russia is a member, states that its protocols do not involve dissemination of scientific reports to OPCW member states. Hence, the question is how Foreign Minister Lavrov got hold of the document.

As intelNews reported in March, in the aftermath of the Skripals’ poisoning the Dutch government expelled two employees of the Russian embassy in The Hague. In a letter [.pdf] sent to the Dutch parliament on March 26 —the day when a large number of countries announced punitive measures against Russia— Holland’s foreign and internal affairs ministers stated that they had decided to expel the two Russian diplomats “in close consultation with allies and partners”. The Russians were ordered to leave the Netherlands within two weeks. It is unknown whether the two expelled Russian diplomats are the same two who were apprehended in The Hague, since none have been publicly named.

A November 2017 parliamentary letter from Dutch minister of internal affairs Kajsa Ollongren, states[4] that Russian intelligence officers are “structurally present” in the Netherlands in various sectors of society to covertly collect intelligence. The letter added that, in addition to traditional human intelligence (HUMINT) methods, Russia deploys digital means to influence decision-making processes and public opinion in Holland.

Author: Matthijs Koot | Date: 17 September 2018 | Permalink

Germany drops espionage case against senior Swiss intelligence official

Paul ZinnikerGermany has dropped a criminal case against the second-in-command of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, who was accused by Berlin of authorizing an espionage operation against the German tax collection service. A year ago, Germany launched an unprecedented investigation into three senior officials of Switzerland’s intelligence agency, the Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). The probe was launched on suspicion that the Swiss officials masterminded a spy operation against German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. The German probe was launched three months after authorities in Germany arrested a Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil.

The German government believes that billions of euros have been deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

The man identified as “Daniel M.” appears to be one of several Swiss spies who have been collecting information on the activities of German tax investigators. For a while it appeared that German counterintelligence officials were intent on targeting Paul Zinniker (pictured), Deputy Director of the NDB. They claimed that Zinniker was the main support officer of the operation that “Daniel M.” was participating in when he was arrested in Germany in 2017. According to the Germans, it was Zinniker’s who conceived the operation in 2011. But on Monday a spokesman for Germany’s federal prosecutor told the Swiss News Agency that Berlin dropped the case against Zinniker back in June. The revelation came less than 48 hours after a report in the Sunday edition of the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung claimed that the charges against Zinniker would be dropped. According to the German federal prosecutor’s office, the case against the Swiss spy official was dropped because of the lack of cooperation by Swiss authorities, which made it impossible to prove that Zinniker was indeed the mastermind of the espionage operation against Berlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 04 September 2018 | Permalink

Swiss trying to change image as Europe’s spy hub, say officials

Federal Intelligence Service SwitzerlandOfficials in Switzerland say new laws enacted in recent months will help them change their country’s image as one of Europe’s most active spy venues. For decades, the small alpine country has been a destination of choice for intelligence officers from all over the world, who use it as a place to meet assets from third countries. For example, a case officer from Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) will travel to Switzerland to meet her Algerian agent. She will exchange money and documents with him before she returns to Britain and he to Algeria, presumably after depositing his earnings into a Swiss bank account.

There are multiple reasons that explain Switzerland’s preferred status as a meeting place for spies and their handlers. The country is suitably located in the center of Europe and is a member of the European Union’s Schengen Treaty, which means that a passport is not required to enter it when arriving there from European Union member-states. Additionally, the country features an efficient transportation and telecommunication infrastructure, and its stable political system offers predictability and security, despite the limited size and strength of its law enforcement and security agencies. Perhaps most important of all, the Swiss have learned not to ask questions of visitors, many of whom flock to the country to entrust their cash to its privacy-conscious banking sector.

But, according to the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), foreign spies and their handlers should find another venue to meet in secret. Speaking to the Sunday edition of Switzerland’s NZZ newspaper, FIS spokeswoman Isabelle Graber said she and her colleagues were aware that their country is a venue for meetings between intelligence operatives from third countries. Such meetings have “continued to rise in the last few years” and include “everyone from security agency employees to freelancers”, as “the market in trading secrets has exploded”, she said. That trend, added Graber, has led to a corresponding rise in meetings aimed at exchanging information for money. Many such meetings take place throughout Switzerland, she noted, and are “in violation of Swiss sovereignty and can lead to operations against the interests of the nation”.

In the past, said Graber, FIS was unable to prevent such activities on Swiss soil, due to pro-privacy legislation, which meant that the agency’s ability to combat foreign espionage in Switzerland was “far more limited than in other countries”. However, said the intelligence agency spokeswoman, the law recently changed to permit FIS to break into homes and hotels, hack into computers, wiretap phones, and implement surveillance on individuals believed to be spies or intelligence officers of foreign countries. Armed with the new legislation, the FIS is now “working hard to clear up third-country meetings [and] to prevent these from happening or at least disrupt them”, said Graber. Several times this year alone, FIS had forward information about “third-country meetings” to judicial authorities in Switzerland, she said.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 06 February 2018 | Permalink

French-Swiss firm allegedly bribed Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria

LafargeHolcimThe world’s largest building materials manufacturer, LafargeHolcim, which is headquartered in France and Switzerland, allegedly bribed the Islamic State to keep its factory working in Syria, according to court witnesses. The company specializes in the manufacture of building materials such as cement, concrete and various byproducts. It was formed in 2015 by a merger of France-based Lafarge and Swiss-based Holcim, and currently employs an estimated 120,000 employees in nearly 100 countries around the world.

In 2011, soon after the Syrian Civil War broke out, various militant groups began operating in the area around one of LafargeHolcim’s plants, located in in north-central Syria, 10 miles south of the Syrian-Turkish border. In June of 2016, French newspaper Le Monde published allegations that LafargeHolcim’s subsidiary, Lafarge Cement Syria (LCS), which owns the plant, bribed various militias to stay away from its factory. According to the paper, at least €20,000 (approximately $24,000) went to the Islamic State, which eventually conquered the area around the LafargeHolcim plant. The article further claimed that LCS managers in Syria sent detailed emails to LafargeHolcim executives in Europe about their dealings with various militias, including the Islamic State. LafargeHolcim approved the use of funds to bribe the militias, said Le Monde, in order to allow the factory to remain operational and to avoid having their employees taken hostage.

The newspaper’s allegations prompted the Office of the Public Prosecutor in Paris to launch a preliminary investigation in October of the same year. Eventually, an official complaint was filed by the French Ministry of Finance, which argued that the activities of LCS may have constituted illicit financial relations between a French-owned company and a terrorist group. An official investigation was opened in June of 2017 into whether LafargeHolcim illegally financed terrorist groups through its subsidiaries, Lafarge and LCS. Investigators are also examining claims that the company presented the French government with forged accounting documents in order to hide the bribes it gave to various Syrian armed groups.

Last week, investigators heard from the first time from witnesses, three of whom were LCS employees in 2014, when the company first made contact with Islamic State militants. They allegedly told prosecutors that the French-Swiss company paid approximately $20,000 a month to various armed groups, including al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State. Prosecutors did not discuss details about the witnesses’ testimonies, but Le Monde said it spoke to individuals with direct knowledge of the investigation, who said that the witnesses’ testimonies were particularly damning for LafargeHolcim. The probe continues.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 September 2017 | Permalink

Germany’s celebrity spy Werner Mauss on trial for multi-million dollar tax evasion

Werner MaussGermany’s most famous living spy is on trial this week for hiding assets totaling $50 million in offshore bank accounts. He claims the money was given to him by unspecified “Western intelligence agencies” for his services. Werner Mauss became widely known in 1997, when he was arrested in Colombia for using a forged passport. He had traveled to the Latin American country to secure the release of a German woman who had been kidnapped by leftist guerrillas. The Colombian authorities eventually released him, following heavy diplomatic pressure from the German government. But the German media began investigating his background, and it soon became apparent that he was working for the German Federal Intelligence Service.

Following his unmasking in 1997, Mauss enjoyed celebrity status in Germany. Published accounts of his exploits claim that he was directly involved in neutralizing over 100 criminal gangs and that his work led to the capture of 2,000 criminals and spies. Mauss also claims to have helped prevent dangerous chemical substances from falling into the hands of terrorist groups, and that he stopped the Italian Mafia from killing Pope Benedict. Last year, however, Mauss saw his celebrity status diminish after the German government charged him with tax evasion. German prosecutors uncovered several overseas bank accounts belonging to him, which they said contained tens of millions of dollars in hidden income. They alleged that Mauss used the funds to finance a luxurious lifestyle centered on expensive overseas holidays, luxury cars, expensive gifts to women, as well as a private jet.

On Monday, the 77-year-old Mauss made his final plea in a lengthy court case concerning two of his off-shore accounts, located in UBS bank branches in the Bahamas and Luxembourg. The prosecution alleges that he failed to pay tax on assets totaling in excess of $50 million in the decade between 2002 and 2012 alone. Additionally, it is claimed that Mauss traveled from Germany to Luxembourg several times a year, to withdraw approximately $330,000 in cash per month from his secret accounts. But the accused former spy claims that the money was given to him by “Western intelligence agencies” in return for his services against international crime and terrorism, and that he should not have to pay taxes on it. In previous court appearances, he claimed that the money was not his, but belonged to various Western intelligence agencies and he simply used it to carry out intelligence operations.

The trial continues. If Mauss is convicted, he could spend nearly seven years in prison.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 19 September 2017 | Permalink

Germany investigates Swiss intelligence officers over espionage claims

Germany SwitzerlandGermany has launched an unprecedented investigation into three officers of Switzerland’s intelligence agency on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks. News of the investigation comes three months after authorities in Germany arrested another Swiss intelligence officer, identified only as “Daniel M.”, for engaging in espionage on German soil. German media report that the three unnamed men are officers of Switzerland’s Federal Intelligence Service (NDB). They are suspected of engaging in the same type of activity as “Daniel M.”, namely monitoring German tax-fraud investigators.

The German government believes that billions of euros are deposited by its citizens in banking institutions in European tax-havens like Liechtenstein, Switzerland or Monaco. For the past decade, German authorities have resorted to bribing whistleblowers in offshore banks in order to acquire internal documents that reveal the identities of German citizens who are hiding their money in foreign bank accounts. It is estimated that over a hundred million dollars have been paid to whistleblowers by German authorities since 2006. The latter argue that the proceeds collected from unpaid taxes and fines more than justify the payments made out to whistleblowers. But the Swiss government has strongly criticized Berlin for encouraging Swiss banking sector employees to steal internal corporate information that often breaks Switzerland’s stringent privacy laws. It is believed that the NDB has been instructed by the Swiss government to monitor efforts by German tax-fraud investigators to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector.

According to German media, the investigation against the three NDB officers was launched earlier this month. The news is likely to further complicate relations between Berlin and Bern. The two governments have been at loggerheads since the arrest of “Daniel M.”. Switzerland responded to the arrest by issuing arrest warrants for a number of German tax investigators. But Germany dismissed the move, saying it would refuse to comply with the warrants. On Monday, several European news media quoted German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel, who described the alleged activities of the NDB as “incredible” and warned that the ongoing dispute between Germany and Switzerland could “wreck” their bilateral relationship.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 16 August 2017 | Permalink