The month of February was marked by a worldwide series of strong court rulings against corruption. From the Paris Court of Appeal’s awarding of a three-year suspended prison sentence and a €30 million fine to the Vice President of Equatorial Guinea for fraudulently accumulating a considerable amount of property in France, to the upholding on appeal of a former South Korean President’s 17-year prison sentence for corruption, and not forgetting a Brazilian judge’s decision not to indict the American journalist and whistleblower Glenn Greenwald: the news reminds us of the courts’ central role in combating corruption and promoting a more transparent society.
At the same time, February’s news allows us to draw a nuanced picture of public attitudes to issues involving corruption. Although — in reaction to the 2018 murder of an investigative journalist who was conducting an inquiry into endemic corruption—the Anti-Corruption opposition party OLaNO beat the outgoing populists in the Slovakian legislative elections, the indictment for corruption of the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not prevent voters from bringing him to victory fifteen days before the start of his trial.
On 3 February, Croatia, which on 1 January succeeded Finland in holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, published a list of the companies sponsoring this Croatian presidency. The list includes the INA oil company, owned by the Croatian State and by “the official petrol supplier”, the Hungarian group MOL. There is nothing to prevent countries from seeking financial assistance from businesses to help cover costs associated with the presidency, since these are entirely borne by the country concerned, and this unsupervised activity has been common practice for five years. However, this choice has been highly criticised by NGOs who have denounced it as a mixing of genres and point to the risk of a conflict of interests. At a time when the European Commission wants to make the “Green Deal” its priority, Croatia’s decision to seek sponsorship for its presidency from an oil company reopens the debate on the funding of this exercise, whilst every six months, one of the Twenty-seven has the task of organising and chairing the Councils of European Ministers and other meetings attended by experts from Member States. (Le Monde, 17 February 2020) (Corporate Europe Observatory, 13 February 2020)
According to a recent World Bank study, approximately 5% of the funds paid to countries that benefit from its aid disappears into tax havens. Payments of aid to the most dependent countries coincide with a significant increase in transfers to offshore financial centres known for their fiscal opacity, such as Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands and Singapore, the authors of the study explain. Little systematic evidence of this aid diversion exists prior to this study, which focuses on 22 of the poorest countries, mainly within Africa. The publication of this study caused a stir after the British magazine The Economist argued last week that this could be one of the reasons why the World Bank’s chief economist, Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg, resigned after fifteen months in the post. The financial institution defended itself against rumours that it had wanted to stifle the study’s publication. (Le Point, 21 February 2020) (Vox, 21 February 2020)
On 5 February, the G20’s anti-corruption group met in Riyad, under the presidency of Saudi Arabia. The Anti-corruption Working Group’s chair, Nassar Abaalkhail, highlighted the importance of continuing to combat corruption and promote integrity and accountability in order to foster growth. (Arab News, 6 February 2020) This meeting took place a few weeks after civil society organisations such as Transparency International and Amnesty International decided to boycott meetings dedicated to civil society under this presidency, denouncing “a process that seeks to give international legitimacy to a state that provides virtually no space for civil society, and where independent civil society voices are not tolerated”. (Transparency International, 13 January 2020) (Forbes, 13 January 2020)
The Algerian presidency’s former director of protocol under the three last terms of Abdelaziz Bouteflika has been indicted in a corruption case and imprisoned, a security source announced on Tuesday 25 February. A career diplomat appointed in 2005, Mokhtar Reguieg had been dismissed a few days after the resignation of Bouteflika on 2 April 2019 under pressure from an unprecedented popular protest movement. Hocine Metidji, the powerful boss of the eponymous group, is the principal defendant in this case in which, according to the local media, two of Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s former Prime Ministers, Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal—who had been sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison respectively in another corruption case in December—were also interrogated. Since Bouteflika’s resignation, and under the leadership of the pillar of the regime, the High Military Command, the Algerian justice system has launched a series of anti-corruption investigations targeting former political leaders and powerful businessmen close to Bouteflika. (Le Figaro, 25 February 2020)
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, charged with corruption in a series of cases, welcomed Tuesday’s “giant victory“, “against all odds”, in Monday 2 March’s legislative elections which were crucial to his political survival. “This is the most important victory of my life”, Mr Netanyahu told his supporters who had gathered in Tel-Aviv following his third election in Israel in less than a year, after two elections failed to put him ahead of his rival, Benny Gantz. (Ouest France, 3 March 2020) (BBC, 3 March 2020) This victory comes two weeks before he is due to appear in court on charges of corruption, despite the fact that some observers predicted that these allegations would have a significant impact on the Israeli electorate, including Netanyahu’s supporters. In a survey published a few days before the election, about a third of those who self-identified as right-wing voters said they felt very uncomfortable, or believed it to be impossible for someone to continue to serve as Prime Minister after having been indicted. (Straits Times, 2 March 2020)
On 18 February, an article in Le Monde showed how attempts to combat corruption in Africa could constitute a double-edged sword. Called for by civil societies and Western partners, it has also become a subtle way of neutralising its political adversaries. The example of the Cameroonian President Paul Biya’s major anti-corruption operation “Sparrowhawk”, which turned into a political purge combined with a manipulation of the judiciary by the executive, speaks for itself. By the same token, parties such as the MPLA in Angola and the ANC in South Africa rely on the disclosure of certain ex-presidents’ and senior executives’ misuse of funds to accelerate, at a domestic level, the transformation of these aging parties who are anxious to preserve their political and economic hold. Positive examples such as that provided by the former police officer Nuhu Ribadu, to whom the Nigerian President Obasanjo entrusted the leadership of the main anti-corruption agency created in 2002, who subsequently secured the conviction of his former chief of police, a supporter of the head of State, and launched a vast investigation against 31 of the 36 governors of the Federation, cannot obscure the disturbing fact that the majority of African anti-corruption agencies are established on the basis of local issues, political power struggles and clashes within networks of interested players. (Le Monde, 18 February 2020)
On Monday 10 February, the Paris Court of Appeal sentenced Teodorin Obiang, Vice-president of Equatorial Guinea, to a three-year suspended prison sentence and a €30 million fine for fraudulently accumulating a considerable amount of property in France. The magistrates also confirmed the confiscation of all of the seized property, including a mansion in Paris, pending a ruling from the International Court of Justice. The investigation was opened following complaints from the Sherpa and Transparency International France organisations, which revealed the extent of Teodorin Obiang’s property in France and a lifestyle far removed from daily life in this small oil-producing country in the Gulf of Guinea, where more than half of the inhabitants live below the poverty line. (L’Express, 10 February 2020) (France 24, 10 February 2020)
On 4 February, the Court of Pietermaritzburg issued a “deferred” arrest warrant for Jacob Zuma, aged 77. The former South African President did not appear in court on 4 February when his trial in a corruption case with French arms giant Thales was due to begin. The evidence presented by Jacob Zuma’s lawyer, which cited health problems, failed to convince the Court. In fact the dates on a medical certificate issued by a military hospital had obviously been changed, stated Judge Pillay. (RFI, 4 February 2020) (New York Times, 4 February 2020)
After several months on the run, Emilio Lozoya, the former head of the Mexican national oil company Pemex, was arrested in Spain on Wednesday 12 February. The Mexican authorities have accused this close friend of ex-president Enrique Peña Nieto of fraud, corruption and the unlawful accumulation of wealth. Since 2012, he has allegedly received more than ten million dollars in bribes from companies wishing to secure juicy public contracts, according to the Mexican courts. These companies include the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht which is at the heart of a sprawling corruption case involving a number of Latin American governments. (RFI, 13 February 2020) (New York Times, 12 February 2020)
In early February, a judge ruled that he would not be indicting the American journalist Glenn Greenwald for having “helped, encouraged and guided” a group of hackers. Known for publicising the revelations of Edward Snowden, and having lived in Brazil since 2004, in June 2019 he revealed messages between the Minister of Justice, Sérgio Moro, and the prosecutors responsible for the “Lava Jato” anti-corruption investigation—which led to the imprisonment of former President Lula—on the site The Intercept. He denounced this attempt to “attack the freedom of the press and Brazilian democracy”. (Libération, 23 February 2020) (The Guardian, 7 February 2020)
On Monday 17 February, the Serious Fraud Office opened an investigation into the New Zealand First Foundation. The Electoral Commission referred to allegations by the police, according to which the New Zealand First Party was using the Foundation to hide donations; it found that the Foundation had received money which should have been treated as party donations, and which had not been properly declared. Amongst these donations, between 2017 and 2019 the Foundation allegedly received four sums amounting to $26,950 (approximately €15,000) in total from seafood giant Talley’s and from its managing director Sir Peter Talley; these sums were all below the threshold for public disclosure and so have not been publically revealed until now. Greenpeace, in particular, expressed its concern about these donations and about the close links between the party and the fishing industry. (Newshub, 18 February 2020) (RNZ, 15 February 2020)
Former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak was taken into custody on Wednesday 19 February after his 17-year prison sentence for corruption was upheld on appeal. In power from 2008 to 2013, the former head of State spent a short period in prison in 2018 after being awarded a 15-year prison sentence and a fine of 13 billion Won (€10 million) for corruption and embezzlement. Lee Myung-bak was quickly released on bail and appealed against his conviction. He had been found guilty of unlawfully receiving funds from the Samsung group in exchange for granting a presidential pardon to the president of Samsung, Lee Kun-hee, who had been convicted of tax evasion. Lee Myung-bak is not the only head of State who ended up behind bars after leaving office: all four surviving ex-presidents were convicted. (RFI, 19 February 2020) (OCCRP, 20 February 2020)
The anti-corruption opposition party OLaNO beat the outgoing populists in Slovakia’s legislative elections, which should ensure it and its future allies an absolute majority in Parliament, according to the full results which were released on 1st March. The election was marked by the impact on public opinion of the 2018 murder of an investigative journalist who was conducting an inquiry into endemic corruption, sparking demonstrations which forced the then Prime Minister, Robert Fico, to resign. A businessman linked to political leaders is accused of being behind this crime. (AFP, 1 March 2020) (CNN, 1 March 2020)
The trial of former Armenian President Serge Sarkissian, who is accused of the misappropriation of public funds, began on Tuesday in the capital, Erevan, almost two years after he was ousted by a popular uprising. According to his prosecutors, Serge Sarkissian was involved in the development of a mechanism whereby a private company was able to sell fuel to a government agricultural aid programme at a price well above its market value. According to his prosecutors, the profits (approximately €946,000 at the current exchange rate) allegedly went to senior officials and businessmen. (AFP, 25 February 2020) (OCCRP, 26 February 2020)