December 30, 2017

BELGIUM: Semlex, A Belgian Firm Profiting From Supplying Poor African Nations With Costly Travel Documents.

written by David Lewis and Philippe Engels
Friday December 22, 2017

A little-known businessman from Brussels has made a fortune supplying expensive ID documents to poor Africans. How? He leveraged political connections, documents show.

MORONI, Comoros Islands/BRUSSELS - In the tiny nation of the Comoros Islands, lying off the east coast of Africa, Albert Karaziwan is a big man - even though he doesn’t live there. He’s been a roving ambassador for the country, has twice attended the United Nations General Assembly with the Comoros delegation and holds three current Comoros diplomatic passports.

But Karaziwan is not a politician or a professional diplomat or a native of the Comoros. He’s an international businessman, born in Syria and a citizen of Belgium, whose company Semlex Group has supplied and made passports or other ID documents for the Comoros and over a dozen other African nations.

A Reuters examination of Semlex emails, corporate records and signed contracts found that Karaziwan has won business in the Comoros and elsewhere in Africa - on paper worth hundreds of millions of dollars - through political connections, sometimes without going through open tender processes and sometimes while making payments to intermediaries.

At the same time, presidential decrees and other documents from the Comoros shed new light on how Comoros passports, supplied by Semlex, are being bought by foreign citizens, some of whom are suspected by Comoros and foreign authorities of being security threats. Reuters determined that at least two buyers of Comoros passports are people accused by U.S. authorities of breaking sanctions against Iran.

Karaziwan’s political links are remarkable. In the Comoros, where Semlex first won a contract to supply passports and other documents in 2007, he was made a special adviser and roving ambassador by former president Ahmed Abdallah Mohammed Sambi. At least eight of his staff and associates acquired Comoros honorary consulships, according to Comoros government documents reviewed by Reuters. The honorary consulships, nominated between 2010 and 2012, ranged from Mombasa to Monaco.

On receiving questions from Reuters, Sambi indicated he would answer but did not respond by the time of publication.

Karaziwan is listed on a Comoros government database as having three current Comoros passports. The database shows his Belgian wife, Catherine Laurent, was issued with a Comoros diplomatic passport in 2010, and that their 27-year-old son, Alexandre, who works for an IT consultancy in Brussels, also has one. Some Semlex staff were also issued with them.

Reuters was unable to determine why the Comoros granted these credentials or why the Karaziwans and Semlex associates may have sought them. In general, according to law enforcement officials, such passports and consular nominations facilitate travel, open doors and, in some cases, make doing business easier.

Karaziwan did not respond to a request for an interview or to questions sent to him by email. A Brussels-based lawyer representing Semlex, Francois Koning, said Karaziwan would not comment for this article, claiming that unidentified third parties were manipulating Reuters with the aim of damaging Karaziwan and Semlex.

Laurent said she had no role at Semlex and did not know whether she had a Comoros diplomatic passport. “It is possible, but I don’t use one, so I am not sure,” she said. Alexandre Karaziwan did not respond to several requests for comment sent to him via his LinkedIn account.

Albert Karaziwan’s activities have come at a cost for many ordinary citizens of Africa, the world’s poorest continent, Reuters inquiries show.

In April, Reuters reported how Karaziwan struck a deal to supply biometric passports to the Democratic Republic of Congo for which its citizens have to pay $185 each. Congo previously charged $100 for passports. The current deal arranged for $60 from each passport to go to an obscure Gulf company owned by a close relative of Congo’s President Joseph Kabila, according to documents and a source familiar with the arrangements.

This year, Mozambique terminated a 10-year Semlex contract, potentially worth several hundred million dollars, that had been awarded in 2009 by the country’s previous government. The deal was struck without an open tender, two sources close to Semlex said. The current Mozambique government says Semlex invested a fraction of the $100 million it had promised to spend on training, electronic scanners at borders and other infrastructure. It says citizens have lost out from the deal.

When the passports were introduced, they cost Mozambique citizens $80 while the average income per capita was under $500 per year, though currency changes meant the cost later fell in dollar terms.

A review of the contract published in 2015 by Mozambique’s Centre for Public Integrity (CIP), a transparency organisation, said official figures showed that the state collected just 8 percent of the revenues from ID documents produced between 2011 and 2014.

In October, Semlex issued a statement in Mozambique saying it had shut down its operations in the country, but alleging that its contract had been “unjustifiably” terminated. It called for an independent audit; the government rejected that request. A government official told Reuters the contract was terminated because Semlex had not met “the rules we agreed upon.” He did not elaborate.

In the Comoros, a parliamentary commission of inquiry is investigating the sale of passports to foreigners to determine whether the process has been legal, who has been involved and where revenues have gone. Investigators have found that more than 2,800 Comoros diplomatic passports have been issued since 2008 in a country with a population of about 800,000. In that period, at least 184 diplomatic passports were sold to non-Comorans, data gathered by the investigators shows.

Since Semlex still produces all Comoros passports, the commission is investigating the company’s role in the matter. Dhoulkamal Dhoihir, vice president of the Comoros National Assembly and chairman of the commission investigating the passports issue, said: “Semlex is a key player … We have convoked Karaziwan to come here.”

The commission summoned Karaziwan in September, hoping he would give evidence. Semlex said Karaziwan would be available for questioning on Nov. 20. He did not turn up.

A week after this article was originally published, Semlex issued a statement. It said Semlex has no role in the issuing of passports, and that that role is purely the prerogative of the local authorities. Comoros authorities continue to investigate the matter.


Karaziwan was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1958, in a family of eight children. In the 1980s, he moved to Brussels to study and went on to marry Laurent.

Over the years, Karaziwan developed businesses in real estate, restaurants and hotels, according to his company website and corporate documents. He set up Semlex in 1992 and prospered. In a copy of his CV shared with colleagues in 2008, Karaziwan said his businesses had a combined value of 100 million euros.

Semlex is a family company and not listed on a stock exchange. Its main operating unit, Semlex Europe, has a core of only about a dozen employees, according to company documents. Semlex emails reviewed by Reuters show the informal way Karaziwan and his associates have worked behind the scenes to punch above their weight.

In June 2004, for example, Helder Tavares Proenca, a writer and politician, was named as Semlex’s agent in the West African country of Guinea-Bissau, according to Semlex documents reviewed by Reuters. In November 2005, Proenca became defence minister and in early 2006 Semlex won contracts to supply the country with passports, visas, ID cards and foreign resident cards, according to Semlex copies of the agreements.

Semlex documents show the company paid Proenca at least 80,000 euros ($94,000) between 2004 and 2009. Proenca was killed in 2009 in an assassination that police suspected was related to drug smuggling. Arnaldo Mendes, an official in charge of identification issues in Guinea-Bissau’s justice ministry, said he could not comment on whether Proenca had influenced the awarding of contracts under a previous government.

In 2010, Semlex employees discussed in emails what percentage of revenue they would have to pay former and serving Guinea-Bissau officials to secure a further contract to provide the country with passports and resident cards for foreigners. According to Semlex emails reviewed by Reuters, a proposal was made to pay a commission amounting to 20 percent of the price each citizen would have to pay for a passport and 15 percent of the revenue that Semlex received for residence permits issued to foreigners.

On Jan. 24, 2011, a Semlex official asked Karaziwan to sign off on the offer. The next day, Karaziwan replied: “You can confirm it.”

However, Guinea-Bissau government officials told Reuters Semlex did not win a further contract.

Other Semlex emails show that company staff described some payments as bribes. In November 2010, Michele Bauters, the firm’s finance manager, asked an employee to detail how he had spent nearly 80,000 euros provided in cash for operations in Africa, according to Semlex emails reviewed by Reuters.

Much of the money had gone on rent and utility bills, the employee said, and 10,000 euros had gone on a “pot de vin” – French for bribes. The employee’s explanation for what had happened to half of the 10,000 euros was blunt: “A bribe that Albert Karaziwan made me pay recently.”

In response to the employee’s apparent irritation at being asked for explanations, Bauters said Karaziwan had merely wanted to know how the money had been spent and made no reference to the mention of bribes.

Bauters did not respond to requests for comment by email. When Reuters rang Semlex headquarters, staff several times said she was busy.

Other documents illustrate how Semlex appears to benefit more than the state coffers of countries that agree to its deals. In 2013, Semlex extended an existing contract with Madagascar to supply passports and more than doubled the amount it charged. Under the new deal, citizens have to pay 36.25 euros (around $47) for a passport; of that, the state receives 2.5 euros and Semlex gets 33.75 euros, a contract between the two sides shows. Previously, Semlex received 15.50 euros per passport, the prior contract shows.

The cost of making such passports can be modest. Invoices from Imprimerie National, a French state-owned printing firm that used to produce blank passports for Semlex to complete with personal details, show that Semlex paid 1.75 euros to 2 euros per document for projects in Madagascar, Gabon and Comoros in 2007 and 2008. Semlex now has its own printing operation to produce passports.


Through his high-level connections, Karaziwan was able to help non-Comoros individuals become representatives of the islands. From May 2010 to May 2011, Karaziwan was in frequent contact with Ibrahim Fahmi Said, then minister of foreign affairs in the Comoros, about diplomatic appointments, Semlex emails discussing honorary consulships show.

In July 2010, Karaziwan sent Fahmi a CV belonging to a Lebanese businessman called Nizar Dalloul. Karaziwan attached a covering letter saying he was corresponding in reference to Dalloul’s nomination as the Comoros ambassador to UNESCO in Paris.

“As already discussed with the president, it would be good to move forward to nominate him quickly,” Karaziwan wrote to the foreign minister. Dalloul was officially named ambassador on Sept. 1 that year, according to a decree signed by the Comoros president.

Dalloul told Reuters that the possibility of being UNESCO ambassador arose during talks he had with former Comoros president Sambi. He said he was named ambassador, but the appointment was rescinded shortly afterwards when Sambi left power. After this happened, Karaziwan did not seek to get him reinstated, Dalloul said.

In an emailed response to questions, Fahmi told Reuters that Dalloul had been named an ambassador by the president, not by him as foreign minister. He said Karaziwan had a role because he was an adviser to the president.

Fahmi said any relationship he had with Semlex was purely linked to work he did for the company as a lawyer, and that he did not receive any payment from them in relation to his work as a minister.

A spokesman for UNESCO said he could not comment on the matter.

Dalloul runs a company called Comium, which describes itself as a provider of internet services in Lebanon, Iraq and other areas of the Middle East, and as a leading provider of telecoms in Africa. He said he met Karaziwan through a friend who was looking for potential investors in the Comoros. Reuters could not establish why Karaziwan wanted to help Dalloul become a UNESCO ambassador.

Karaziwan also became involved in a Comoros programme to raise cash by selling citizenship. The plan was mainly aimed at the stateless Bidoon people of Kuwait and United Arab Emirates who, for a variety of reasons, do not have citizenship of any country. The programme offered the Gulf governments a way of helping the Bidoon without giving them citizenship, and it offered the Comoros a way to raise revenue, according to the law authorising the scheme.

Comoros government documents from 2012 show that the country was paid just over $4,500 for each citizenship issued.

However, Comoros citizenship and passports were also sold outside the official programme to non-Bidoon people – sometimes at much higher prices, according to Comoros investigators and sources with direct knowledge of Semlex operations. The passports are potentially valuable because they offer a citizenship with no tax obligations and can be used to open bank accounts and facilitate travel in the Gulf and beyond, law enforcement officials say.

Please CLICK HERE to read the entire article...

No comments: