Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

On the Panama list

This week’s publication of the Panama Papers is a reminder that the government must do more to track down illegal funds stashed away in international safe havens, writes Niveen Wahish

On the Panama list
On the Panama list
Al-Ahram Weekly

Egyptian citizens are on the list of those mentioned in the so-called Panama Papers published this week in a set of the world’s major newspapers. 

The papers, the result of an investigation which has been going on for a year, reveal secret offshore companies linked to Alaa Mubarak, son of former president Hosni Mubarak, along with details of hundreds of others owned by high-profile individuals across the world.

The investigation of the more than 11 million leaked files from the database of the world’s fourth-largest offshore law firm Mossack Fonseca was reported on Monday this week.

The papers uncover the names of world leaders and their relatives as well as celebrities and others whom the law firm has helped set up offshore companies to avoid paying taxes at home or for money laundering purposes or other forms of fraud. 

It apparently promised its clients that setting up such companies would be hassle free and quick to carry out.

The documents were leaked to German newspaper the Süddeutsche Zeitung, which then shared them with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Journalists from more than 100 media outlets have been examining the documents for more than a year. The identity of the leaker is unknown. 

While initial revelations trace funds belonging to Alaa Mubarak, many more names may come up in the future. A map on the ICIJ Website shows that in Egypt 38 companies, 20 clients, 21 beneficiaries and 270 shareholders are involved in business carried out through the Panamanian law firm. 

According to the Website, Mubarak’s offshore company has triggered investigations by the financial authorities. It shows that Alaa Mubarak owned a company by the name of Pan World Investments Inc. based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and managed by Credit Suisse, a leading global financial services company headquartered in Zurich.

The papers show that in 2011, the year former president Mubarak was ousted from power and arrested along with his two sons, “BVI authorities told Mossack Fonseca to freeze Pan World’s assets, an order prompted by European Union law.” 

Credit Suisse, however, told Mossack Fonseca that Pan World’s activities, which included “one investment with HIG Venture Fund and a cash account with the bank, did not contravene Switzerland’s freeze on Mubarak’s assets.” 

Mubarak assets in Swiss banks were frozen at the request of the Egyptian authorities following his ouster.

In 2013, Mossack Fonseca was fined $37,500 for failing to properly check Alaa Mubarak’s background before acting on his behalf. Mubarak was identified as “a high-risk customer” by the firm.

According to the ICIJ, in 2014 a second BVI agency started investigating Mossack Fonseca and Pan World. “Company employees admitted internally that they could be found in further breaches. Noting they had very little control over Mubarak’s company, they resigned as its agent in April 2015,” the Website says.

While the information revealed by the papers may be news to many, it is not new according to an article published on the Egyptian news Website Mada Masr by investigative reporter Hossam Bahgat. 

Bahgat refers to an earlier article published on the same Website in 2014 entitled “Tax Tourism on the Beaches of the Caribbean”. This showed Pan World’s ties to the Mubaraks and businessmen in their circle. 

The 2014 article, which revealed information from Osama Diab, an anti-corruption officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) a NGO, and Nicholas Hildyard of the British Corner House Group, a research group focusing on social justice, was based on documents Mada Masr had acquired from the Justice Ministry’s Illicit Gains Authority. 

Diab’s information revealed the extent to which the Mubaraks had hidden their assets by investing in companies that in turn invested in other companies, all set up in tax havens and with the purpose of hiding the trails that led to them.  

Since the 25 January Revolution, successive Egyptian governments have failed to retrieve any of the Mubarak family’s assets kept in foreign banks. After the revolution the funds of the Mubarak family and other personalities related to them were frozen in Swiss banks and other banks across Europe. In January 2016 the Swiss authorities were still investigating whether the funds in the country’s banks were acquired illegally. 

The probability that Egypt will retrieve any of the funds is getting dimmer by the day. Even leaks such as the Panama Papers are unlikely to help. Attorney Fawzi Ahmed said that the Egyptian government would not be able to use the documents unless it had hard copy versions to ensure authenticity. However, they could be used to put political pressure on the banks and others, he said.

Some have said that negotiation is the best way to regain the funds. This week the government is set to seal a settlement with businessman Hussein Salem for LE5.8 billion and 95 per cent of his non-liquid assets believed to have been obtained illegally.

Alaa Mubarak together with his brother Gamal and their father were sentenced in May 2015 to three years in jail for embezzling millions of dollars in state funds intended for the renovation of presidential palaces in Egypt. 

Having served their jail terms since their arrests, they were released in October 2015. The two brothers are now on trial on charges of insider trading. Their father is under house arrest in a military hospital in Egypt.

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