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Politicians, crooks and fraudsters bought citizenship in the Caribbean

Passport, Citizenship, Ukraine, Spotlight on Corruption, Malta, Cyprus

International

Politicians, crooks and fraudsters bought citizenship in the Caribbean

Since the 1980s, the world’s wealthiest have been able to purchase visas and passports under so-called “citizenship-by-investment” schemes. Countries running these schemes allow people to sink hundreds of thousands of dollars into an investment, usually in real estate, in return for a visa or passport.

One of the best known firms brokering these passport sales is Henley & Partners, whose chairman Christian Kälin has been dubbed the “Passport King.”

Henley and the passport-sales industry more broadly have come under scrutiny in recent years following a series of scandals connected to citizenship-by-investment schemes in places like Malta and Cyprus. Critics say poor regulation of these programs risks allowing figures such as criminals and sanctions-evaders to dodge justice. Representatives of the multi-billion-dollar citizenship industry, however, argue that a second passport can help legitimate businesspeople from poor countries travel unencumbered and offer protection from autocratic regimes at home.

Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine has raised the stakes in the debate around second passports, according to Susan Hawley, the Executive Director of the UK-based nonprofit Spotlight on Corruption.

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“The ability of the Russian oligarchy, which has been central to the Putin regime, to evade sanctions and squirrel assets across the world through their use of golden visas and passports shows that their existence is now a national security issue too,” Hawley said.

OCCRP’s investigation into Henley’s operations in the Caribbean, in collaboration with the Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation, has revealed a list of clients with backgrounds which could — and perhaps should — have raised red flags for their connections to financial crimes, sanctions-evasion, political power, or unexplained wealth.

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Henley insisted that it has always abided by local and international laws and regulations, and said “the ratio of ‘bad’ applicants to ‘good’ applicants is very low, and this is very positive news.” The company said it had “a governance structure that is committed to the highest standards, with due diligence at its heart”.

The St. Kitts and Nevis agency responsible for the program has a “rigorous and thorough” due diligence process that checks applicants against law enforcement databases and sanctions lists, said lawyers for the agency.

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(Unless otherwise stated, the clients profiled here did not respond to requests for comment.)

Seyed Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad

Name(s): Seyed Ali Sadr Hashemi Nejad
Nationality: Iranian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2009
Family Applicants: Father, Iranian banking tycoon Seyed Mohammed Sadr Hashemi Nejad (2008); and his sister (2011).
Risk Assessment: N/A

Background: Ali Sadr is the former chairman of the disgraced Pilatus Bank in Malta. In 2018 he was arrested in the U.S. on charges of sanctions evasion, money laundering, and bank fraud, which led to the European Central Bank shutting down Pilatus Bank.

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Sadr was charged with participating in a scheme in which more than $115 million in payments for a Venezuelan housing complex were illegally funneled through the U.S. financial system for the benefit of Iranian individuals and entities. At the center of the scheme was Stratus Group, an Iranian conglomerate controlled by Ali Sadr and his family and chaired by Ali Sadr’s father, who was the first of this trio to apply for a St. Kitts and Nevis passport.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Ali Sadr used his St. Kitts and Nevis passport to set up companies that were instrumental in the scheme. Ali Sadr pleaded not guilty to the charges, and although he was convicted in March 2020, he was exonerated in July 2020.

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Ruben Vardanyan

Name(s): Ruben Vardanyan
Nationality: Russian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2012
Family Applicants: Wife; seven other family members, including his mother and his wife’s parents.
Risk Assessment: The risk evaluation carried out by Henley ranked his application as the highest risk level, and described him as “politically exposed.”

Background: Vardanyan co-founded investment firm Troika Dialog, once Russia’s largest private investment bank, in the early 1990s. He sold it in 2012 to Russia’s state-owned Sberbank for $1 billion, according to a background verification report commissioned by Henley.

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A previous OCCRP investigation found that employees at Vardanyan’s bank built and ran the Troika Laundromat, a money laundering system that moved some $4.6 billion between 2006 and early 2013. Vardanyan said he was not aware of any criminal activity at the bank, adding that Troika Dialog followed the rules of the international markets at the time.

Lawyers for Vardanyan told OCCRP that Troika Dialog “operated lawfully and legitimately” when Vardanyan was CEO and neither he nor the bank has been criminally sanctioned. They said Vardanyan did not finalize his St. Kitts and Nevis passport application, but “certain members” of his family do have St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship “in order to enable travel to and within the European Union with fewer visa related restrictions.”

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Ali Othman Badri Sindi

Name(s): Ali Othman Badri Sindi
Nationality: Iraqi Kurd
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2013
Family Applicants: Wife and parents
Risk Assessment: The risk evaluation carried out by Henley ranked his application as the highest risk level.

Background: With a long career in the public sector in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, Badri Sindi’s application was processed while he was serving as the region’s minister of planning, a position he had held since 2009. Before that, he served as senior adviser to the regional government’s prime minister from 2003 to 2009.

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Badri Sindi’s lawyer told OCCRP that both Henley and St. Kitts and Nevis carried out extensive background checks on his client, which he passed. He said Badri Sindi’s medical and surgery practice, which he pursues outside of his public service role, is “the highest paying job in Iraq” and that his family fortune goes back several generations.

Hussain Ali Habib Sajwani

Name(s): Hussain Ali Habib Sajwani
Original Nationality: Emirati
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2010
Family Applicants: N/A
Risk Assessment: N/A

Background: Sajwani, a property magnate, was placed on a Canadian sanctions list between 2011 and 2014 for corruption. In 2011, Egyptian authorities convicted Sajwani in absentia for his role in a land deal and sentenced him to five years in prison. His name was included in the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority’s list of prohibited persons.

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In September 2010, Sajwani paid a $335,000 contribution to the SIDF, in addition to his $57,500 fee to Henley and Partners. His application was initially declined by the St. Kitts and Nevis Citizenship By Investment Unit, but emails show the decision was appealed. It is not clear what role Henley played in filing the appeal, nor whether the appeal was successful. Henley sought to cut ties with Sajwani from July 2013.

Ricardo Benjamin Salinas Pliego

Name(s): Ricardo Benjamin Salinas Pliego
Original Nationality: Mexican
Passport Applied For: Antigua and Barbuda
Application Date: 2016
Family Applicants: Wife and two children
Risk Assessment: Henley listed him as a politically exposed person, and charged him a $5,000 fee for a background verification report.

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Background: Reportedly one of Mexico’s wealthiest men, Salinas Pliego is the founder and chairman of the conglomerate Grupo Salinas and the owner of Mexico’s second-largest broadcaster, TV Azteca. A close ally of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Salinas Pliego has been a member of the president’s business advisory council since 2018.

His career has been dogged by controversies. In 2005, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a complaint against him for fraud, alleging he was behind a scheme to conceal a deal between a TV Azteca subsidiary and a company secretly co-owned by Salinas Pliego. The scam netted him $109 million in personal profit, according to the SEC. In September 2006, the SEC reached an agreement with Salinas Pliego and his co-defendants, under which Salinas Pliego agreed to pay $7.5 million to settle the case.

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Pedro Padilla Longoria

Name(s): Pedro Padilla Longoria
Original Nationality: Mexican
Passport Applied For: Antigua and Barbuda
Application Date: N/A
Family Applicants: Wife
Risk Assessment: N/A

Background: A colleague of Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Longoria was appointed CEO of Grupo Salinas in 2001 and has been on the board of various group companies. In 2005 he was charged by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, along with Salinas, for fraud involving a scheme to conceal a deal between a TV Azteca subsidiary and a company secretly co-owned by Salinas. In a 2006 settlement agreement with the SEC he agreed to pay $1 million.

Sudheer Sriram

Name(s): Sudheer Sriram
Original Nationality: Indian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2011
Family Applicants: N/A
Risk Assessment: N/A

Background: Sriram, an Indian businessman in the international scrap metal trading business, was accused by Indian authorities in 2009 of being the mastermind behind a $250 million scam. In 2013, he had an Interpol red notice issued against him for counterfeiting, forgery, and fraud.

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Sriram fled after the scandal surfaced and applied for a St. Kitts and Nevis passport in 2011. Internal documents show that Henley was aware of the allegations against Sriram but presented his application anyway. The application included a letter referring to three legal opinions claiming the accusations against Sriram were “unfounded.”

The application was initially rejected by the St. Kitts and Nevis authorities and Henley ceased to act as his representative, internal emails show. However, Sriram appealed the decision and his application was approved in December 2012. Henley’s CEO at the time, Eric Major, emailed Sriram to congratulate him on the approval.

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According to press reports, Sriram was arrested in India in 2018. In October 2021, Indian authorities reportedly connected assets worth around $19.5 million to the allegedly fraudulent scheme, though it is unclear what has happened in Sriram’s case since.

Henley said it had not found any record of interacting with Sriram.

Sergei Yuschenko

Name(s): Sergei Yuschenko
Original Nationality: Russian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2011
Family Applicants: Wife and four children
Risk Assessment: Henley filed a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) on Yuschenko in November 2012.

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Background: In early 2011 media reported Yuschenko, the former general director of Russian retail chain Lenta, had been targeted by the Internal Affairs Directorate of the Central District of St. Petersburg for an alleged 4.19-million-ruble (around $480,000) fraud.

To qualify for St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship, Yuschenko purchased a $591,760 residential unit at the Marriott Residences. In September 2012, Henley’s local representative was informed by the Citizenship Unit that Yushenko’s application had been approved.

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Henley filed a SAR to Jersey regulators in November 2012 after Yuschenko refused “to provide [Henley] with any additional [customer due diligence] information or verification documentation.” The SAR said that, having been asked for further documentation from Henley, Yuschenko requested “the return of all funds in relation to this application.”

Firuza Kerimova

Name(s): Firuza Kerimova
Original Nationality: Russian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2012
Family Applicants: Two of her children
Risk Assessment: All three applicants were listed as politically exposed persons and enhanced due diligence was required.

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Background: Firuza Kerimova is the wife of Suleyman Kerimov, a Russian billionaire and politician. Kerimov was placed under U.S. sanctions in 2018 after he was detained in France in November 2017 for allegedly bringing hundreds of millions of euros into the country through bank transfers, and even in suitcases, and then laundering the money through property purchases. Kerimov was also accused by French authorities of failing to pay 400 million euros in property taxes.

The charges were dropped in 2018, but in March 2019 a French judge reopened the case and placed Kerimov under formal investigation. Kerimov denies the charges.

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Documents suggest that, to qualify for citizenship, Kerimova purchased a $6 million property at the luxury property development Christophe Harbour, earning Henley a $480,000 commission.

OlawaSeun Ogunbambo

Name(s): OlawaSeun Ogunbambo
Original Nationality: Nigerian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: 2011
Family Applicants: N/A
Risk Assessment: N/A

Background: Oil businessman OlawaSeun Ogunbambo (also known as Seun Ogunbambo) was arrested in 2012 by Nigerian authorities in connection with an oil subsidy fraud and charged with conspiracy, obtaining money by false pretense, forgery, and use of false documents.

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Documents suggest Ogunbambo’s St. Kitts and Nevis application was handled by Henley and approved in December 2011. He contributed $200,000 to the SIDF, and documents suggest he later purchased a property at Christophe Harbour.

Investigators also alleged that Ogunbambo had fraudulently obtained over 1.2 billion Nigerian naira (around $7.3 million) in a scam separate to the alleged oil subsidy fraud. He was twice denied bail in 2012, due in part to his multiple passports. He was eventually released, but by May 2014 a Nigerian judge had issued a warrant for him after he failed to appear before the court for his trial.

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A Nigerian newspaper reported in 2021 that authorities continued to seek Ogunbambo after he allegedly fled the country after skipping bail.

Armen Sarkissian

Name(s): Armen Sarkissian
Original Nationality: Armenian
Passport Applied For: St. Kitts and Nevis
Application Date: Around 2011-13
Family Applicants: N/A
Risk Assessment: N/A

Background: Sarkissian stepped down as the President of Armenia in January 2022, having taken office in 2018, claiming the constitution limited his ability to act.

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Sarkissian’s name appears in a Henley email from 2019 that says files related to his passport renewal can be archived. A separate internal document, from an unknown date, lists Sarkissian’s St. Kitts and Nevis passport as “suspended.”

The Armenian constitution forbids presidents having dual citizenship in the six years prior to their election. Armenian National Security Services told reporters an investigation into Sarkissian’s second passport had been opened in the wake of letters sent by OCCRP to Sarkissian’s office seeking comment on his citizenship.

Henley said it had no record of interacting with Sarkissian.

Sarkissian said he was “surprised to learn” there might still be a St. Kitts and Nevis passport in his name, as he believed he had renounced it.

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Contents published under this byline are those created by the news team of BLiTZ

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