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Raila Odinga and the Comrades

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Raila Odinga and the Comrades
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Forgive me, comrades
If I say something apolitical
And shamefully emotional
But in the dark of night
It is as if my heart is clutched
By a giant iron hand:
“Treachery, treachery” I cry out
Thinking of you, comrades
And how you have betrayed
The things we suffered for 

– Dennis Brutus

During a 1998 visit to Uganda by US President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton was meant to have dinner with representatives of the Makerere University students’ guild. However, the Makerere students took the risk and liberty to invite an extra guest to the table, a Kenyan student from the University of Nairobi with whom they had built a comradeship. The Kenyan was part of a group campaigning for the reinstatement of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU), a historically radical organisation in Kenya’s largest and oldest university that had been banned in 1987. The body was reestablished in 1992, after which it was banned again.

Throughout this period, Kenya’s strongman, Daniel arap Moi, was eternally fearful that SONU would partake in an onslaught against his authoritarian regime. There was a history. In 1982, when Moi was barely half a decade into his 24-year reign of terror, tens of University of Nairobi students – seen as coup sympathisers of an attempted putsch by junior Kenya Air Force officers – got rounded up by the nudged state. The majority were released after brief detentions, while those identified as lead troublemakers, including SONU president Tito Adungosi, got locked up on trumped-up charges. Adungosi was jailed for five years, dying mysteriously barely days before his release date. Those who survived the reprimand from the paranoid regime, like future Kenyan ambassador to the US, Nicholas Rateng’ Oginga Ogego, who served a six-year jail term, remained living examples of the spirit of defiance SONU instilled in its cadres – the Comrades.

Kenya’s future Prime Minister Raila Odinga was similarly netted along with the University of Nairobi students in 1982, accused of working in cahoots with the coup plotters. Odinga was charged with treason, an accusation which was later dropped. He was detained without trial for six years. His co-accused, journalist Otieno Mak’Onyango and University of Nairobi lecturer Alfred Vincent Otieno, whose house was allegedly used as the coups nerve centre, were similarly detained. The twelve Kenya Air Force masterminds of the coup died by hanging after being repatriated from Tanzania, where they had sought refuge. No one could have predicted that almost four decades later, in 2018, it would be these University of Nairobi students from the 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s who would anchor Odinga’s political project.

In his boldest challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as President of Kenya, Odinga – who had disregarded warnings from the state, including one from the Attorney General who equated the oath to an act of treason punishable by death – lifted a green Bible with his right hand, surrounded by a trio that represented three generations of radical SONU student activists from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

At the Kampala dinner with Hillary Clinton, the Kenyan student presented the First Lady with a hurriedly prepared dossier documenting gross human rights violations in the country. The case the student sought to make was that as Kenya stood at the time, there was no single organisation or formation – including the parliamentary opposition to which Odinga belonged – that was bold enough to stand up to the state and challenge its excesses. Therefore, reinstating SONU was the only viable option in keeping the rogue state in check. It was an exaggeration to claim that only SONU could stand in the gap at a time when the civil society was greatly emboldened, but that embellishment did not take away from the historical centrality of SONU in the clamour for change, including when such activities meant death, torture, exile or imprisonment.

As it turned out, Hillary was sufficiently persuaded by the young man’s argument. Decisive phone calls were made across Kampala later that night, where Moi, who had gone to meet his US counterpart, was implored to unban SONU. It was that same night that the Kenyan president insisted on meeting Moses Oburu, the Kenyan student who had aired his country’s dirty laundry in Kampala. The two eventually met back in Nairobi, where SONU’s proscription was lifted.

It is this sort of mystique that has shrouded the University of Nairobi students’ organisation for decades. It now appeared that cross-generational radical figures who served within its ranks had finally found a point of convergence within the Kenyan body politic in the form of a shared national political project – the presidential candidacy of Raila Odinga, which morphed into a movement seeking more than the presidency – around which they coalesced and were reliving their days of youthful fervour, challenging a government they considered illegitimate.

As Odinga took the now infamous oath as “The People’s President” on January 30th 2018 at Nairobi’s largest public park, Uhuru Park – packed with tens of thousands of his supporters – one thing was conspicuous to the discerning observer. In his boldest challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as President of Kenya, Odinga – who had disregarded warnings from the state, including one from the Attorney General who equated the oath to an act of treason punishable by death – lifted a green Bible with his right hand, surrounded by a trio that represented three generations of radical SONU student activists from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The three outspoken lawyers-turned-politicians formed a semi-circle ring around Odinga.

Standing on Odinga’s right was Miguna Miguna, who was expelled from the University of Nairobi in 1987 and exiled in Canada, where he completed his studies and practised law for fourteen years. Miguna briefly served as SONU’s Organising Secretary at a time when the state cracked down on him and his colleagues, led by Wafula Buke – a current Odinga confidant and strategist – for supposedly being funded by Libya to destabilise the Kenyan state. It was the clamping down on the likes of Miguna and Buke that led to SONU being banned in 1987. Prior to January 30th, Miguna had overtly admitted and boasted of being in the custody of “instruments of power” with which he intended to use to swear in Odinga as president, all along daring the police to arrest him.

In a dramatic dawn attack lasting at least an hour on February 2nd, the Friday after Odinga’s oath, a heavily armed police unit descended on Miguna’s residence in Nairobi and used explosives to blow his front door open. Apart from his role in administering the oath, the state claimed that Miguna’s residence housed weapons and subversive material meant to undermine the government. The former prime ministerial advisor to Odinga was driven away in a convoy of police vehicles and was clandestinely detained for days, with his lawyers and doctors prevented from accessing him despite successive court orders demanding his presentation in court or his immediate release.

In the case of the event of January 30th, it appeared the three men manning Odinga’s oath-taking had assumed pseudo-constitutional roles for themselves, with Miguna Miguna, the tallest and loudest of the three, administering the oath, thereby taking the place of Chief Registrar.

On Tuesday, February 6th , Miguna was deported back to Canada aboard a KLM flight. The state alleged that he renounced his Kenyan citizenship when he took up Canadian citizenship during his time in exile, an allegation Miguna continues to refute. On a layover in Amsterdam, Miguna gave interviews to international media, stating how he had been tortured by the state, not having taken a bath for five days. Speaking in Toronto, he continued issuing edicts to Odinga’s supporters, asking them to stay defiant. The judiciary has since invalidated the deportation.

Behind Odinga stood MP Tom Kajwang – dressed in a black robe and wearing a white judicial wig – who coincidentally served as SONU president in 1992 after the organisation was reinstated following the 1987 ban necessitated by the likes of Miguna Miguna. Kajwang’s elder brother, the deceased lawyer and MP Otieno Kajwang, like those of his ilk in the 80s, had been expelled from the University of Nairobi and forced to complete his studies at Uganda’s Makerere University. By standing next to Odinga, Tom Kajwang was living up to his own convictions as well as those of his deceased brother, a renowned longtime Odinga loyalist. On January 31st, the Wednesday after Odinga’s oath, Kajwang was briefly arrested for his role in the affair.

To complete the oath-administering troika was lawyer and Senator James Orengo, who stood on Odinga’s immediate left. Possibly Odinga’s current right-hand man, Orengo has travelled the long, turbulent liberation struggle journey together with Odinga, marked with intervals of falling out and making up. A Kenyan liberation stalwart, Orengo served as SONU president in 1972, later becoming a dependable protégé to Odinga’s deceased father and Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. It was Orengo, a senior respected lawyer, who led a team of litigants in successfully arguing for the nullification of the August 8th 2017 presidential election by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The team argued that Odinga’s victory had been stolen by the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, in collaboration with a corrupted electoral commission whose head of technology, Chris Msando, was found gruesomely murdered a week before the elections.

As his two co-conspirators in administering the oath got picked up by the police, it became clear that the state was aware of James Orengo’s stature within the opposition ranks – possibly being Odinga’s Number Two in terms of struggle credentials – a fact that made the security agencies not pounce on him like they did on the other two. It was with the same logic – that such a high profile arrest might result in massive public unrest by opposition supporters across the country – that the state shelved any intention of arresting and charging Odinga with treason.

Constitutionally, the presidential oath is administered in public in front of the Chief Justice, in whose absence the Deputy Chief Justice does the onus. The Chief Registrar of the judiciary usually administers the oath. In the case of the event of January 30th, it appeared the three men manning Odinga’s oath-taking had assumed pseudo-constitutional roles for themselves, with Miguna Miguna, the tallest and loudest of the three, administering the oath, thereby taking the place of Chief Registrar. In their political role-playing, either Tom Kajwang or James Orengo must have been the Chief Justice. During opposition rallies later on, Kajwang referred to himself as Chief Justice of “The People’s Republic of Kenya”. The whole performance might have been sketchy and hurriedly put together – with Odinga’s only instrument of power being a piece of paper mounted on a clipboard, an inauguration certificate masquerade – but to the millions of opposition supporters, this symbolism rejuvenated their resolve for rebellion against the state.

Like the three men surrounding Odinga on January 30th, the person appointed to chair the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly was Oduor Ongwen, who served as SONU Secretary-General in 1982. Before assuming this role, which was pivotal in working towards Odinga’s eventual coronation as “The People’s President”, Oduor had been appointed executive director of Odinga’s party back in 2015, a development that had ushered in the proper entrenchment of former University of Nairobi radicals within Odinga’s official political machine.

This was not the first time Odinga was being pushed to take an oath either as president or as an alternative president of Kenya. In 2007, on realising that the incumbent Mwai Kibaki was probably interfering with election results in a bid to steal Odinga’s victory, members of Odinga’s inner circle, including James Orengo, rooted for their man to take an oath of office to preempt electoral fraud. But as they were still consulting, the electoral commission declared Mwai Kibaki as the winner of the election, which resulted in violence across the country. The chaos and bloodshed led to a coalition government, with Odinga as Prime Minister. A decade later, Odinga would have no choice but to succumb to the pressure from the Comrades to take the oath.

Following the nullification of the August 8th 2017 presidential election, the Supreme Court of Kenya ordered – based on a constitutional provision – that a fresh presidential election be held within 60 days. As they celebrated their victory on the steps of the Supreme Court, Odinga and his coalition’s lawyers immediately cautioned that unless massive electoral reforms took place before the fresh presidential election, the group would not participate. In keeping to his word, Odinga pulled out of the repeat election, which the defiant Uhuru Kenyatta won with an unprecedented 98.2% majority. Odinga then proceeded to mobilise his supporters across the country, forming the Peoples Assembly – which they argued was founded within the constitution as a direct way of Kenyans to exercise their sovereignty – whose climax was the oath of January 30th.

Like the three men surrounding Odinga on January 30th, the person appointed to chair the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly was Oduor Ongwen, who served as SONU Secretary General in 1982. Before assuming this role, which was pivotal in working towards Odinga’s eventual coronation as “The People’s President”, Oduor had been appointed executive director of Odinga’s party back in 2015, a development that had ushered in the proper entrenchment of former University of Nairobi radicals within Odinga’s official political machine.

Like a number of vocal University of Nairobi students in the early 80s, Oduor was first arrested and detained without trial for two months following the 1982 attempted coup. He was accused of being one of the coup plotters – a predicament that befell tens of University of Nairobi students at the time. He was later rearrested in 1986 and sentenced to four years in prison for sedition, getting released prematurely in 1988, after which he fled the country in 1990, escaping a police swoop targeted at agitators for pluralism. He was exiled in Sweden.

Before Oduor was appointed executive director of Odinga’s party, Wafula Buke, a fellow political prisoner who served as SONU president in 1987 – alongside Miguna Miguna, the man who administered Odinga’s oath – instigated an internal coup, declaring himself executive director of Odinga’s party. Buke was serving as deputy director in charge of strategy, and upon the unceremonious ejection of the previous executive director on suspicion of spying for Odinga’s opponents, Buke declared that it was only natural for him to take up the position.

Known for his militancy, Buke was among former University of Nairobi student activists who went as far as being trained in guerilla warfare in Uganda in an attempt to violently overthrow the one-party Moi state in the early 90s, a plan which was shelved when the state relaxed its repressive laws and agreed to multiparty democracy in 1991. It is not an openly discussed topic, but a larger group of dissidents, including some close to Odinga, were involved in seeking international support for the training exercise in Uganda. Other than being jailed for five years after being picked from his hostel room at the University of Nairobi, Buke was hunted down in the early 90s for being associated with the February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army (FERA), a ragtag militia that unsuccessfully attacked Kenya from Uganda in a frail coup attempt.

The person who became the public face of the intellectual and ideological wing of Odinga’s coalition was Oxford-educated economist David Ndii, who attended the University of Nairobi in the mid-80s and was similarly arrested and detained on suspicion of being involved in subversive activities. As the head of the coalition’s technical team, Ndii was seen as the father of Odinga’s political manifesto.

However, the person who became the public face of the intellectual and ideological wing of Odinga’s coalition was Oxford-educated economist David Ndii, who attended the University of Nairobi in the mid-80s and was similarly arrested and detained on suspicion of being involved in subversive activities. As the head of the coalition’s technical team, Ndii was seen as the father of Odinga’s political manifesto. Alongside his fellow University of Nairobi detainee Oduor Ongwen, he served as a member of the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly, which culminated in the January 30th oath. It is noteworthy that as lawyer Miguna Miguna defiantly administered the oath to Odinga, Ndii was standing right behind the tall bespectacled lawyer, witnessing part of the maturation of his intellectual labour.

On Tuesday, February 6th, the day Miguna Miguna was dramatically deported, the government issued a directive suspending Ndii’s passport. Ndii had earlier been arrested on the night of December 3rd, 2017, while on holiday with his family at the Kenyan coast. He was driven overnight to Nairobi and accused of incitement. Ndii had continuously articulated the idea of splitting Kenya into different republics if co-existence within the country’s current borders became untenable due to electoral fraud and unequal development, a view espoused by Odinga’s radical supporters. By close of business that Tuesday, the names of senior opposition figures on the list for passport revocations extended to 15, including that of James Orengo, who got stopped from leaving the country on Monday, February 19th, and spent the night at the airport alongside the opposition’s financier, Jimmy Wanjigi, before the judiciary issued orders against their illegal restriction.

The journey to this point where radical activists and intellectuals took centrestage in Kenya’s push for a proper democratic dispensation – the third liberation, as its proponents called it – started taking shape back in the late 80s and early 90s during the agitation for multiparty democracy, when the group coalesced around Odinga’s ageing father and deity of Kenyan opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. The senior Odinga pushed for an alternative politics following his fallout with his independence struggle comrade and Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Some have viewed the Raila Odinga–Uhuru Kenyatta contest as a continuum of the duel between their respective father’s divergent visions for Kenya, the older Odinga seeking an egalitarian, left-leaning state while the older Kenyatta a conservative, capitalist one.

Among those working closely with the senior Odinga at the time were former University of Nairobi lecturer Prof. Anyang Nyong’o (father to Hollywood actor Lupita Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico where the family was exiled) who later became a confidant of the younger Odinga. Also present was the current United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Secretary General Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, who had been expelled from the University of Nairobi in the 80s and sought refuge at Makerere University in Uganda, before proceeding to Norway.

Some have viewed the Raila Odinga–Uhuru Kenyatta contest as a continuum of the duel between their respective father’s divergent visions for Kenya, the older Odinga seeking an egalitarian, left-leaning state while the older Kenyatta a conservative, capitalist one.

When Odinga’s father died in 1994 after failing to clinch the presidency during the 1992 general election, a split emerged between him and these intellectuals, which resulted in Odinga parting ways with the likes of Nyong’o, Kituyi, and the man who stood on his left as he took the oath on January 30th, lawyer James Orengo. During the burial of Mr. Odinga’s father, and in the presence of the then sitting President Daniel arap Moi, Orengo, in representing the youthful radicals, read a hard-hitting speech titled “Woe Unto You” targeted at the authoritarian head of state. There were murmurs of Orengo’s impending arrest after the funeral. Consensus was building that the fiery lawyer should inherit the senior Odinga’s political constituency, given that he had been nicknamed the senior Odinga’s first-born son.

After the dust had settled following the split, Nyong’o and the likes of Ndii coalesced around the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SDP). The group was further strengthened by the coming on board of Prof. Nyong’o’s University of Nairobi political science contemporary, Apollo Njonjo. Later, the 1984 SONU chairman and political prisoner Mwandawiro Mghanga – who remains the leader of the Marxist-Leninist party to date, and is credited with spreading Marxism to political prisoners during their stints in detention in the 80s – joined the party. Orengo unsuccessfully contested for the Kenyan presidency under the party’s banner in 2002, protesting Odinga’s unilateral endorsement of the lukewarm Mwai Kibaki, who won the vote and turned against Odinga, leading to their bloody 2007 electoral contest.

From the early 90s, when they operated under his father, there had been a shared feeling within the University of Nairobi grouping that the younger Odinga either lacked the ideological grounding and clarity to lead them, or that his intellectual firepower was not up to par with the kind of leader they desired. But in the end, Odinga’s charisma, scheming and ability for mass mobilisation outshined everyone else’s, making him the closest the radicals could have to an ally with a real shot at Kenya’s presidency.

Much as he was Kenya’s longest detained political prisoner, Odinga made huge political compromises to get ahead, including merging his party in 2002 with that of Daniel arap Moi, the authoritarian who had jailed him and his colleagues. In the end, it is these alliances built for political expediency that saw Odinga appointed into cabinet for the first time, where many believe he expanded his business interests and accumulated substantial financial muscle to sustain his future political activities.

As he and his colleagues challenged Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy, Odinga rode in bullet-proof SUVs with chase cars and armed security – this after the state declined to provide him with security and similar benefits that he is entitled to as a former prime minister due to his continued political agitations. He similarly ran a multilayered political machine headquartered in various Nairobi suburbs. This elaborate logistical infrastructure, coupled with Odinga’s fanatical following, contributed in setting him apart as the undisputed leader of the University of Nairobi grouping, himself having lectured at the institution’s Department of Engineering in the early 70s.

From the early 90s, when they operated under his father, there had been a shared feeling within the University of Nairobi grouping that the younger Odinga either lacked the ideological grounding and clarity to lead them, or that his intellectual firepower was not up to par with the kind of leader they desired.

In Odinga the radicals found a politically viable candidate around whom to erect an ideological scaffolding that could have seen them realise the dream of a radically progressive state. On the other hand, Odinga found himself in a position where he was not the most radical person in the room, a state of affairs that afforded him ideological sustenance.

On February 4th, during an opposition rally in Nairobi, Babu Owino, a youthful Nairobi MP who served as SONU president for four controversial consecutive terms since 2011, assumed his role as trash-talker-in-chief within Odinga’s party. Previously arrested for referring to Uhuru Kenyatta as a ‘‘child of a dog’’, the first-time MP requested Odinga to appoint him minister for interior once he formed “the people’s government” so that Babu could arrest Kenyatta’s security minister, who had been leading the onslaught against the opposition. Having single-handedly coined the captivating – if nonsensical – slogans used during Odinga’s presidential campaign rallies, the populist MP warned – to huge applause as is always the case whenever he speaks – that if more opposition leaders were targeted and arrested, then there would be smoke everywhere in Nairobi, hinting at violent protest action. The resounding message from the rally and subsequent ones was that the opposition would not take the state’s excesses lying down.

Then, on Friday March 9th, news broke indicating that Odinga and Kenyatta were having a meeting at the president’s office. When the two men emerged from the meeting, smiling and calling each other “my brother” – before staging the mandatory ceremonial handshake and brotherly public embrace to mark a cessation of hostilities between them – Kenya was thrown into a spin. The tens of protestors who had been shot dead by Kenyatta’s regime as they protested in support of Odinga – including a toddler and a nine-year-old – all seemed to have vanished into thin air, and all the claims by Odinga that Kenyatta was an illegitimate president seemed instantly buried. There appeared to be a new-found camaraderie between the son of Kenya’s first president and the son of Kenya’s first vice president; now the Kenyan masses were expected to fall in line and fully support the two leaders’ calls for national unity.

Neither Odinga nor Kenyatta had involved key leaders from their respective political parties in the talks, and only the two men, their very close functionaries and family members seemed to be in the know. No one in the media or political sphere had foreseen the meeting, and no one knew what to make of it. Anyone questioning the elite pact between the two families with a love-hate relationship was quickly shouted down by supporters of the two leaders.

However, as Odinga’s die-hard supporters bought into the handshake, questions abound as to what the meeting portends for the Comrades, who were not viewed as Odinga’s sycophants but as vanguards of a people’s revolution. Would they, in the words of South African poet Dennis Brutus, consider Odinga’s move to close ranks with Kenyatta to be a betrayal of the liberation aspirations of Kenyans to whom they sold a reformist political project, or would they join Odinga in reaching an elite pact with Kenyatta, who they previously called a despot?

Asked differently, could the Comrades break away from the man who provided them a political home and a real shot at taking over the state as its new ideological architects, or have they run out of time and steam to engineer a new revolt either within or outside Odinga’s party? Will they now have to work with whatever Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta hand them?

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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Black Votes Don’t Matter: The Shrinking Civic Space of African Immigrants in the US

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

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Black Votes Don’t Matter: The Shrinking Civic Space of African Immigrants in the US
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The United States of America has excelled in projecting an extraordinary image of itself as a free nation with a thriving democracy, where anyone can come and work their way towards a better life through civic participation. However, what the past few years in particular have peeled away betrays a somewhat different truth: that voting in the United States is hard and getting steadily more so. And there’s one group of people who face a particular set of difficulties when seeking to cast their ballot: African immigrants.

Some historic context is needed regarding voting issues within the US. First and foremost, there is a historic precedent of voter suppression in the US that is unequaled within the modern Western world. Much of the targeting of such efforts has directly affected African Americans and people of colour. After slavery was abolished, states would go to incredible lengths to suppress the black vote, including implementing taxes on voting, forcing black people to produce extraneous forms of personal and family identification and making would-be black voters pass vaguely worded and lengthy “literacy tests” in order to cast their ballot. These systems, a part of the infamous Jim Crow laws, were struck down as illegal in 1965 when the country passed the Voting Rights Act.

In the years that followed, those who sought to seek the vote sought out ways to circumvent the law and keep the voter turnout low. Since the latter half of the 20th century, high voter turnout translated to a more liberal result. Take, for example, that a Republican presidential candidate has won the popular vote once since 1988 (George W. Bush in 2004). In the cases of the victories of Donald J. Trump in 2016 and George W. Bush, they skated to victory through the electoral college; a system that traces its roots to suppress the popular vote.

When looking at US politics, it isn’t as much a matter of high voter turnout as it is who comprise the voters that are showing up to vote. The most telling demographic, the group with the highest disparity of aligning with Democrats over Republicans, is African Americans. Hillary Clinton carried the black vote by an 80 point margin – 88 per cent to 8 per cent over Trump in the 2016 election. This margin, coupled with the United States becoming more, not less, diverse has left those seeking to suppress the vote scrambling for answers.

In 2013, efforts to suppress voters gained a major boost when the US Supreme Court overturned section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, which outlined that states and districts that had previously been involved in voting discrimination needed pre-clearance of the validity of their electoral processes. The conservative judges ruled this as unconstitutional, that the section “punished” states for past mistakes, not for possible future successes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg dissented strongly, stating that “throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The Voting Rights Act had been brought before court in the wake of a series of issues across the US, primarily having to do with controversial voting ID laws, reports of voter suppression and other forms of disenfranchisement. In a theme that runs across America’s election process, the black community was disproportionately affected.

This brings the issue to focus on African immigrants in the United States. The issue of immigration in the United States has currently brought the federal government to a shutdown for over a month. There is constant rhetoric from the Trump administration targeting illegal immigrants as a major obstacle to the security and economic future of the United States. The issues of building a border wall with Mexico and continuing to provide guaranteed safeties (such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme, which offers protections to the children of illegal immigrants into the US) are being used as bargaining chips at the government level.

A difficult time

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation, but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

African immigrants in the US are a small but rapidly rising group. The increase has been marked since 1970, especially amongst sub-Saharan Africans. According to the Pew Research Center, the number of African-born individuals heading to the US increased nearly 250 per cent between 2000 and 2015, from 881,000 up to 2,060,000. Africans are also the fastest growing demographic among black immigrants, increasing by 137 per cent between 2000 and 2013.

It is a difficult time to be an immigrant in the US. For those of African descent, theirs is a rare combination of challenges, not only in becoming part of a new nation, but also in carrying the baggage that comes with being black in America.

In the US, a major aspect of any voting rights issue is where in the US you’re living. Different states hold different standards, different regulations and varying requirements. When examining how voting standards impacts African immigrants, there needs to be a brief examination of where African immigrants live.

The five states with the highest African immigrant population are California, New York, Texas, Maryland and Virginia. Cities such as Atlanta, Georgia and Minneapolis also have high numbers of such migrants. This is where context becomes even more important; California and New York are known as more immigrant-friendly destinations, and their major metropolitan areas are regarded as “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants. New York and Minnesota don’t require a photo ID whereas California may require one for a first-time voter (newly-naturalised US citizens are always first-time voters). Maryland holds a similar policy.

Texas, Virginia and Georgia, on the other hand, are a different matter entirely. Virginia requires a valid photo ID in order for an individual to vote in person. Texas and Georgia are both mired in controversy over the stringent regulations put in place regarding the standards for voter IDs. The state of Texas is currently mired in litigation over the voter ID laws, with opponents arguing that it disproportionately impacts minorities.

In Georgia, where over 70,000 African immigrants reside in the Atlanta metropolitan area, the man who was presiding as the Secretary of State (the office which controls the conducting of elections, a possible conflict of interest) won narrowly and controversially over Stacey Abrams, who would have been the first black woman elected to be a state governor in the US. Abrams repeatedly made claims that there was voter interference, particularly amongst black precincts, where electronic voting was in disarray and reports of voter suppression were rampant. These claims had much of their basis in and around Atlanta, Georgia.

Why does voter ID matter and how does it affect Africans living in America? For starters, the path to US citizenship (which is needed to vote in America) is extremely arduous, long and difficult. The paperwork hoops to jump through are staggering. On average, it takes an immigrant a minimum of five years of continuous residency to become a naturalised US citizen. In cases that need further legal counsel, it can take even longer as the legal side of American immigration courts have become steadily more choked and congested in the new millennium.

Why does voter ID matter and how does it affect Africans living in America? For starters, the path to US citizenship (which is needed to vote in America) is extremely arduous, long and difficult.

For immigrants, the issues surrounding voter ID can often be much murkier. For instance, immigrants can gain driver’s licenses within the United States, which is one of the key forms of identification needed in states with more stringent regulations. This doesn’t mean that immigrants have the appropriate information explained to them regarding the IDs being obtained. The African Advocacy Network of California notes that although driver’s licenses are applied for successfully by immigrants who aren’t naturalised, the fact that they are still unable to vote due to their status isn’t explained to them. This can lead to immigrants attempting to vote, unknowingly engaging in an illegal act of fraud. The penalties for such fraud in the US are harsh. Both illegal and legal immigrants can face deportation if found to be involved in fraudulent voting. Cases of actual voter fraud involving illegal immigrants are incredibly rare, but that doesn’t stop Trump from repeatedly claiming that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because of millions of “illegals” somehow managing to cast ballots.

Illegal immigrants in Trump’s America

The Obama administration was noted for its strict approach to illegal immigration, deporting hundreds of thousands between 2009 and 2017. That same administration, however, did focus on expanding a programme called the H1-B visa, which encouraged workers from outside of the United States to enter the country to work. Many prominent corporations, including Amazon, Google and Microsoft, heavily leaned on the programme as it eased the transition for professionals to gain a foothold in the US workforce. In addition, the H1-B programme made the path to a Green Card visa (an initial step towards US citizenship) markedly smoother, encouraging immigrants to engage in the process of becoming a citizen.

The Trump administration, on the other hand, has taken a significantly different approach. The current White House passed an executive order titled “Buy American, Hire American” that directly encourages American companies to hire only the most skilled workers from outside of the United States. This will have a long-term impact on the number of H-1B applicants who can head down the path of gaining citizenship.

The Obama administration had an unfortunate track record of harshness regarding immigration, including reopening and examining case files of naturalised citizens (immigrants who gained their citizenship in the US). The Trump White House has, of course, seized on this idea and expanded it. Under this administration, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (U.S.C.I.S.) has created a new task force to look into cases and possibly “denaturalise” citizens for often muddied reasons, such as making a clerical mistake on a form. In essence, this leaves millions of naturalised United States citizens’ status at the discretion of officials appointed under the Trump administration, one noted for its blatantly anti-immigrant rhetoric.

A prominent path to Green Card visas for African immigrants is the Diversity Lottery programme, which grants visas to citizens from all over the world. Given the administration’s track record, it comes as little surprise that the White House has looked repeatedly into cutting the programme entirely. As egregious as this is, perhaps the repeated ransom holding of the so-called “dreamers” (children of illegal immigrants born in the United States and granted legal protections) is even more insidious. Trump has made a repeated talking point of ending protections for the dreamers, even going so far as to offer continued protection as a bargaining chip for $5.7 billion of funding for a border wall in January of this year.

The Obama administration had an unfortunate track record of harshness regarding immigration, including reopening and examining case files of naturalised citizens (immigrants who gained their citizenship in the US). The Trump White House has, of course, seized on this idea and expanded it.

So how does this apply to African immigrants, specifically? The numbers indicate that immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are the fastest growing group, and that the vast majority of this immigration has occurred after 1960. This translates into African immigrants having less of an established civic network than other immigrant groups in the US.

Less civic engagement

Less network means less community engagement and less protection for Africans now calling the US their home. This, in turn, translates into issues surrounding social integration facing Africans in America. Those in questionable status are likely to eschew anything to do with getting on the record, including engaging in civic discourse. One example saw the city of San Francisco engaging with members of the African immigrant community to get involved with the local school board elections, despite many holding illegal immigrant status. Illegal immigrants worry about what will happen to their information and whether it will end up in the hands of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

This is compounded by the constant shifting and swirling of regulations surrounding immigration within the US. Frankly put, in America, thing currently seem extremely uncertain. Those who would have gained the path to citizenship by being granted immigration visas are suddenly on the outside looking in. Immigrants from Libya, Sudan and Somalia (the three African nations affected under the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim-majority nations) are suddenly unsure of their status.

Noticeably, despite all of his talk of walls and increased military presence, Trump has not issued a travel ban to a Latin American country. The current administration is seemingly preoccupied with all things immigration, how to stop it, how to grandstand from it, how to flex political muscle by stopping it. In fact, in 2017, despite overall numbers of deportations falling, ICE deported a record number of African immigrants, more than double of the total from 2016. There were reported instances of poor treatment and abuse of deportees by ICE agents. While the numbers are comparatively small, increases in deportation can push African immigrant communities even farther outside of the democratic process. What was the number one country for African immigrant deportations from the US? Somalia.

Less network means less community engagement and less protection for Africans now calling the US their home. This, in turn, translates into issues surrounding social integration facing Africans in America. Those in questionable status are likely to eschew anything to do with getting on the record, including engaging in civic discourse.

Ilhan Omar, herself a Somali immigrant to the US, is now a first-term Congresswoman from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her election is an indication of a potential future of US politics: that African immigrants can find a voice in politics, in part due to the rallying of their communities. She’s become an outspoken advocate for the Somali community in Minnesota while continually deriding the Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies.

Since her election, Omar has been a frequent target of scathing criticism from the conservative media and the Republican Party, who have even claimed that some of her pro-Palestine comments are blatantly anti-Semitic. While her election to the US Congress is historically significant (she’s the first African-born refugee in the history of the United States Congress), Omar is still just one member of Congress, one voice for an ever-growing population that seems ever-more targeted by executive orders of the Trump administration. Think of it this way: Omar wouldn’t be able to enter the US under the travel ban of Muslim majority countries passed down by Trump.

In essence, this message to newcomers to the US is: DON’T BOTHER GETTING ENGAGED BECAUSE THE CONSEQUENCES COULD OUTWEIGH YOUR EFFORTS. To those emigrating to the US from Africa, this messaging can appear even more insidious, as Adoubou Traore (who himself emigrated from the Ivory Coast), the director of the African Advocacy Network in San Francisco outlines: “Many Africans have inherent doubts about the legitimacy of elections, they’re a headache, their experience makes them not believe that their voices matter. When there is no guarantee that their information won’t be subject to being exploited, from their view: what’s the point?” There isn’t much that would prevent them from holding such views in America. It becomes a community question of why organise if doing so can only lead to more headache?

With issues surrounding racism against black people in America being dissected and moved further towards prominence in national dialogue, it would, at least on the surface, seem as though the communities of African Americans would provide a steady ally for Africans adjusting to life in America. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. There is a noted divide between Africans and black Americans, one that many coming to the US find difficult to bridge. Some of this gap is historically entrenched, some of it is due to the truly lacking breadth of coverage in the US education system regarding African history and culture. The awkward truth is: Africa as a topic in the US is regarded as a monolithic punch line to a bad joke, and is hardly rendered an after-thought in terms of democratic engagement.

In terms of vulnerability to less-than-democratic interests, there are myriad of groups in the United States that could use additional legal and outreach protections. Practically anywhere in America that can’t be categorised as white and suburban finds itself victim to voter suppression efforts. In the US context, the black community is systematically targeted the most.

Laws are seemingly rolled out in force yearly in dozens of states, implementing further restrictions and using scare tactics, lies and intimidation to influence local and national elections with a conservative slant.

The unavoidable truth is that Africans in the US find themselves at an ugly modern crossroads: the centuries of subversive efforts to reduce the so-called “urban” vote at a crossroads with the modern iteration of all-American xenophobic fervour. Though growing fast in population, the democratic influence has not kept stride.

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Death in Vienna: The Death of Erich Rebasso

In the last days of 2008, Erich Rebasso, an Austrian lawyer, sent a letter to the main Vienna headquarters of the Federal Criminal Police, the country’s top law enforcement agency. Its purpose was unusual — the father of four young children was blowing the whistle on himself.

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In the last days of 2008, Erich Rebasso, an Austrian lawyer, sent a letter to the main Vienna headquarters of the Federal Criminal Police, the country’s top law enforcement agency.

Its purpose was unusual — the father of four young children was blowing the whistle on himself.

“I deeply regret having been used for criminal purposes and I am willing to submit the matter to the required criminal review,” Rebasso’s five-page confession concluded.

But it had all come apart. Rebasso admitted he had been used to launder tens of millions of dollars. He explained that, for over a year, he had been accepting payments from Russian criminals and had sent the funds to other bank accounts at their instruction. Then 45, Rebasso specialized in advising Russian clients on how to do business in the West. He had an excellent reputation as a fast, reliable, and discreet partner, and he spoke Russian fluently.

As it turns out, those criminals were using companies that were part of the Troika Laundromat. The massive financial scheme revealed in OCCRP’s latest Laundromat investigation had been put together by Troika Dialog, then Russia’s largest private investment bank. Some of the accounts Rebasso wired to belonged to two of the system’s core offshore companies: Industrial Trade Corp. and Nixford Capital Corp.

Between December 2006 and February 2008, Rebasso used 150 individual transactions to send almost US$ 96 million to laundromat accounts at Ukio Bankas, a Lithuanian bank.

Many of the reasons specified for the transfers made little sense for a law firm. Along with trades involving “fruits and vegetables,” “consumer goods,” and “electronic goods,” Rebasso is even listed as buying “frozen herring” from companies with Ukio bank accounts. More likely, the description was a red herring aimed at Ukio’s compliance department.

Rebasso’s own Austrian bank accounts were held at Raiffeisenlandesbank Niederösterreich-Wien (RLB). Though the bank investigated his large transfers, it appeared to take no further action for two years — at which point it finally pressed him to stop.

The massive financial scheme revealed in OCCRP’s latest Laundromat investigation had been put together by Troika Dialog, then Russia’s largest private investment bank

Rebasso’s confessional letter had little effect. While police looked into the matter, it was two years later when they informed him that they had stopped the proceedings because they believed any potential crime had happened outside their jurisdiction and been committed by foreigners.

Two years after that, Rebasso was dead.

The Sheremetyevo Fraud

According to his statement, Rebasso’s involvement in the money laundering scheme began on a visit to Moscow in November 2006 where he was introduced to Viatcheslav Dremin, a Russian businessman. Dremin told him that he provided financial services to Russians who needed to transfer funds abroad. But the official system for sending money across borders was very bureaucratic, he said, and he needed to speed up the process. He wanted Rebasso to act as his trustee in Vienna to help him move the money faster.

The lawyer accepted. Soon, two Vienna bank accounts belonging to his Austrian company, Schulhof Investigation (later renamed Sostegno), began receiving large sums from companies Dremin represented, along with instructions on where to send them. In every instance, he received his directions via an anonymized email address.

Rebasso worked on behalf of three insurance companies registered in Dagestan, a troubled North Caucasus republic within the Russian Federation.

At least some of the money appeared to be of criminal origin.

One of the companies Dremin represented, National Insurance, was directed by Russian businessman Maxim Vedenin. In 2011, Vedenin would be sentenced to 19 years in prison for robbery and the murders of two prostitutes.

Prior to that, Vedenin’s company had received money from a widely-known fraudulent scheme involving fuel at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport that OCCRP uncovered in 2012.

Between 2003 and 2008, Moscow’s busiest airport bought fuel through a long chain of intermediaries that grossly inflated its cost. According to court documents, phantom companies earned at least $200 million in unnecessary markups in 2006 and 2007 alone. The Russian government lost more than 1 billion rubles ($40 million) in tax revenue from the scheme. The higher fuel costs also meant higher airplane ticket prices for the travelling public.

A portion of the money generated by the scheme was laundered through the Troika Laundromat. Vedenin’s company, National Insurance, received some of the proceeds, and then sent them on to Rebasso’s company.

The Austrian lawyer then sent the funds into the Troika Laundromat, using it as a money laundering system. Over the same period, between December 2006 and March 2007, he sent $19.4 million to the accounts of Nixford and Industrial Trade Corp. To justify the transfers to the bank, he provided false invoices indicating he had bought “consumer goods” from the Troika Laundromat companies, or was simply paying “for bills.”

All but one of Dremin’s companies have been dissolved, and he couldn’t be reached for comment.

Raiffeisen Looks In

Despite Rebasso’s efforts to mask his money transfers as legitimate trade deals, his own bank began to investigate the financial activity in the spring of 2007.

On March 15, Rebasso’s office received a letter from his bank’s legal department inquiring about a “sharp increase in transaction amounts” on one of his accounts. The bank wanted to know on whose behalf Rebasso was acting.

A few days later, Rebasso responded in a letter, explaining that he was handling “foreign payments” for three Russian insurance companies. He also provided their names, their information from the Russian commercial register, and evidence of his business relationship with them.

The bank appears to have been satisfied with Rebasso’s explanation, because afterward, his transfers continued.

(A representative of RLB said the bank could not comment on its clients and that it had complied with all anti-money-laundering obligations.)

A Last Client

In mid-2007, Rebasso’s statement to police says, Alfis Mirgunov, one of the Russian partners in his arrangement with Dremin, got in touch. Mirgunov planned to start his own financial enterprise and wanted Rebasso to open bank accounts in Austria on his behalf. Once again, the lawyer agreed.

He opened three new RLB accounts for his company, Schulhof, to handle the anticipated load. The accounts were denominated in U.S. dollars, euros, and Russian rubles and soon, more money started to pour in. Once again, Rebasso received his instructions from an anonymous e-mail address, this time identified only by a sequence of digits.

In mid-2007, Rebasso’s statement to police says, Alfis Mirgunov, one of the Russian partners in his arrangement with Dremin, got in touch. Mirgunov planned to start his own financial enterprise and wanted Rebasso to open bank accounts in Austria on his behalf. Once again, the lawyer agreed.

Over two months near the beginning of 2008, Rebasso wired $68.3 million in 106 individual transfers to a bank account owned by Vantrel Invest Ltd., a New Zealand–registered shelf company.

Vantrel doesn’t appear to be a Troika Laundromat company; rather it is an intermediary that sent millions on to the Laundromat. (Vantrel’s bank account was held at Ukio Bankas, where many Laundromat companies held their accounts.) Documents related to the transactions said they were to buy mobile phones, though this explanation is almost certainly another fiction.

In his confessional letter, Rebasso told the Austrian police that he stopped working for the Russians in 2008. It isn’t known how much money he took for his services.

“I ended this activity at the end of February,” he wrote. “Among other reasons, primarily because the scope overwhelmed my control options.”

His hesitation appeared to be only part of the truth.

In fact, that month, Rebasso’s Austrian bank, RLB, had had enough. His transactions had apparently triggered another serious review, and senior executives told Rebasso he would need his own banking license to continue such large transfers.

The Finlist Fraud

Though he had stopped working with his Russian partners, Rebasso’s troubles were just beginning. He appeared to have become an unwitting facilitator of a fraudulent investment scheme.

According to his letter, in June 2008, Rebasso started receiving emailed complaints from ordinary Russians who said their savings had been stolen.

Rebasso described the correspondents as “rather simple-minded, not very wealthy people who were baited with internet ads.”

Apparently, the victims of the scheme had been offered what appeared to be lucrative investment opportunities through a platform called Finlist Forex Found. Then, without Rebasso’s knowledge, they were instructed to send their money to the accounts of his Austrian company, Sostegno.

Rebasso said the Russian fraudsters provided the investors with fake documents bearing his forged signature (some of these were shared with him by the angry correspondents). When the money arrived in his accounts, Rebasso sent it on without being aware of its origins.

Now the victims were furious, demanding repayment of money he had already sent on to the Laundromat.

Rebasso said the Russian fraudsters provided the investors with fake documents bearing his forged signature (some of these were shared with him by the angry correspondents). When the money arrived in his accounts, Rebasso sent it on without being aware of its origins

Rebasso got in touch with Mirgunov and asked what was happening. The Russian told him he would fix the problem and reimburse anyone who had lost money. But he never did, and by the end of the year, Rebasso sent his letter to the Federal Criminal police.

The Beginning of the End

The police forwarded the case to the public prosecutor’s office in Vienna. Nothing appeared to happen. On Dec. 3, 2010, two years after his complaint, Rebasso was notified that police had ended their case. It had been dismissed because the public prosecutor decided the case was outside Austrian jurisdiction. “Foreign acts of foreigners,” the statement read.

Rebasso’s own story was nearing its end.

In late July 2012, as he walked from his office to his Mercedes SUV in an underground parking lot, he was ambushed by two men. His car was later found empty in a different location, and shortly after his disappearance, his family received a demand: The kidnappers wanted a 435,000–euro ransom. After no deal was reached, Rebasso’s body was found three weeks later in a forest near Vienna. Austrian authorities concluded that he had been suffocated, probably while he was taken into a headlock.

Soon afterward, two former Moscow police officers were arrested and charged in connection with the ransom demand — but not for Rebasso’s kidnapping and murder. They were sentenced to eight and nine years in prison, respectively.

It’s still unclear who ordered Rebasso’s murder and why, though media and police speculated that victims of the investment fraud had hired the officers to recover the money.

More than six years later, the exact circumstances of Rebasso’s death are still unclear.

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The Troika Laundromat: How Vast Offshore Network Moved Billions With Help From Major Russian Bank

The Laundromat wasn’t just a money laundering system. It was also a hidden investment vehicle, a slush fund, a tax evasion scheme, and much more.

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The Troika Laundromat: How Vast Offshore Network Moved Billions With Help From Major Russian Bank
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At first blush, Ruben Vardanyan and Armen Ustyan have nothing in common beyond their Armenian roots.

Vardanyan is a wealthy Russian banker who once led Troika Dialog, the country’s largest private investment bank. He’s spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos and spent tens of millions of dollars on philanthropic projects in his native Armenia. Ustyan is a seasonal construction worker who shares a chilly apartment with his wife and parents in northern Armenia when he isn’t renovating flats in Moscow.

Ustyan’s name and a copy of his passport appear in the bank documents for an offshore shell company that played a role in Troika’s system. The company was one of at least 75 that formed the complex financial web, which functioned from 2006 to early 2013. Over that period, Troika enabled the flow of US$ 4.6 billion into the system and directed the flow of $4.8 billion out. Among the counterparties on these transactions were major Western banks such as Citigroup Inc., Raiffeisen, and Deutsche Bank. The dozens of companies in the system also generated $8.8 billion of internal transactions to obscure the origin of the cash.But Ustyan’s signatures on documents he says he’s never seen draw a direct line to Troika — and to a financial Laundromat that shuffled billions of dollars through offshore companies on behalf of the bank’s clients, many of whom were members of Russia’s elite. The system enabled people to channel money out of Russia, sidestep restrictions in place at the time, hide their assets abroad, and launder money. It also supplied cash to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s friends and powerful oligarchs, and enabled criminals to mask the illicit origins of their cash.

(Citigroup didn’t respond to a request for comment on this story; Raiffeisen declined to comment, citing client confidentiality; and Deutsche Bank said it had “limited access” to information about Troika client transactions and couldn’t comment on specific businesses for legal reasons.)

At the time, Vardanyan was Troika’s president, chief executive officer, and principal partner. He enjoyed a reputation as a Western-friendly representative of Russian capitalism, known for working to improve the country’s business environment and for co-founding the Moscow School of Management Skolko

As with the previous Laundromats, many of the large transactions were made on the back of fictitious trade deals. The bogus deals were invoiced variously as “goods,” “food goods,” “metal goods,” “bills,” and “auto parts.” All the invoices included in the leak were signed by proxies and sent from Troika.ru email addresses. Meanwhile, employees at Troika were setting up the opaque financial system — dubbed here the Troika Laundromat because of its resemblance to previous money laundering schemes uncovered by OCCRP.

This portrait of the operation emerges from a trove of leaked banking transactions and other documents obtained by OCCRP and the Lithuanian news site 15min.lt, and shared with 21 media partners.

As a whole, the data set includes over 1.3 million banking transactions from 238,000 companies and people, as well as thousands of emails, contracts, and company registration forms. This analysis of Troika’s network is based on a subset of the data.

In an interview, Vardanyan said his bank did nothing wrong and that it acted as other investment banks did at the time. He stressed that he couldn’t have known about every deal his enormous bank facilitated for its clients. Reporters found no evidence that he was ever investigated or accused of any wrongdoing by authorities. His signature was found on only one document in the entire scheme, in which he gives a loan to a Troika Laundromat company.

Vardanyan described the system as a private wealth management service.

Referring to the constellation of offshore companies that comprised the Laundromat, he said: “Those are technical service companies of Troika Dialog clients, among them, mine.”

“It could be called a ‘multi-family office,’” he said. “A similar practice still exists at foreign banks. Most of their clients work through international companies. I repeat: We always acted according to the rules of the world financial market of that time … Obviously, rules change, but measuring a market in the past by today’s laws is like applying modern compliance standards to the time of the Great Depression. You’ll agree that this distorts the true situation.”

Asked about the fictitious trade deals, Vardanyan said Troika Dialog’s revenue topped 2 trillion rubles from 2006–2010 ($63–85 billion, depending on currency fluctuations) and that he “couldn’t possibly know about all the deals in a company of this size.”

Though such practices were considered business as usual in Russia at the time, specialists note that systems like the Troika Laundromat can have serious repercussions.

The schemes stunt national economic development, undermine human security, and diminish the quality of life for people left behind, said Louise Shelley, director and founder of George Mason University’s Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center and author of the book “Dark Commerce.”

“Money laundering countries, particularly in the developing world, are losing enormous amounts of capital that are needed for infrastructure development, education, health, [and] the development of new businesses, of entrepreneurship,” Shelley said. “With this much money lying overseas, you can do all sorts of malicious things. You can interfere in electoral processes. You can help pay for fake news.”

Criminal Services

The Laundromat wasn’t just a money laundering system. It was also a hidden investment vehicle, a slush fund, a tax evasion scheme, and much more.

Troika’s clients also used it to buy properties in Great Britain, Spain, and Montenegro; to acquire luxury yachts and artwork; to pay for medical services and World Cup tickets; to cover tuition at prestigious Western schools for their children, and even to make donations to churches.

In addition, the Troika Laundromat enabled organized criminal groups and fraudsters to launder the proceeds of their crimes. OCCRP and partners have identified several high-level frauds perpetrated in Russia that used Laundromat companies to hide the origins of their money.

Troika’s clients also used it to buy properties in Great Britain, Spain, and Montenegro; to acquire luxury yachts and artwork; to pay for medical services and World Cup tickets; to cover tuition at prestigious Western schools for their children, and even to make donations to churches.

One of these schemes, known as the Sheremetyevo Airport fuel fraud, took place from 2003 to 2008 and artificially inflated aviation fuel prices while depriving the Russian state of more than $40 million in tax revenue. The scheme led to a hike in plane ticket prices. More than $27 million was sent by companies involved in the fraud to Troika Laundromat accounts. Vardanyan has not been implicated in the scheme and said he had no knowledge of it. In 2010, two years after the fraud ended, Troika Dialog began consulting for the airport along with Credit Suisse.

A second significant criminal inquiry tied to the Laundromat, from which $17 million ended up in the system, involves a tax avoidance scheme allegedly perpetrated by several Russian insurance companies. A man named Sergei Tikhomirov was accused of concluding false service contracts with the insurers as a pretext for having them send him large sums of money, which his accusers say he cycled through several accounts before depositing it abroad or cashing in. A portion of the money ended up in the Laundromat. (Tikhomirov did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.)

Roldugin didn’t respond to an email requesting comment, and Vardanyan said that he knew of the cellist, but was not aware that he had any business dealings with Troika.In a third case, at least $69 million went to companies associated with Sergei Roldugin, a Russian cellist and one of Putin’s best friends, who became famous after his vast unexplained wealth was revealed by OCCRP, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and other media partners in the Panama Papers project. Some of the money that Roldugin’s companies received from the Laundromat originated in a massive Russian tax fraud exposed by Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer who died in jail after revealing it.

The Troika Laundromat enabled organized criminal groups and fraudsters to launder the proceeds of their crimes. OCCRP and partners have identified several high-level frauds perpetrated in Russia that used Laundromat companies to hide the origins of their money.

Companies involved in the fraud exposed by Magnitsky moved more than $130 million through the Troika Laundromat. In fact, hundreds of millions of dollars went into and out of the Laundromat for unknown purposes.

Vardanyan said he was not aware of any of these transactions.

“Understand, I’m no angel,” he said. “In Russia, you have three paths: Be a revolutionary, leave the country, or be a conformist. So I’m a conformist. But I have my own internal restraints: I never participated in loans-for-shares schemes, I never worked with criminals, I’m not a member of any political party. That’s why, even in the ’90s, I went around with no security guards. … I’m trying to preserve myself and my principles.”

Vardanyan and his family were among those who received money from the Laundromat. More than $3.2 million was used to pay for his American Express card, went to accounts belonging to his wife and family, and paid school fees for his three children in Great Britain.

Asked about these sums, Vardanyan said the offshore companies Troika created serviced his own companies in addition to the bank’s clients.

Troika as Capstone

The Troika Laundromat is unique among the Laundromats that have been uncovered in recent years in that it was created by a prestigious financial institution.

Like all investment banks, Troika handled stock and bond issuance, initial public offerings, and acted as an underwriting agent. It also had a strong relationship with the local office of Citibank Inc., with up to 20 percent of Troika’s new investors coming via the American behemoth. That made New York-based Citibank Troika’s biggest “external agent,” according to a 2006 interview with Troika co-founder Pavel Teplukhin. (Citibank didn’t respond to requests for comment.)Established in the early 1990s, Troika Dialog became Russia’s largest private investment bank. It operated under Vardanyan’s leadership until 2012, when it was purchased by Sberbank, the nation’s largest state-owned lender.

The Troika Laundromat is unique among the Laundromats that have been uncovered in recent years in that it was created by a prestigious financial institution.

Other major international banks, including Credit Suisse and Standard Bank Group, did significant business with Troika as well.

Starting in 2006, Troika employees began putting together the pieces of the Troika Laundromat.

Four essential elements are needed to build a functioning Laundromat: a bank with low anti-money laundering compliance standards; a maze of secretive offshore companies to hold accounts at the bank; proxy directors and shareholders for both the companies and the accounts; and the so-called formation agents that can quickly create, maintain, and dissolve the offshore companies as needed.

The bank orchestrated all of these components of the Troika Laundromat, in addition to directing the money flows and fake trade deals that made up its operations.

The pivotal mechanism was based on trade: Shell companies created bogus invoices for non-existent goods and services to be purchased by other companies in the system. The practice provides a fig leaf of legitimate economic activity that makes the transactions appear less suspicious to regulators.

Al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden used a similar system to move money around the Middle East, she said.“You’re disguising an illegal payment by pretending that it is linked to a shipment of goods,” said Shelley, the George Mason corruption expert. “The trade-based system is one of the most central parts of money laundering in the world today.”

If Troika was the capstone of the Laundromat, its cornerstones were three British Virgin Islands-based shell companies: Brightwell Capital Inc., Gotland Industrial Inc., and Quantus Division Ltd. Brightwell’s first known transaction was on April 12, 2005. Gotland was established on Feb. 17, 2006, and Quantus followed six months later on Aug. 23.

An analysis of these companies’ banking records reveals how they put the Laundromat together: Starting in 2006, they made numerous small payments to a formation agent called IOS Group Inc. to create the dozens of companies that comprised the complete Laundromat. IOS didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The three cornerstone companies then continued making payments to IOS ranging from 40 to almost 5,000 euros over almost six years to keep the entire network operating. Over that span, the total reached over 143,000 euros.

Quantus, for example, paid formation and maintenance fees for the British Virgin Islands-based Kentway SA. This company was later used, among many others, to send millions of dollars to Sandalwood Continental Ltd., a company connected to Sergei Roldugin, the cellist, and one of Vladimir Putin’s oldest friends.

Quantus’ involvement with Kentway demonstrates the many ways in which the Laundromat companies were interconnected. In this case, after first helping establish Kentway, Quantus then funded it with money that Kentway forwarded to Roldugin’s company.

The Bank

To direct the flow of funds through the Laundromat, Troika needed a commercial bank to host accounts for the companies involved. And it needed that bank to avoid looking too closely at the contracts and trades Laundromat businesses used to justify moving money from one offshore company to another.

Troika chose Lithuania’s Ukio Bankas for the job. (The Lithuanian lender would later be seized by the country’s National Bank in 2013 for engaging in risky deals and failing to follow regulators’ orders.) Ukio is known to have set up accounts for 35 companies used in the Troika Laundromat, and likely more.

Because Lithuania wasn’t yet using the euro, Ukio needed correspondent accounts at European banks, such as the Austrian Raiffeisen or the German Commerzbank AG, to handle euro-denominated transactions. Those two lenders and many other large European and U.S. financial institutions accepted Laundromat money, though they did sporadically inquire about the nature of some transactions. After prodding by one of the correspondent banks, for example, some Ukio compliance officers made inquiries about Laundromat payments that didn’t make commercial sense.

“What is the essence of this transaction? We have a contract (attached), but to be honest, I don’t really get what’s happening,” one officer wrote, adding an unhappy face, in relation to a payment that went to a company associated with Roldugin.

By this point, the money had already left Ukio’s accounts.

Asked why Ukio was chosen as the banker for the offshore companies Troika created, Vardanyan said it was just one of about 20 banks Troika used around the world.

The Armenian Proxies

A central figure in many of the transactions involving the Laundromat companies was Armen Ustyan. Far from being an investment banker, Ustyan, 34, works seasonally as a construction worker in Moscow.

Ustyan said he had never heard of Dino Capital SA, the Panama-based Laundromat company whose Ukio bank account was registered using his signature. A copy of his passport was attached, but Ustyan insisted he had no idea how it got there. Ustyan’s signature can be found on contracts and banking paperwork in the Troika Laundromat along with those of a few other Armenians. Wearing an old military jacket and hat, he sat down with reporters this January in his cold living room to answer questions about high finance.

At his mother’s request, he wrote his signature on a piece of paper and concluded that the one associated with Dino Capital had probably been forged.

The Armenian said he knew none of this, though he did recall a slim connection to Troika Dialog: While in Moscow looking for work, Ustyan stayed with a Russian Armenian whose brother he said worked for the investment bank and helped him find employment. In addition to having his signature associated with Dino Capital’s bank account, Ustyan is also listed as an attorney authorized to sign contracts on the company’s behalf, and his signature appears on at least $70 million worth of financial agreements.

The Moscow address is indeed that of Nerses Vagradyan, a Russian citizen of Armenian descent. Nerses’ brother, Samvel Vagradyan, is a director of a Russian company that received millions of dollars from Brightwell, a core Laundromat company. A Samvel Vagradyan is also mentioned on Vardanyan’s website as a donor to the banker’s charitable causes. It’s unknown whether Samvel really worked for Troika.

Neither of the Vagradyan brothers could be reached for comment. Ustyan said he doesn’t believe they used his identity.

Another Armenian front man in the Laundromat appears to be Edik Yeritsyan. His identity was used to register an account at Ukio for the Cyprus-based Popat Holdings Ltd. This company was involved in Laundromat transactions worth millions of dollars.

Yeritsyan told OCCRP that he lost his memory three years ago after a car accident and doesn’t remember some parts of his life. However, Ustyan said that he and Yeritsyan lived together in the same flat they were renovating in Moscow.

This article was first published by The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) a global network of investigative journalists.

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