By Kate Flask
President Wavel Ramkalawan and his closest associates are in-focus as a landmark corruption investigation in the Seychelles gathers steam. Nearly two decades after the alleged offences took place, the Seychelles, in December 2021, charged ex-President France-Albert René’s wife and son, together with several economic advisors to then-President René, with a range of corruption and anti-money laundering offenses. Weapons possession and terrorism offences followed closely thereafter in February 2022.
The case however, appears to be bogged down amidst new evidence that implicates President Wavel Ramkalawan’s inner circle in the alleged abuses. This includes Vice President Ahmed Afif and former-President James Michel, accused of receiving the stolen state funds and pinning the charges on the ex-President’s family members and public servants.
The corruption case relates to the disappearance of 50 million US dollars gifted by the United Arab Emirates to the Seychelles people in 2002 at a time of economic crisis.
The accused read like a ‘who’s who’ of the previous government. This includes former President René’s wife Sarah René; President René’s son Leslie Benoiton, a senior military officer; Mukesh Valabhji, one of the island nation’s most prominent businessmen and former director of a government development agency; Valabhji’s wife Laura, who was legal counsel to several of Ramkalawan and Afif’s rivals; Maurice Loustau-Lalanne, a senior government official and vice-presidential candidate who was widely expected to challenge Ramkalawan for the presidency and Lekha Nair, a former public servant and right-hand to ex-President James Michel. Most recently Fahreen Rajan, an accountant who managed Vlabhji’s hotels and finances was included in the list of suspects. Two further suspects arrested on weapons charges are 75 year old Antoine Leopold Payet, retired Chief of the Seychelles Defense Forces, and 81 year old Frank Marie, the former head of the Presidential Guard and the closest security official to ex-President René.
The case drew headlines in December and January when the government of the Seychelles indicted the accused soon after the Pandora Papers thrust the Seychelles into the limelight and Ramkalawan’s government came under public pressure from the European Union (EU) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) to take action against endemic corruption in the country. Suffering from a severe economic downturn brought on by the Covid -19 pandemic and a sharp loss in electoral support, the Seychelles government was initially thought to be shoring up its public image at home and abroad with the indictments. A statement of support from the European Union, and even the country’s removal from the EU tax haven black list, were quick to follow.
Sources close to the investigation claim to have new evidence that implicates ex-President James Michel and Vice President Ahmed Afif in the theft of the Emirati grant, throwing the government’s case into disarray. Documentary evidence submitted by the government’s own investigators has shown that the bulk of the ‘disappeared’ funds were spent on fuel and food at the height of the 2002 economic slump. Additional sums were actually paid into companies under the control of associates of James Michel and Ahmed Afif.
Michel, who served as Minister of Finance at the time and fled nearly a decade ago to Abu Dhabi, would have needed to sign off on each transfer from the trouble-plagued Seychelles Marketing Board, the receiving entity of the Emirati funds. Afif, who served at the time in an executive capacity at the Central Bank and is now the country’s Vice President, would also have signed off on any transfers, legitimate or otherwise.
The case is further complicated by the discussed weapons charges, characterized by lawyers at Kobre & Kim, the Washington-based law firm, as a “show trial, founded on a politically motivated prosecution case riddled with errors of fact and procedural defects”.
Brigadier Payet and Lieutenant Colonel Marie, ex-President René’s closest military advisors, are charged with importing weapons for the Seychelles Defense Forces and Presidential Guard, despite the fact that when taken, these actions were within their professional duties and even approved by the government. Attorney Jonathan Huth of Kobre & Kim labeled the case “the arbitrary application of law”, with the Seychelles government, judges and prosecution acting “as if driven by one and the same political motivation, ungoverned by any notion of the rule of law.”
Public sentiment on the island nation is deeply divided by the government’s conduct in the controversial case, which has put behind bars a popular first lady and some of the country’s best known security and economic figures. The leading candidate to replace Ramkalawan has also been incarcerated, cutting him off from his political supporters and undermining his growing popular base. A debate over defendants’ rights has also erupted, with the accused allegedly denied access to counsel and held in degrading conditions. Petitions have been lodged by the defendants at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Supreme Court of Seychelles.
The government’s case is being prosecuted by May De Silva of the Seychelles Anti-Corruption Commission and Stephen Powles QC of Doughty Chambers in London, interestingly enough a lawyer whose expertise is human rights.
Mounting anomalies in the evidence and conduct of the prosecution are understood to have thrown the case into disarray, with one informed source stating, “The case fell apart on day one, once the evidence was revealed.” As Ramkalawan seeks international legitimacy and to shore-up Seychelles’ banking standards, the case may prove more challenging than anticipated for the new government.
*Kate Flask is an American freelancer and digital nomad who studied creative writing in the UK. She has a personal & professional interest in East Africa & Indian Ocean Islands and is the managing director of Seychelles Watch. Follow her work on Twitter.