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ECONOMY | 04-10-2021 13:20

World leaders scramble to limit 'Pandora Papers' damage

More than a dozen heads of state and government, from Jordan to Azerbaijan, Kenya and the Czech Republic, have used offshore tax havens to hide assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a far-reaching new investigation by the ICIJ media consortium.

Governments moved Monday to limit the fallout from a release of millions of documents detailing how leaders have used offshore tax havens to stash assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Some 35 current and former leaders are featured in roughly 11.9 million documents leaked from financial services companies across the world that include reports of luxury homes on the French Riviera, Monte Carlo and California.

The documents, known as the 'Pandora Papers,' were obtained by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and released in stories by media partners including The Washington Post, the BBC and The Guardian.

Allegations range from corruption to money-laundering and tax avoidance.

Although holding assets offshore or using shell companies is not illegal in most countries, the revelations are embarrassing for leaders who have pushed austerity measures or campaigned against corruption.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is not named but he is linked via associates to secret assets in Monaco, particularly a waterfront home acquired by a Russian woman reported to have had a child with him.

"This is just a set of largely unsubstantiated claims," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "We didn't see anything on hidden wealth within Putin's inner circle."

The leaks reveal that the US$4-million Monaco property was purchased through an offshore company towards the end of 2003 for the woman ≠ a native of Putin's hometown Saint Petersburg – who was previously reported to have had a relationship with the leader.

Russian investigative outlet Proekt reported in November last year that the woman, Svetlana Krivonogikh, had at one point worked as a cleaner, and was the mother of Putin's child.

The purchase of the property went ahead shortly after Krivonogikh gave birth, the leaks showed. The media consortium said Krivonogikh had not responded to requests for comment.

Proekt last year described Krivonogikh as an elusive millionaire who lives in Russia's former imperial capital and is the recipient of expensive gifts from Kremlin-connected individuals. It said facial-recognition analysis of photographs obtained by their reporters showed Krivonogikh's daughter bears a close resemblance to Putin.

The investigative outlet was earlier this year declared an "undesirable organisation" by authorities as part of a broader crackdown on dissenting voices, banning its work in Russia under the threat of jail time.

The Pandora leaks also revealed that the head of a state-run television network, Konstantin Ernst – who oversaw the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics – was gifted a stake in a billion-dollar Moscow property deal.

Jordan was also keen to play down the revelations, which exposed how King Abdullah II created a network of offshore companies and tax havens to amass a US$100-million property empire from California to London.

The country's royal court said the properties were funded with the king's personal wealth and were used for official and private visits.

"Any allegations that link these private properties to public funds or assistance are baseless and deliberate attempts to distort facts," a statement said.

 

Czech PM hits back

The ICIJ found links between almost 1,000 companies in offshore havens and 336 high-level politicians and public officials, including more than a dozen serving heads of state and government, country leaders, cabinet ministers, ambassadors and others. 

More than two-thirds of the companies were set up in the British Virgin Islands.

Family and associates of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev – long accused of corruption in the central Asian nation – are alleged to have been secretly involved in property deals in Britain worth hundreds of millions.

And the documents also show how Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis – who faces an election later this week – failed to declare an offshore investment company used to purchase a chateau worth US$22 million in the south of France.

"I have never done anything illegal or wrong," Babis hit back in a tweet, calling the revelations a smear attempt aimed at influencing the election.

Nearly two million of the 11.9 million leaked documents came from a Panamanian law firm called Alcogal, which the ICIJ said had become "a magnet for the rich and powerful" seeking to hide wealth offshore.

Alcogal, whose clients allegedly included the Jordanian monarch and Czech prime minister, rejected accusations of shady dealings, saying it was considering legal action to defend its reputation.

ICIJ's director Gerard Ryle said in a video accompanying the investigation that those best placed to halt such practices were the ones who were benefiting most.

"I guess it mostly demonstrates that the people that could end the secrecy of offshore, could end what's going on, are themselves benefiting from it," Ryle said. "We're looking at trillions of dollars."

 

'Promotes corruption'

Transparency International's Maira Martini called for an end to the offshore industry, saying the investigation once more offered "clear evidence" of how it "promotes corruption and financial crime."

"This business model cannot go on," she said.

Among the other revelations from the ICIJ investigation:

  • Former British prime minister Tony Blair is shown to have legally avoided paying stamp duty on a London property by buying the offshore company that owned it.
  • Members of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's inner circle are said to secretly own companies and trusts holding millions of dollars. Khan vowed to "take appropriate action" if any wrongdoing is proved.
  • Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is alleged to secretly own a network of offshore companies.
  • Congo President Denis Sassou Nguesso and Gabon's Ali Bongo were linked with companies in the British Virgin Islands in a report by Le Monde, one of the media partners in the investigation.
  • Colombian singer Shakira, the German supermodel Claudia Schiffer and the Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar are also named, with representatives for all three telling the ICIJ the investments were legitimate.

 

The "Pandora Papers" are the latest in a series of mass leaks handled by the ICIJ, from LuxLeaks in 2014, to the 2016 'Panama Papers.'

They were followed by the 'Paradise Papers' in 2017 and 'FinCen files' in 2020.

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by Thomas Urbain, AFP

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