Will the Swiss Government Heed Civil Society’s Advice When Returning Stolen Assets to Uzbekistan?

Readers of this blog know the Swiss government faces a dilemma in returning several hundred million Swiss francs of stolen assets to Uzbekistan (here and here).  Although the current government has taken small steps towards reform, it remains dominated by the same clique of Soviet-era apparatchiks whose corrupt ways were behind the theft of the assets. Returning the money thus runs a high risk that it will go right back to the culprits or their cronies.

At the same time, the Swiss government has an obligation under the UN Convention Against Corruption to return the assets. Moreover, thanks to decades of misrule, living condition for the average Uzbek remain dismal at best.  Money for everything from basic education and health programs to investment in public works is desparately needed.

Uzbek civil society now offers a solution to the Swiss dilemma.  Acknowledging the reformist leanings of the current government, and wanting to encourage them, civil society proposes that the Swiss government return the funds in tranches.  The return would be keyed to progress in realizing the kinds of reforms the government says it is committed to making.   Internationally recognized measures would be used to gauge progress.

A phased, conditioned return has two advantages.  It offers those in the Uzbek government leverage to persuade reluctant colleagues of the need for change.  At the same time, a phased return avoids swamping the government with a massive amount of money its primitive public financial system simply couldn’t manage responsibly.

The proposal appears in a letter to Swiss authorities authored by prominent Uzbek citizen, both those who have had to flee the country to escape political repression and those (anonymously) who remain.  The English version is here; a Russian version here.  A commentary on the proposal in the Swiss press is here, and background on the circumstance the led to the theft is here.

Guest Post: Towards an African Voice on Anticorruption

Today’s guest post is from Selemani Kinyunyu, Senior Policy Officer for Political and Legal Matters at the African Union Advisory Board on Corruption. The views expressed in this post are his own.

The African Union (AU) has declared the year 2018 is the African Anti-Corruption Year, and the fight against corruption was a central focus of the 31st Summit of the AU, which was held this past July 1 and 2 in Mauritania. The Summit, along with other recent developments, have made clear that there is an emerging African voice on this issue, one that emphasizes certain issues of pressing importance and that articulates a distinctive perspective on these issues. The AU Summit in particular highlighted four notable issues: Continue reading

Will the Swiss Government Condone Gross Human Violations in Returning Stolen Assets to Uzbekistan?

The Swiss take pride in their nation’s uncompromising defense of human rights. Its diplomats offer unwavering support for the rights of the oppressed in international fora; its NGOs provide generous support to human rights defenders around the world, and as home to the United Nations Human Rights Council and other UN human rights agencies, Geneva is the center of the global discourse on human rights. But if recent press reports are to be believed (here [German] and here [English]), the Swiss government may be ready to ignore gross human rights violations perpetrated by the government of Uzbekistan.

The issue is part of the struggle over how to return the several hundred million dollars that Gulnara Karimova, daughter of its recently deceased dictator, stashed in Switzerland with the help of lackeys Gayane Avakyan and Rustam Madumarov. The monies are allegedly bribes international telecommunications companies paid Karimova to operate in Uzbekistan.

The Uzbek government is seeking their return while Uzbek civil society argues that because the government is so corrupt, the Swiss government should follow the precedent established in a Kazakh case and return the monies directly to the Uzbek people.  If the Swiss government does not, and does return the money to the Uzbek government, it will be forced to condone grave human rights abuses Avakyan and Madumarov have suffered at the hands of the Uzbek government. Continue reading

Guest Post: Are Public UBO Registers a Good or a Bad Proposition? A Further Reply to Professor Stephenson

Today’s guest post, from Martin Kenney, the Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co., a law firm based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), continues an ongoing debate/discussion we’ve been hosting here at GAB on the costs and benefits of public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of companies and other legal entities. That debate was prompted by the UK’s decision to mandate that the 14 British Overseas Territories create such public registries, and Mr. Kenney’s sharp criticism of that decision in a post he published on the FCPA Blog. That post prompted reactions from Rick Messick and from me. Our pushback against Mr. Kenney’s criticisms stimulated another round of elaboration on the critique of the UK’s decision, with a new post from Mr. Kenney and another from Geoff Cook (the CEO of Jersey Finance). I subsequently replied, explaining why I did not find Mr. Kenney’s or Mr. Cook’s criticisms fully persuasive. Today’s post from Mr. Kenney continues that exchange:

Public [UBO] registers are rather cheap political playing to the gallery, saying “Aren’t we wonderful to have done this?” – ignoring the fact that what we have established in the UK does not work properly….  It seems to me outrageous that the UK Government, who lack a lot in the area of anti-money laundering, should thus seek to impose on their overseas territories measures – often, where they cannot be afforded economically, that go far beyond what the UK has.

Lord Flight (Conservative), Member of the House of Lords, Speech to the House of 21 May, 2018, Debate on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill [HL] 

The fact that Professor Stephenson welcomes a good discussion and has opened the doors to his blog once again, means it would be impolite of me to not provide a response to his latest observations.

From the outset, I will stress that I will not seek to address every point Professor Stephenson makes. However, having addressed those below, if there are others he wishes me to respond to, I will endeavor to do so. Continue reading

Guest Post: The UK Order on UBO Registries in Overseas Territories–A Reply

Earlier this month, Martin Kenney, the Managing Partner of Martin Kenney & Co. Solicitors (a specialized investigative and asset recovery practice based in the British Virgin Islands (BVI)) posted a widely-read piece on the FCPA Blog that criticized the UK Parliament’s decision to require that British Overseas Territories create public registries of the ultimate beneficial owners (UBOs) of legal entities registered in those jurisdictions. Mr. Kenney’s post provoked two critical responses here on GAB, the first from Senior Contributor Rick Messick, the second from Editor-in-Chief Matthew Stephenson. GAB is delighted that Mr. Kenney has chosen to continue the debate over this important topic by providing the following rebuttal to those criticisms:

Matthew Stephenson wrote in his recent response to my FCPA Blog, about the futility of the UK Parliament’s proposed changes to open company UBO registers in the British Overseas Territories, that: “At the very least, beneficial ownership information should be verified and kept on file so that it will be available to law enforcement in the event of an investigation.”

In my piece, I had explained: “The fact is that the BVI already has its house in order. The island’s systems now include the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search system (BOSS System). A database that is searchable, with the information being available to UK law enforcement agencies within 24 hours. In addition, the BVI has signed up to no fewer than 28 Tax Information Exchange Agreements, with countries that include the UK, USA, Canada, Germany, France, Australia, Japan, Netherlands, etc. So what part of this is secret?” Continue reading

Public Disclosure of Beneficial Ownership: Do the Naysayers Have a Point?

Readers are no doubt celebrating the British House of Commons approval May 1 of legislation making it harder for corrupt officials to hide money offshore.  The new law requires that, starting 2021, the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands along with other U.K. overseas territories must publicly disclose the actual person or persons – the “beneficial owners” – of companies organized under their laws.  Some half of the companies identified in the Panama Papers were organized in the British Virgin Islands, and estimates are that between 2007 and 2016 over $90 billion surreptitiously left Russia via British overseas territories.  Somewhere among the billions that mobsters, drug traffickers, and tax evaders are hiding in British overseas territory corporations are likely billions in monies stolen through corruption.  Forcing the corporations to reveal who is behind them will make recovering the monies that much easier.

No reform, no matter how powerful the arguments in support, is without its doubters.  Given the hefty fees banks, lawyers, accountants, and secrecy accomplices of all kinds earn helping hide money, it is no wonder the beneficial ownership legislation has attracted its share of naysayers.  The most thoughtful, and certainly the one who can turn the cleverest phrase, is BVI solicitor Martin Kenney. On Monday on the FCPA blog, he castigated “the NGO ‘transparency’ brigade.” It had “once again raised its guns and placed its cross-hairs over its preferred target: the offshore service providers in the British Overseas Territories.” And thanks to the Commons vote, the brigade can now mount its most wanted “trophy,” the BVI, on its wall.

Laying aside his colorful rhetoric, Kenney has a point.  Actually two.    Continue reading

The Missing Piece in UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order Mechanism

All of a sudden politicians, public figures, and oligarchs – such as Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Ignor Shuvalov and former Nigerian Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke – have to explain how they are able to afford the swanky apartments in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood on their modest official salaries. This is due to the UK’s new Criminal Finances Act (CFA), which came into force in February and is meant to crack down on the flow of dirty money into the UK—a flow that has given London in particular a reputation as a “Death Star” of global kleptocracy. Most notably, the CFA adds a new investigative tool, the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO), into the civil recovery regime. Originally proposed by Transparency International UK a few years ago, a UWO is an order granted by the High Court in cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe (1) the respondent owns some property worth more than £50,000; (2) either the respondent is a politically exposed person (PEP), or the respondent or a person connected to the respondent has been involved in a serious crime; and (3) respondent’s lawfully earned income would not be sufficient to obtain the property in question. If there are reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three conditions is satisfied, the High Court may issue an order requiring the respondent to provide information regarding the nature of her interests in the property in question and how she was able to lawfully obtained such property. If the respondent is unable to provide a reasonable explanation, the UK Government can subsequently initiate the civil forfeiture process and seize these assets.

Lauded as “a powerful new weapon in[] the anti-corruption arsenal,” UWOs are expected to be particularly helpful when there is no conviction against the respondents in their countries of origin, or when efforts to get a corrupt foreign government to cooperate with investigations have led to naught. Moreover, even though UWOs are a civil enforcement mechanism, the information they uncover may be useful in pursuing criminal investigations, and if respondents recklessly or knowingly make false statements or mislead the enforcement body in responding to an order, they may be criminally prosecuted. There’s already some evidence that the new law will make a difference: In March, a month after the promulgation of the CFA, two UWOs were issued requiring a tycoon in Central Asia to explain how he is able to afford real properties in the UK totaling £22 million.

Yet notwithstanding the enthusiasm for UWOs in some quarters, the effectiveness of the UFO mechanism is likely to be hampered by an important missing piece in the UK’s anticorruption framework, namely an effective means for ensuring genuine transparency regarding the beneficial ownership of real and movable property. Without knowing who really owns what, the new law is unlikely to realize its full potential, and indeed may not make much difference outside of a handful of cases involving particularly careless criminals.

Continue reading