US FinCEN files expose dirty oil shipment schemes from Istanbul to Syria

US FinCEN files expose dirty oil shipment schemes from Istanbul to Syria
Turkey's drilling ship, Fatih, is sailing through Bosphorus toward Black Sea in this file photo, in Istanbul. (AP)
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Updated 23 September 2020

US FinCEN files expose dirty oil shipment schemes from Istanbul to Syria

US FinCEN files expose dirty oil shipment schemes from Istanbul to Syria
  • Turkey’s involvement in the illegal oil transactions started with a fatal naval accident in January 2019

ISTANBUL: Despite the embargo on oil business with Syria, some Turkish companies are bypassing sanctions through an offshore network.

Recently leaked Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) files revealed that Turkey’s top petrochemical company, Petkim, has been engaged in illegal oil business with the Assad regime through its associate PetroKim, and collaborated with two other companies, Milenyum and Blue Energy, between March 2010 and January 2016.

Turkey’s involvement in the illegal oil transactions started with a fatal naval accident in January 2019 in the Kerch Strait off the Crimean coast, where 20 people were killed by an explosion when the crews of two tankers transferred liquified petroleum gas from one ship to another in the middle of the sea.

Search and rescue teams could only locate 14 sailors, as both ships, loaded with illicit cargo, had deactivated their tracking systems to avoid detection by authorities. Most of the 20 victims were Turkish and Indian citizens.

As a regulatory unit under the US Treasury Department, FinCEN is tasked with fighting money laundering. Since 2011, the US and EU have placed sanctions on all import, purchase and transport activities of oil and petroleum products to and from Syria.

In August 2015, the US Department of the Treasury adopted new sanctions against all individuals and companies providing energy products used by the Assad regime.

This latest $90 million of “suspicious transactions” between March 2010 and January 2016 that involve Turkey’s largest company were discovered in FinCEN files that originally aimed to expose, with more than 2,500 documents, the dirty money moves of some of the world’s biggest banks by avoiding sanctions.

Turkey’s Milenyum Energy was recently put on the US blacklist for violating sanctions on Syria through systematic shipments of oil products to the Syrian port of Baniyas. Its director and some managers, as well as another employee, are under individual sanctions by the US, but its sanctioned tankers still sail under different names to avoid detection.

Its partner company, Blue Energy, is also registered offshore, in the Caribbean, and acts as an intermediary for receiving the payments for the shipments.

The Tanzanian-flagged tankers involved in the naval accident were both owned by Milenyum — a company that operates in Turkey but is registered in Panama — and were allegedly sailing for Syria.  

Petkim is also claimed to have been involved in these illegal operations through its Malta-based company Petrokim, which conducted over $224 million suspicious money transactions between March 2010 and July 2016 by violating sanctions on Syria.

The files exposed that Petrokim was “using an address identical to numerous entities that were designated Specially Designated Nationals (SDNs), meaning blacklisted people, under Iran sanctions.” SDN’s assets are blocked from making any transaction with US nationals. In the meantime, Petkim exchanged over $13 million with Blue Energy.

This corrupt network was previously exposed in the Paradise Papers, where Samir Karimov, vice president of SOCAR Turkey at the time, was found to have also served as the director and legal representative of Petrokim, while SOCAR was then the majority owner of Petkim.

The chemical producer currently posts the highest trading volumes in Turkey, according to stock exchange data, while its rating is B2 negative in Moody’s Investors Service.

The next hearing over the Black Sea naval accident is set to take place in Istanbul on Nov. 20, with the leaks from the US likely to bring a new dimension to the ongoing investigation.

In the meantime, EU foreign ministers agreed on Monday to sanction two individuals and three companies for violating an arms embargo on Libya. One of the companies was Turkey’s Avrasya Shipping, which denies the allegations against it, and claims that it was carrying humanitarian aid.


UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots
Updated 04 August 2021

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots
  • The booster shot would be available to people considered at high risk three months after their second vaccine dose
  • The regional tourism and business hub has among the world’s highest immunization rates

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates will start providing a booster shot against COVID-19 to all fully vaccinated individuals in the Gulf Arab state, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) said on Tuesday.
It said on Twitter the booster shot would be available to people considered at high risk three months after their second vaccine dose, and six months for others.

The Gulf state, which has approved five types of COVID-19 vaccines, had in June begun providing booster shots to those initially immunized with a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm).
The regional tourism and business hub has among the world’s highest immunization rates. Around 79 percent of the population of roughly 9 million had received one vaccine dose, while some 70 percent had been fully vaccinated, according to latest official data.


Amid anger and despair, Lebanon braces for port explosion anniversary

People on Tuesday put white roses on portraits of victims of last year’s Beirut port blast as Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the Aug 4 explosion. (Reuters)
People on Tuesday put white roses on portraits of victims of last year’s Beirut port blast as Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the Aug 4 explosion. (Reuters)
Updated 04 August 2021

Amid anger and despair, Lebanon braces for port explosion anniversary

People on Tuesday put white roses on portraits of victims of last year’s Beirut port blast as Lebanon marks the first anniversary of the Aug 4 explosion. (Reuters)
  • Legislative authority yet to decide on Judge Tarek Bitar’s request to lift the immunity of three MPs

BEIRUT: The families of the Beirut port explosion victims are reticent about revealing the steps they will take on Wednesday to commemorate the first anniversary of the explosion.

The massive blast — the country’s worst peacetime disaster — destroyed a large section of the capital on Aug. 4, 2020, killed at least 214 people, and injured more than 6,500.
It was caused when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored at the port for several years without proper safety precautions, ignited during a fire and exploded.
On the occasion of the first anniversary, UNICEF reported that six children were among the deceased as more than 1,000 children were also injured in the blast.
“All that can be said is that people are angry and will express their anger,” an activist among the groups that will participate in planned protests on Wednesday told Arab News on condition of anonymity.
“We will see some unexpected action if the security forces confront the protesters with violence. We know that tight security measures will be taken. Public institutions and administrations will be occupied and the sit-in will only end once the immunity is lifted for officials summoned by the judiciary in the port explosion investigation.”
The Lebanese parliament is yet to decide on Judge Tarek Bitar’s request to lift the immunity of three MPs accused in the Beirut port explosion: former Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil, former Public Works Minister Ghazi Zeaiter, and Former Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk.
Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fahmy refused to lift the immunity of the defendant Abbas Ibrahim, director-general of the Lebanese General Security, last week. Only the Bar Association lifted the immunity of the accused lawyers. Judge Bitar had previously charged the three MPs, and former minister Youssef Fenianos, with “negligence” and “possible intent to murder” because they were aware of ammonium nitrate “and did not take measures to spare the country the risks of an explosion.”
The legislative authority has so far refrained from lifting the immunity of any politicians and has not authorized prosecuting security officials.
In addition, Judge Bitar also requested to question Ibrahim and Director-General of State Security, Maj. Gen. Antoine Saliba, as well as several judges.
Civil society groups appealed to Lebanese citizens this week and asked them to join victims’ families along with the civil defense and the fire fighting brigade, which also lost several members in the explosion.
A vigil is scheduled after the call to prayer, which will be followed by a mass held by the Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi. “The groups that will participate in the commemoration are retired soldiers, trade unionists, and self-employed professionals,” the activist said.

FASTFACTS

• The massive blast — the country’s worst peacetime disaster — destroyed a large section of the capital on Aug. 4, 2020, killed at least 214 people, and injured more than 6,500.

• It was caused when 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been stored at the port for several years without proper safety precautions, ignited during a fire and exploded.

“They will head to several locations, the politicians’ residences included.”
He pointed out that the American University Hospital in Beirut alerted its emergency department to be on high alert for Wednesday’s protests.
Medical teams from the hospitals damaged in the blast, including Saint Georges, Hotel Dieu, Geitaoui, Rizk, and Wardieh hospitals will also gather at the port.
The victims’ faces will accompany people attending the vigil as they head to the port since volunteer artists drew the faces of many victims along the walls of the sidewalks leading to where the blast occurred.
Lebanon will mark the day of mourning on Wednesday as all institutions will be closed, including banks, restaurants, and cafes. The flags will be lowered and black flags will be raised above the buildings.
“I expect a major turnout because people are furious and those responsible for this crime must be held accountable. We will try to avoid getting injured, but we do expect some injuries among our ranks,” the activist said.
Activists took to social media to call on “soldiers and officers in the Lebanese army and the Internal Security Forces, whose salaries have become less than $70, not to protect the killers and suppress the angry people on Aug. 4.”
Lebanese expatriates in Paris, Geneva, Berlin, Barcelona, Brussels, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver, New York, San Francisco, and Cleveland are organizing sit-ins to stand with Beirut.
Most notably, France and the UN are organizing an Aug. 4 international conference “to address the humanitarian needs of Lebanon’s most vulnerable people.”
The spokesman for the families of the victims, Ibrahim Hoteit, had given the politicians a 30-hour deadline, ending on Wednesday afternoon, to lift the immunity. He said in a press conference that the protests would be “a bone-breaking battle now that we are done with the routine peaceful movements.”
Political parties joined the commemoration of Aug. 4, but they did so on Aug. 2 and 3, in order to avoid any clashes between their supporters and other protesters.
Economic and living crises are ever-increasing amid the political deadlock.
These crises have exacerbated the citizens who lack electricity, medicine, and fuel, while they lost 90 percent of their income’s value in light of the Lebanese pound’s devaluation.
In a statement issued on the eve of the anniversary of the port explosion, the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG) renewed its solidarity “with the families of the victims and all those whose lives have been affected.”
The ISG, which includes representatives of the UN, China, France, Germany, Italy, the Russian Federation, the UK, the US, the EU, and the League of Arab States, urged the Lebanese authorities to “swiftly complete the investigation into the port explosion so that the truth may be known and justice rendered.”
Meanwhile, Democracy Reporting International (DRI) accused the Lebanese authorities of “continuing to weaken the judicial investigations and prevent the lifting of immunity for MPs, ministers and security leaders who remained silent or tolerant of the presence of ammonium nitrate, and did nothing.”


Tunisian labor union urges new PM appointment to ease crisis

Supporters of the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces. (AP/File Photo)
Supporters of the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces. (AP/File Photo)
Updated 03 August 2021

Tunisian labor union urges new PM appointment to ease crisis

Supporters of the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces. (AP/File Photo)

TUNIS: Tunisia’s powerful labor union urged the president on Tuesday to rapidly announce a new government that should be small and led by an experienced premier, after he seized executive control in a move his opponents called a coup.

President Kais Saied has defended his actions as constitutional and said he will govern alongside a new prime minister during an emergency period, but nine days after his intervention, he has yet to name one.

“We can’t wait 30 days for the announcement of a government,” said Sami Tahri, a spokesman for the UGTT union, one of Tunisia’s most powerful political forces.

UGTT chief Noureddine Taboubi said later on state television later on Tuesday that the cabinet should be small and headed by somebody with experience, sending a positive message to both Tunisians and international lenders.

“We must speed up the formation of the government to be able to face economic and health challenges,” he said.

Saied’s sudden intervention on July 25 appeared to have widespread public support but raised fears for the future of the democratic system that Tunisia adopted after its 2011 revolution that triggered the Arab Spring.

On Tuesday Saied removed Tunisia’s ambassador to Washington, the latest in a string of dismissals of senior and mid-ranking officials over the past week including several ministers. He did not immediately name a replacement.

He is also still to announce a roadmap to end an emergency period that he initially set at one month but later announced could be two months.

A source close to the presidential palace in Carthage said earlier that Saied might announce the new premier on Tuesday. Sources have told Reuters that Central Bank Governor Marouane Abassi and two former finance ministers, Hakim Hammouda and Nizar Yaich, are contenders.

Saied’s most powerful organized opponent, the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has meanwhile been riven by internal splits over its response to the crisis and its longer-term strategy and leadership.

Tunisians had over the past decade grown ever more frustrated by economic stagnation, corruption and bickering among a political class that often seemed more focused on its own narrow interests than on national problems.

The coronavirus pandemic ripped through Tunisia over the past two months as the state vaccination effort crawled, leading at one point to the worst infection and death rates in Africa. Pandemic counter-measures last year hammered the economy.

On Monday Saied replaced the finance, agriculture and telecoms ministers after having said last week that “wrong economic choices” had cost the country.

On Sunday he said there were contacts with “friendly countries” for financial assistance. (Reporting by Tarek Amara, writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)


Tunisia leader fires ambassador to US in rash of dismissals

Tunisia leader fires ambassador to US in rash of dismissals
Updated 03 August 2021

Tunisia leader fires ambassador to US in rash of dismissals

Tunisia leader fires ambassador to US in rash of dismissals
  • President Kais Saied has to say who will replace the prime minister he fired less than two weeks ago
  • Local polls say there is large support for Saied’s controversial actions

TUNIS, Tunisia: A day after naming a new economy minister, President Kais Saied on Tuesday added Tunisia’s ambassador to the United States to a rash of dismissals.
Yet he has to say who will replace the prime minister he fired less than two weeks ago or when.
Saied, who took on executive powers July 25 and began ruling by decree, has also undertaken globe-spanning consultations, meeting Tuesday with the foreign minister of Egypt, a critical ally in the Middle East.
Local polls say there is large support for Saied’s controversial actions, which importantly included freezing Tunisia’s parliament,
The North African country has been cementing its democracy since chasing out its former autocratic ruler a decade ago, triggering the Arab Spring. Tunisia is the only success story to emerge from those chaotic times, and allies, from the United States to Europe and the Middle East, have worried about what comes next.
Tunisia is coping with economic, social and health crises, with the coronavirus pandemic overwhelming its hospitals. Saied, using an article in the constitution that allows a president to step in under grave circumstances, has said he did so to save the country.
In his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry, the president highlighted “the correlation between Egypt’s and Tunisia’s security and stability,” the official TAP news agency said.
Egypt’s envoy said that Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi backed Saied’s moves with “his full support for the historic steps” of the Tunisian leader, TAP added. “Egypt and Tunisia are working together to ensure stability not only in the two countries, but also across the region,” the agency quoted the foreign minister as saying after the meeting.
The important Economy Ministry got a new acting minister Monday, with the dismissal of Ali Kooli, as did the Communications Technology ministry.
The rash of firings that began when Saied assumed all executive power continued Tuesday. Tunisia’s ambassador to Washington, Nejmeddine Lakhal, was the latest dignitary terminated, the official news agency said. No explanation was given. Also Tuesday, the president fired the governor of the important Sfax region in eastern Tunisia.
Some lawmakers have not been spared, snared by judicial officials on complaints that could not be prosecuted earlier. The president lifted the immunity of the parliamentary body when he took on all powers, and a handful have been summoned to answer to charges they had escaped.


Egyptian president calls on religious scholars to confront platforms that broadcast false ideas about Islam

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (REUTERS)
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (REUTERS)
Updated 03 August 2021

Egyptian president calls on religious scholars to confront platforms that broadcast false ideas about Islam

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (REUTERS)
  • Radi referred to the mission as a “fundamental task” that would necessitate the combined efforts of “all religious scholars, including muftis, imams and preachers”

CAIRO: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, on Tuesday, called on religious scholars in the country to confront electronic platforms spreading false ideas that distort the essence of Islam and exploit religion to achieve political goals through acts of terrorism.

Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said that El-Sisi met the delegation participating in the international conference “Fatwa Institutions in the Digital Age,” organized by the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta.

The spokesman said that the president emphasized the need for the world’s fatwa institutions to keep pace with digital developments, especially regarding social media, and address electronic platforms that broadcast ideas that could “confuse the essence of the true Islamic religion.”

“The meeting stressed the importance of correcting religious discourse at the level of individuals, groups and countries,” he said. “El-Sisi reviewed the important role played by ancient religious institutions in Egypt, represented by the Dar Al-Ifta, Al-Azhar Al-Sharif and the Ministry of Endowments.”

Radi referred to the mission as a “fundamental task” that would necessitate the combined efforts of “all religious scholars, including muftis, imams and preachers.”

At the opening of the conference, Shawki Allam, Egypt’s grand mufti, praised the “moderate national religious institutions in Egypt” for taking a strong stance and confronting the danger of extremism, which has “caused great harm to the world” and “worked to invade young minds.”

“Our jihad for the sake of God Almighty was to speak the truth,” he said, referencing the efforts to counter extremist ideology. “We have launched digital platforms and held continuous training programs.”