FILE PHOTO - Semlex CEO Albert Karaziwan attends a signing ceremony during an economic mission in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, October 24, 2017. Picture taken October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer(reuters_tickers)
By Philippe Engels and David Lewis
BRUSSELS/NAIROBI (Reuters) - Police on Wednesday searched the headquarters of Belgian company Semlex, which supplies passports to various African countries, and the home of its CEO, Albert Karaziwan. About a dozen officers arrived at Semlex's office in Brussels and at Karaziwan's house in the city early in the morning. By early afternoon, the search was still continuing.
A spokesman for Belgium's federal prosecutor said: "We are carrying out those searches in a case of possible money laundering and corruption." He declined to give further details.
Karaziwan did not comment when contacted by telephone. "Stop your dramas ... Thank you and goodbye," he said before hanging up. A lawyer for Semlex did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Earlier this week, authorities in the Comoros Islands, an archipelago off the east coast of Africa where Semlex has supplied identity documents since 2007, cancelled 170 passports that the government said had been improperly issued to foreigners, including many Iranians. The passports, supplied by Semlex, had been issued between 2013 and 2016 by a previous government.
The current government of the Comoros last week also withdrew a diplomatic passport issued to Karaziwan by a previous administration that had appointed him a roving ambassador.
The action by authorities in Belgium and the Comoros follows two Reuters reports examining the activities of Semlex in Africa, where the private Belgian firm has landed contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Semlex and Karaziwan did not respond to requests for comment on those reports. In December, when the second report was published, Francois Koning, a lawyer representing Semlex, said Reuters was being manipulated by a third party trying to damage the company.
Last April, Reuters detailed how Semlex won a contract to produce biometric passports in Democratic Republic of Congo. The deal greatly increased the price citizens have to pay for passports, and documents showed a Gulf company owned by a relative of Congo's president received a significant chunk of the revenues. The Congolese presidency did not respond to Reuters inquiries on that story.
Soon afterwards, Belgian prosecutors said they were investigating the deal.
In December, Reuters examined Semlex's operations in other African nations, in particular the Comoros. According to emails, contracts and other documents seen by Reuters, Semlex secured deals through political connections, at times without going through public tenders, and sometimes while making payments to intermediaries. Karaziwan was involved in the sale of Comoros citizenship via a Dubai-based company, according to sources familiar with the matter and documents seen by Reuters.
A week after the article was published, Semlex issued a statement saying it had no role in the issuing of passports. It said that role was purely the prerogative of the local authorities.
Comoros authorities continue to investigate the matter. The government said it has sought help from Interpol and the United States for more information about some foreigners who had bought Comoros passports. At least two buyers of Comoros passports were people alleged by U.S. authorities to have violated sanctions against Iran, Reuters found. Reuters could not determine how these individuals secured the passports.
Between 5,000 and 10,000 Comoros passports may have been bought by foreigners who underwent minimal vetting, a Western diplomat in the region told Reuters this week. "There was no way of knowing who people were," the official said. "We are concerned this is being used to skirt Iranian sanctions."
A list of Comoros passports cancelled this week indicates that many were held by Iranian-born foreigners.
(Philippe Engels from Brussels and David Lewis from Nairobi. Additional reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek in Brussels. Editing By Richard Woods and Sara Ledwith)