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Sunday 3 October 2021

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A massive new leak of financial documents has exposed how the presidents of Azerbaijan and Ukraine, as well as hundreds of other politicians and billionaires around the world, are linked with companies that use offshore tax havens to hide wealth.

The files from offshore companies, dubbed the Pandora Papers, involve some 35 current and former leaders and more than 300 officials.

The findings of an examination of the files -- the largest organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) -- were released on October 3.

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev
Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev

The investigation found that the family of Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and their close associates have secretly been involved in property deals in Britain, almost entirely in London, worth nearly $700 million, using offshore companies, according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which is part of the ICIJ consortium.

Most of these properties were purchased in cash.

The files show how the Aliyevs, long accused of corruption in the South Caucasus country, bought a total of 17 properties, the BBC reported.

Aliyev’s son, Heydar, owned four buildings in London’s Mayfair district when he was just 11 years old.

A $44.7 million block was bought by a front company owned by a family friend of the president in 2009 and was transferred one month later to Heydar.

Aliyev’s administration did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations, nor did members of his family.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

The secret records also show that Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his close circle were the beneficiaries of a network of offshore companies, including some that owned expensive property in London, the OCCRP reported.

It said Zelenskiy and his partners in a television production company, Kvartal 95, set up a network of offshore firms dating back to at least 2012. Among other things, the offshore firms were used by Zelenskiy's associates to purchase three prime properties in the center of the British capital.

The documents also show that just before he was elected in 2019 on a wave of public anger against the country’s political class, Zelenskiy transferred his stake in a secret offshore company to his business partner, who later became his top presidential aide.

And an arrangement was soon made that would allow the offshore firm to keep paying dividends to a company that now belongs to Zelenskiy's wife.

A spokesman for Zelenskiy declined to comment.

According to the OCCRP, other leaked offshore documents show that the “unofficial third wife” of Kazakhstan’s former President Nursultan Nazarbaev received $30 million, apparently for “almost nothing.”

The payment to Asel Qurmanbaeva followed a number of share transfers involving six offshore companies, almost all registered in the British Virgin Islands, a notorious haven for offshore secrecy, the investigative journalism group said.

The payment was structured as a sale, in which Qurmanbaeva gave up her stake in a company that appeared to do no business. She received the money two months after the 2010 death of a man rumored to be Nazarbaev’s confidant, an oligarch named Vladimir Ni, from a company taken over by his daughter.

Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev
Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev

Nazarbaev did not respond to requests for comment on the claims.

The leaks also link Russian President Vladimir Putin to secret assets in Monaco.

The Washington Post, which is part of the investigative consortium, reported on the case of Svetlana Krivonogikh, a Russian woman who it said became the owner of a Monaco apartment through an offshore company incorporated on the Caribbean island of Tortola in April 2003, just weeks after she gave birth to a girl.

Pandora Papers Reveal Evidence Of Hidden Riches Of Post-Soviet Elites
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She was at the time in a secret, years-long relationship with Putin, the U.S. newspaper said, citing Russian investigative outlet Proekt.

They are using those offshore accounts, those offshore trusts, to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of property in other countries, and to enrich their own families, at the expense of their citizens."
-- Fergus Shiel, International Consortium of Investigative Journalists

Krivonogikh and her 18-year-old daughter and the Kremlin did not respond to requests for comment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on October 4 dismissed revelations leaked in the Pandora Papers as "a set of largely unsubstantiated claims."

In Pakistan, members of Prime Minister Imran Khan's inner circle, including cabinet ministers and their families, secretly own companies and trusts holding millions of dollars, the BBC reported.

The files also expose the offshore dealings of Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and detail the financial activities of more than 130 billionaires from Russia, the United States, Turkey, and other nations.

Many of the transactions in the documents involve no legal wrongdoing, but Fergus Shiel of the ICIJ said the leak documents show “the reality of what offshore companies can offer to help people hide dodgy cash or avoid tax."

"They are using those offshore accounts, those offshore trusts, to buy hundreds of millions of dollars of property in other countries, and to enrich their own families, at the expense of their citizens," he added.

The publishing of the Pandora Papers comes five years after the explosive Panama Papers investigation in 2016.

State Department spokesman Ned Price told journalists at a regular briefing on October 4 that the United States is reviewing the Pandora Papers' findings, but is not in a position to comment on specifics.

The ICIJ obtained the trove of nearly 12 million confidential files from 14 financial services companies in countries such as the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Belize, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, and Switzerland that set up shell companies and other nooks for clients.

A team of more than 600 journalists from 150 news outlets spent two years sifting through them, tracking down sources, and digging into court files and other public records from dozens of countries.

Valentina Chupik has left Moscow's Sheremetyovo airport on a flight to Armenia.

A noted migrant rights defender who was being held at a Moscow airport and faced deportation to Uzbekistan says she has left Russia on a flight to Armenia.

In a brief interview before her flight departed on October 2 from Sheremetyevo airport, Valentina Chupik told RFE/RL that she was unsure of the legal details of her case, but that she unexpectedly received an Uzbek passport this morning, and then got a PCR test for COVID so she could board a flight.

"After that, I was given the opportunity to turn on the phone a little. Then they put me on plane," she said.

"I'm on a plane. I have to turn off the phone, now we're taking off," she said.

It wasn't immediately clear if Armenia was Chupik's final destination, or whether she would be flying on further.

An Uzbek citizen and rights activist, Chupik fled Uzbekistan in 2006 after authorities there tried to take control of her human rights organization.

She has lived in Moscow since then, running a nongovernmental organization called Sunrise of the World that provides legal defense and assistance to migrant workers from Central Asia.

On September 25, she was detained at Sheremetyevo after returning to Russia from Armenia.

According to her, officers of Russia's Federal Security Service informed her that she has been deprived of her refugee status since September 17 and banned from entering Russia for 30 years.

The move was made, the officers told her, because she presented either false information or forged documents to Russian authorities when she applied for refugee status in 2006.

Chupik, who called the assertion "absolute nonsense," said that she might be jailed, tortured, or even killed while in custody if she is deported back to Uzbekistan.

Earlier, one of Chupik's aides told RFE/RL that they had filed asylum requests with Ukrainian diplomats in Moscow and Kyiv.

Chupik's plight has drawn the attention of rights activists in Russia, as well as the Committee for the Prevention of Torture, which asked the European Court of Human Rights to intervene on her behalf.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Russian Service

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.

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