Unlike the traditional path to citizenship in countries around the world, for years, Dominica citizenship could be secured without even stepping on the island.
Among thousands who have bought this Caribbean country’s passport — available starting from $100,000 — are Saddam Hussein’s top nuclear scientist, a Libyan colonel who served under Gaddafi, and a man who went on to be Afghanistan’s defense minister. In doing so, they secured visa-free travel, which might not otherwise have been available to them, to more than 130 countries and territories.
They’re not alone.
Our reporters obtained the names of roughly 7,700 people who have purchased Dominica passports. A study of the data identified more than two dozen cases when these new “Dominicans” were investigated, charged with crimes, or sentenced to prison. Some later became fugitives from their home countries.
As well as nefarious actors, the Dominica: Passports of the Caribbean data includes government officials, past and present, who are not accused of any wrongdoing but whose status as “politically exposed persons” merits further scrutiny.
Our stories, and those of our partners, offer an in-depth look at a system of nationality-buying that British authorities recently said has involved “clear and evident abuse”.
Thousands bought citizenship of Dominica
An Afghan official accused of human rights abuses, a Libyan colonel who served under Gaddafi, and Saddam Hussein’s top nuclear scientist are among those who bought citizenship from the tiny Caribbean country.
When he was named head of Afghanistan’s top intelligence agency in 2012, Asadullah Khalid had already been publicly accused of systematic human rights violations.
In 2009, a Canadian diplomat who worked with him testified at a parliamentary commission that, during his time as a provincial governor, Khalid allegedly operated a dungeon in which he was “known to personally torture people.”
Khalid dismissed the allegations as “propaganda” — only to be featured in multiple subsequent reports by journalists and human rights groups that alleged his involvement in arbitrary detention, rape, and torture.
None of this, however, prevented him from purchasing citizenship from Dominica, a tiny island nation in the Caribbean whose passport allows extensive visa-free or “visa on arrival” travel to more than 130 countries and territories, including in the European Union. He did so in 2017, long after the allegations against him had been widely reported.
And Khalid, who later became Afghanistan’s defense minister, wasn’t the only newly minted “Dominican” with a dark past. Saddam Hussein’s top nuclear scientist — known as the father of Iraq’s nuclear program — bought a Dominica passport in 2014. A Libyan colonel who served under Muammar Ghaddafi did so the following year.
They are among thousands who have taken advantage of Dominica’s “citizenship by investment” program, which allows foreigners to buy a passport for a base price of $100,000.
Until now, their names were not easily accessible in one place. But, working with over a dozen media partners, OCCRP and the Government Accountability Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit, have obtained the names of roughly 7,700 people who have purchased Dominica passports in recent years.
Among the largest groups of buyers were people from Russia, China, Iran, including people of considerable wealth. Among them, for example, are two Russian billionaires of Azerbaijani origin who were later sanctioned after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
The list also includes government officials — including the former prime minister of Jordan and Iraq’s future central bank governor — who are not accused of any wrongdoing but whose status as “politically exposed persons” typically merits additional scrutiny when they open companies or bank accounts.
Corporate registries show that dozens of buyers of Dominica passports have used their new documents to create companies around the world.
Reporters also identified at least 30 people who obtained Dominica passports and were later investigated by authorities, charged with crimes, or convicted. On nearly a dozen other occasions, they ended up as fugitives from the law, fleeing criminal investigations or prosecutions in their home countries.
In these cases, Dominica cannot be accused of knowingly selling passports to criminals. But the country’s officials did not respond to reporters’ questions about whether any of these citizenships have been revoked.
In a 2016 interview, the country’s then-representative at the U.N. boasted that the island’s due diligence digs deep into potential applicants’ lives.
“Those who have something to hide don’t apply,” he said. In the same joint interview, however, the head of Dominica’s citizenship-by-investment program acknowledged that just two percent of applicants were rejected.
“Golden passports and golden visas were designed for criminals,” said Sophie In ‘t Veld, a member of the European Parliament, and one of a growing number of critics of such citizenship schemes. “It’s a red carpet into the European Union,” she said.
Experts also say that Dominica’s scheme is a response to a long story of exploitation. Over a hundred years of slavery, French and British colonization, and globalization have left it with few options for development. The country has become reliant on selling citizenships to fund its public services.
Nothing Dominica is doing is illegal under international law. “States have the ability to set their own naturalization policies,” noted Madeleine Sumption, the director of Oxford’s Migration Observatory.
But providing passports to questionable figures still carries a reputational risk that may eventually catch up to the island, according to Kristin Surak, an expert on golden passports.
“Big players like the E.U. might revoke visa-free access, as already has been seen with Vanuatu,” Surak said, referencing a 2022 ruling against the Pacific Island nation as a result of its golden passport program.
Indeed, the U.K., which previously allowed Dominican citizens free access because the island is its former colony, recently imposed visa requirements on Dominican travelers, citing “clear and evident abuse” of the country’s citizenship purchase scheme. According to British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, the island had been granting citizenship to “individuals known to pose a risk to the U.K”.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called the move “unfortunate,” and insisted that his government was taking “additional measures to strengthen the program.” He said the government had a “multi-layered” checks and balances system in place that was “handled by top-rated due diligence agencies.”
But one Dominica passport applicant who had reason to worry about background checks told reporters that his own due diligence process presented no serious challenges or even questions.
In his own telling, math whiz Rakesh Wadhwa had figured out how to “reinvent the gambling business” by adjusting casino gaming rules in the house’s favor. The Indian native parlayed this into a career as a gambling magnate in Nepal, operating several casinos — and getting into a serious tax dispute with the government.
In 2010, he fled Nepal to avoid being arrested for failing to make payments, according to news reports. The government later stripped him of his casino licenses. There are currently no criminal or civil cases pending against him in the country, though the Nepalese government still lists him as a defaulter, owing a compounded amount equivalent to $6.5 million in taxes.
Wadhwa, who blames his troubles on Nepal’s then-new Communist government, told reporters that Dominica citizenship was literally a passport out of his troubles.
For a time, he said, he could not travel to Singapore or London “as result of the legal complications and mess in Nepal.” That’s when he realized that obtaining Dominican citizenship would be “a way to survive.”
“People … sanctioned in the Middle East were all seeking to buy this passport,” Wadhwa said. “This was another shot at life and business for them. So I decided to buy one for myself.”
Wadhwa got his Dominica passport in 2016. He said the application process, done through a Dubai-based company called Citizenship Invest, took only a few weeks.
“They appointed an American firm to carry out the due diligence on my background and [my] cases in Nepal,” he said. “When I asked [Citizenship Invest] if my legal troubles would be a hindrance … they said not to worry about it, and that the [American] compliance company will not look at the ongoing cases no matter how complicated they may be.”
He said he was promised by Citizenship Invest that the compliance firm would give a quick clearance, and that’s what happened: “They did not ask me any questions, and asked me to just fill out a form.”
The green light came within a few days. “I was surprised,” he said. “But I was grateful to them for giving me that second chance at new life again.”
The Dominican government and Prime Minister Skerrit did not respond to requests for comment. But in a recent press conference he addressed the upcoming investigation, saying: “There continues to be an attempt by some in this country to destroy the [citizenship-by-investment program] and so they are colluding with international journalists and some regional journalists to propagate a lot of mischief, misinformation about our program, all in an effort to destroy it. And some people are part of this in Dominica just because they want to get the Labour Party out of government.”
The citizenship-by-investment program, Skerrit said, “underwrites a significant part of our economic and social development [and] the full cost of the national employment program, close to $5 million every month. [It] has been used to build thousands of homes, improve health care, help with national security.”
“We have professed to have a robust system that we go through in different layers of due diligence,” Skerrit continued. “If somebody were to become a citizen of Dominica today and tomorrow morning the person goes and does something and finds himself in a problem with the law, you can’t blame the program for that.”
When issuing their new restrictions on citizens of Dominica, U.K. authorities did not elaborate on just who they are trying to keep out. But, having compiled the list of roughly 7,700 new Dominican passport holders — which is not believed to be complete — reporters found multiple troubling cases among them.
In some cases, Dominica passports were used by questionable people to set up companies long after they had been accused of crimes elsewhere.
Jordanian businessman Mutasem Faouri and his father Fayez acquired their Dominica passports in 2010. Two years later, they were arrested, charged with defrauding investors of tens of millions of dollars, and sentenced to prison terms. They are currently appealing these convictions.
But while the elder Faouri is currently serving a sentence on a related case, Mutasem, who also received a sentence, managed to evade prison. He has since set up companies in the United Kingdom, listing his nationality as “Dominica” and his country of residence as the United Arab Emirates. Neither Fayez nor Mutasem responded to requests for comment.
In another case, Spanish citizen Pedro Fort Berbel — who bought Dominican citizenship in 2015 — was accused two years later by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of running a Ponzi and multi-level marketing scheme at that time worth tens of millions of dollars.
The SEC won a $26 million judgment against Berbel and his company, Fort Marketing Group LLC, in 2019 — and found that he had transferred millions of dollars to attorneys with bank accounts in Dominica at The Bank of Nova Scotia, FirstCaribbean International Bank, and the Royal Bank of Canada.
The SEC declined to comment on his case, and on whether any of the money had been repaid. Berbel and his legal team did not respond to OCCRP’s requests for comment.
Hassan Nasser Jaffar al-Lami is an Iraqi businessman who acquired Dominica citizenship in 2017 and continued to hold it till at least until 2022, when he used it to register a company in the U.K.
In the meantime, however, he and the Iraqi Noor Islamic Bank, of which he was a shareholder, had come under scrutiny in several Arabic and international media outlets for his alleged role funneling dollars from auctions held by Iraq’s central bank to sanctioned or militant groups.
In January 2020 an anonymous source, identified as an employee of Iraq’s central bank, appeared on a Lebanese TV station and referred to Lami as the “financial Qassem Soleimani,” due to what she alleged was his companies’ use of fake invoices to launder money for militant groups.
The broadcast also included a leaked letter sent by the New York Federal Reserve in October 2019 asking Iraq’s central bank to stop providing dollars to Iraqi Noor Islamic Bank and several other entities because it suspected they could be “directly or indirectly” supplied to sanctioned people and entities.
The same year, The New York Times reported that Lami was “known in Iraqi financial circles” as “the king of fake invoices.”
This February, Iraqi outlets reported that Lami and his son had been arrested over allegations of dollar smuggling. The reports said Lami was released. Iraqi authorities didn’t respond to OCCRP’s request for information about the reason for Lami’s arrest or whether he was facing any formal charges. Lami did not reply to OCCRP’s request for comment.
OCCRP reporting also shows that an Iranian man used a Dominica passport to set up a company that was sanctioned by the United States last year for facilitating the sale of tens of millions of dollars of Iranian petrochemicals.
Dominica’s road to becoming a global passport hub was paved, at least in part, out of economic necessity.
By the 2000s, the island’s crucial banana industry had been rocked by a World Trade Organization ruling that eliminated favorable treatment it received from several European countries. That decision, as well as a couple of devastating hurricanes, plunged the island into crisis.
Outside support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) “came with strings attached,” said Peter Clegg, an international relations professor at the University of the West of England Bristol. “Dominica had to cut social programs.”
Needing an alternate source of revenue, Dominica turned to passports. The decision was “about survival,” Clegg said. “Morality was not a factor.”
“Dominica didn’t have a coherent development strategy outside bananas.”
Thanks to its jagged topography, Dominica was never suited to become a sugar powerhouse like many British and French Caribbean colonies. But the country’s fertile soil did support other crops like coffee and, most importantly, bananas.
Dubbed green gold, bananas accounted for almost half the country’s entire export earnings in the 1980s, bringing much needed income. But Dominica’s dependence on monoculture would have devastating consequences in the following decade.
Banana exports from Dominica couldn’t compete with larger Latin American rivals in a free market. But the country had been afforded preferential treatment in Europe through quotas given to former British colonies, which were allowed to bypass tariffs.
Those preferences ended in 1997 when the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of a complaint by the United States and several Latin American countries –– filed on behalf of multinational fruit giants like Chiquita and Dole –– to end European support for Caribbean banana growers.
Dominica itself wasn’t even a party to the dispute, which was between those countries and the EU. Along with other banana-growing Caribbean nations, it was excluded from the case that decided its economic future.
“The World Trade Organization was not interested in Dominica’s arguments,” said Clegg. “They were only interested in international law.”
The island had legalized citizenship by investment in 1993, but it wasn’t until Skerrit’s tenure as prime minister that the country’s passports became popular with high-rollers from around the world.
The young new prime minister had inherited not only the banana-fueled crisis, but also a political one. Having been called in to fill out the end of his deceased predecessor’s term in 2004 and facing a near-immediate election, he needed both to deliver results for his people and raise money.
One source of cash was China. In the early 1990s, most Dominican citizenship buyers had been Taiwanese. But when Skerrit came to power, he pivoted to market the program to Chinese buyers, part of a larger reorientation of the country’s diplomacy towards China.
And Skerritt had plans beyond Asia — his administration began promoting Dominican passports around the world, looking for investors in places like Russia and the Middle East.
Still in office today, Skerrit has become the country’s longest-serving prime minister, and the IMF now reports that Dominica is making at least a partial financial recovery.
And according to government figures, Skerrit’s ramped-up passport program has been a wild success.
Between 2009 and 2021, according to Dominica’s own state budget, citizenship-by-investment has raised about $775 million for the island, helping to fund government programs and keep Skerrit’s party in power.
The growing sector has attracted more than 70 companies approved to facilitate the country’s private passport business. A number of them have also branched into real estate development on the island.
One of the most prominent is Montreal Management Consultants Est (MMCE), registered in the UAE and run by a man named Anthony Haiden.
Aside from facilitating passport sales, Haiden’s MMCE also has a development arm in Dominica, MMC Development, which describes itself on its website as the country’s “leading development company.” Among its major projects is the development of a new international airport reportedly valued at $370 million.
In a separate effort to build public housing in Dominica, MMCE managed to seamlessly weave together its passport and construction businesses.
After Tropical Storm Erika pummeled Dominica in 2015, MMCE made several agreements with the government to build hurricane-resistant homes. But the project had a financing mechanism that benefitted Haiden and his company in two ways. According to a 2018 interview Haiden gave to a trade publication focusing on obtaining citizenship by investment, the government reimbursed MMCE for the construction costs from passport sales facilitated by MMCE –– which he said also took a commission from those sales. The money was paid out through an escrow account into which the passport fees were deposited, with some proportion going to the government and some reimbursing Haiden’s company for the construction.
“MMCE stands to benefit from both service fees for its clients and profit margin associated with its role as a developer,” Haiden said in the interview.
In response to questions from reporters, an email sent on Haiden’s behalf stated that the scheme entails risks but also offers benefits.
“The pace of sale of the citizenship allocations has no bearing on the project’s progress, as MMCE commits the funds upfront to ensure and secure the timely completion and delivery,” the email read. “This underwriting comes at certain costs, both financially and morally. Most investors shy away from such an initiative as it is seen as a high-risk business venture. We take pride on taking on the risks and succeeding in delivering massive projects.”
The government’s citizen-by-investment unit was responsible for due diligence done on applicants before their approvals, the email read. “And as an authorized agent, MMCE contributes by adopting a very strict vetting system, before submitting applications from prospective applicants.”
The company, it continued, has “not aided and will never help any individual or entity with a criminal record or depraved standing in obtaining an immigration status or second citizenship.”
Haiden has also done business directly with Prime Minister Skerrit.
In 2018, documents obtained by reporters show, a Haiden company purchased more than $270,000 worth of Dominican property from Skerrit. As of 2020, the Dominican government was also paying that same company about $140,000 a year to rent a mansion for the prime minister in the mountains overlooking Roseau. (After being criticized for the arrangement, Skerrit promised that the 2-year lease would not be renewed).
Tillipman, the GWU dean, said the relationship between Haiden and Skerrit appeared to present a conflict of interest.
In the response to reporters’ questions, Haiden’s representative said he has a “purely professional” relationship with Prime Minister Skerrit, for whom he has great respect.
Beyond paying up front, an alternative way to buy Dominican citizenship involves a $200,000 investment in government-approved real estate developments, projects that would theoretically create jobs for Dominicans living on the island.
One company specializing in Dominican passport brokering and property development that takes advantage of this scheme is the UAE-based Range Developments. Among the projects it financed through new Dominican passport-buyers’ investments was the construction of a hotel near the Cabrits national park on the north of the island.
A list of Range’s “third party clients” obtained by OCCRP includes Asadullah Khalid, the Afghan ex-chief of intelligence who was accused of human rights violations.
In response to requests for comment, Range wrote that “interested applicants were able to invest in the project only once they were qualified by the Government, meaning they passed the Government’s due diligence processes and were assessed by the Government as suitable to be granted citizenship.”
“The overwhelming majority of applications were also handled by third party promoters and local agents, not Range Developments, and so we really are dealing with matters beyond our understanding or information,” the company wrote.
As firms like MMCE and Range buy up their own corners of paradise, Prime Minister Skerrit’s personal change in fortunes has not gone unnoticed on the island.
“I believe I should be the highest paid person in the country,” Skerrit quipped in a video posted online in 2021. “Most people make more money than me.”
Opposition politicians and other observers, including U.S. diplomats, have raised questions about his personal wealth and whether citizenship money played a role in his sudden enrichment.
“Skerrit’s public declaration listed minimal assets when he joined the government in 2000,” read a 2009 U.S. State Department cable published by WikiLeaks. “Skerrit has not held any other legal job or made any investments that would provide income outside of his official government salary of less than $2,000 USD per month. Yet on this salary, Skerrit has purchased multiple land holdings in Dominica on paper worth over US$400,000 with much higher market value, and is constructing a palatial residence in Vielle Casse, his hometown.”
The following year, Dominica’s Integrity Commission took up a complaint about Skerrit filed by Lennox Linton, a prominent opposition leader. Linton alleged that the prime minister had acquired eight oceanfront villas worth millions of dollars that could not be explained by his legal income.
“In order to finance his ownership interest in these villas,” he wrote the commission, “the Prime Minister accepted ‘gifts, benefits or advantages’” in contravention of a code of conduct adopted for public officials.
At the commission’s request, Linton provided a package of evidence to support his claims, including leaked emails and a secretly recorded phone conversation purporting to show that Skerrit was the owner of these properties.
After inviting Linton to a hearing and examining his complaint, the commission found that it did not contain sufficient evidence of improper gifts and ruled that any wrongdoing pertaining to Skerrit’s ownership of the property would need to be examined by prosecutors. Further investigation would be necessary, it said, to determine whether Skerrit misused his official position. It is unknown whether this was undertaken.
According to Skerrit’s LinkedIn profile, his son attended an expensive New York City prep school. The prime minister’s wife, Melissa, and several relatives were connected in media reports to a $2.2 million apartment in New York City.
Skerrit acknowledged that the family lived in the apartment to reporters from Al Jazeera, but said this was due to “a kind gesture” by a friend of his wife and denied any wrongdoing.
Skerrit’s wife, and Skerrit himself, did not respond to requests for comment.