By Henry Ridgwell
World leaders, politicians and pop stars are among the thousands of individuals revealed to be concealing huge wealth through a network of anonymous companies.
The documents, known as the Pandora Papers and published Sunday, are part of a leak of almost 12 million files from the archives of several legal firms, which shed light on the secret world of offshore finance. They are being analyzed by a team of more than 600 journalists.
Among the most startling revelations in the Pandora Papers is the hidden wealth of the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, and his family. The leaks show the Aliyevs and their associates traded property in Britain worth $544 million over the past 15 years.
“Since this family took power in 1993, they have taken control of many of the country’s vital industries and its natural resources and used that to amass wealth,” said Rachel Davies Teka, head of advocacy at the anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International UK. “And this is being done at the expense of the people of that country. There are people who are suffering because their leaders are taking resources which should be shared out amongst those countries’ citizens,” Davies Teka told VOA.
Jordanian king’s property empire
The leaked documents show that King Abdullah II of Jordan has a secret property empire in the United States and Britain worth more than $100 million, using anonymous offshore companies incorporated in the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean. In a statement, the Jordanian royal palace said that the foreign properties were not disclosed for security and privacy reasons, adding that they were purchased using the monarch’s private wealth.
During a meeting with tribal elders Monday, Abdullah rejected allegations he had tried to conceal his wealth. “Unfortunately, there is a campaign against Jordan; there are still people who want to sow discord and build doubt between us. There is nothing I have to hide from anyone, but we are stronger than this, and this is not the first time Jordan gets targeted,” the king said.
Pakistani Cabinet ministers and their families, including close allies of Prime Minister Imran Khan, are revealed to own offshore companies worth millions of dollars. Khan said they would be investigated.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, the country’s second-richest person, used anonymous offshore companies to finance the purchase of an $18 million property in France. Babiš is competing in a general election this week. In a televised debate with rival candidates, he defended his actions.
“The money was sent out of a Czech bank. The money was taxed. It was my money and it returned back to the Czech Republic,” he told the television audience in Prague on Sunday.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and six members of his family are linked to more than a dozen offshore companies, one with assets worth at least $30 million. There is no evidence that the Kenyatta family stole any state assets.
In a statement issued by the office of the president, Kenyatta welcomed the publication of the Pandora Papers.
“These reports will go a long way in enhancing the financial transparency and openness that we require in Kenya and around the globe. The movement of illicit funds, proceeds of crime and corruption thrive in an environment of secrecy and darkness. The Pandora Papers and subsequent follow up audits will lift that veil of secrecy and darkness for those who cannot explain their assets or wealth,” the statement read.
Music stars, including Shakira and Elton John, and Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar are also revealed to have set up offshore companies. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing concerning any of their financial activities.
Much of the activity revealed by the Pandora Papers, including use of offshore companies, is legal. Governments must do more to reveal hidden wealth, argues Davies Teka.
“This investigation and what these journalists have uncovered is vital because, unfortunately, governments, particularly in the West, are not doing enough to bring transparency to where all this money is moving to — where this money is being hidden,” she told VOA.
Role of London
One thread that is common to many of the revelations is London. The capital and the British Overseas Territories linked to it, such as the British Virgin Islands, offer a hidden network of legal structures designed to conceal who really owns the money, says Davies Teka.
“You can buy property anonymously if you use a company that’s registered and formed in an overseas territory where there is currently secrecy. We also have luxury services on offer to the global elite, and, unfortunately, we have a concerning amount of professionals, accountants, lawyers, estate agents who are happy to help corrupt and criminal actors launder and hide and manage their wealth.”
The British government has put forward legislation to prevent individuals from using offshore companies to conceal ownership. “However, for three years now they have hesitated to lay this legislation down in parliament and actually pass it, which raises questions about how serious they really are about tackling this problem,” Davies Teka said.
Britain’s ruling Conservative Party has become embroiled in the accusations after the leaks revealed party donors were linked to alleged corruption. Speaking at the start of the weeklong Conservative Party conference Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected accusations that his party had accepted corrupt money.
“All I can say on that one is that all these donations are vetted in the normal way,” he told reporters.
British Chancellor Rishi Sunak denied that London’s reputation on tax avoidance was “shameful” and said the government had a strong track record on tackling global corruption.