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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise

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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise
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“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36

When we were children, our mother took us to St. Andrews Church in Nairobi every Sunday. A grand, cavernous cathedral-style building on the right side of Uhuru Highway, it was there that she and my father had had their wedding ceremony in 1983.

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) was founded by Scottish missionaries but would soon be known for what the Kikuyu called mutaratara – a liturgical style of worship that is composed, outwardly decorous and predictable. That was how my mother, Rose Wanjiku, had always done church. She was in charge of our spiritual formation; my father was largely irreligious – I now realise that this is not unusual, and perhaps the norm, in most Kenyan families.

In my teenage years, I met some cool kids who went to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, and I followed them there. The youth fellowship there was nicknamed Fortress, and for a 13-year-old raised to be a dignified mini-adult in church, the unbridled energy and chaotic emotionality of a Pentecostal service was enchanting. I loved Fortress. We had day (and night) concerts, youth camps, picnics and movies. I led praise and worship and preached on occasion. We went on “missions” where we proselytised to strangers, prayed in tongues and we baptised in the Holy Ghost.

My mother was not entirely pleased with my new spiritual commitments. I suspect that they seemed a little too ecstatic to her. She resisted my formation of a whole lifestyle that was outside her supervision or control. I would argue that at least I was spending my time in church, not “out there” like other girls. This would usually placate her.

I spent the rest of my teenage years being highly active “in the ministry” as we called it, both at my boarding school and at Fortress when I was home on vacation. And far from being a drag on my social life, church was actually fun. It was not only a sanctuary but also the place where I grew up, developed my own personality, and made deep and meaningful friendships, some of which remain to this day.

***

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when Kenya’s Christian institutions were undergoing a profound change, whose effects remain with us today. Purportedly, Kenya is a Christian nation; census data indicates that nearly four in five Kenyans self-identify as Christian.

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches accounted for 70 per cent of Christian congregations in Kenya by the time Daniel arap Moi became Kenya’s second president in 1978. Christianity was a colonial project in most of Africa. The missionaries may have been welcomed in individual communities, but the machinery of the colonial state followed very soon after, enforcing and accelerating the winning of (bodies and) souls.

In England, Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the River Thames is the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Houses of Parliament are less than 400 metres away, on the opposite bank. The British colonisers diligently replicated this spatial intimacy of church and state. In the capital cities of most former British colonies in Africa, the official residence of the Anglican archbishop was next to, or across the street from, the Governor’s Mansion.

In Nairobi, the Anglican archbishop’s residence, even today, is at the T-junction of State House Avenue and State House Road, right across the road from the official residence of the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.

Because of their colonial roots, the mainstream churches had an uncritical relationship with the government, even after independence when both institutions were “Africanised”. The churches were firmly pro-establishment, preferring to “keep out of politics” and focusing on providing social services.

The Anglican and Presbyterian churches were formally organised under the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Formed in 1966, NCCK was an umbrella of 37 church organisations affiliated to the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. In 1978 (the year that Moi became president) NCCK was commissioned to undertake a theological study of three words: “peace, love and unity”. Peace, Love and Unity was the slogan underlying President Moi’s new political philosophy of Nyayo, as he called it. But Moi’s regime would end up being anything but peaceful, loving or uniting.

***

Moi was vice president when Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, died in 1978. The constitution directed that the vice president take office upon the death of the president, but in the years that Kenyatta’s health began to fail, politicians close to Mzee had tried to sideline Moi – ostensibly because he lacked the political clout of Kenyatta, and was ethnically Kalenjin, whereas those establishment politicians were mostly Kikuyu.

In fact, that group had tried to change the constitution to block the automatic succession of a president by his deputy. Though they failed in that regard, Moi nevertheless began his tenure with a deep sense of political insecurity.

By 1982 that insecurity had turned into a fully-fledged political crisis. In the early hours of August 1st of that year, a group of Air Force officers commandeered state radio and declared a coup. Within hours, forces loyal to the incumbent president had crushed the coup attempt, but it would be the pivotal point in the downward repressive spiral of the Moi regime, with increasing surveillance, detentions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment intensifying in the mid- to late 1980s.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations. The study was published in 1983 as a book called A Christian View of Politics in Kenya: Love, Peace and Unity.

But as the political space became more constricted in the mid-80s, the NCCK became more vocal against the Moi regime. It must be said here that NCCK and the Catholic churches were ethnically disproportionately Kikuyu and Luo. This was possibly for historical reasons, as the early Christian missionaries were most active in areas dominated by Kikuyus and Luos.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations.

Possibly to counter the rising malcontent, Moi created an alliance with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical congregations who would come together under the Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya (EFK) – and whose ethnic composition happened to be closer to that of Moi and his allies. Congregations, such as the African Inland Church (AIC), the Reformed Church of East Africa, Kenya Assemblies of God and the African Gospel Church were part of this evangelical fellowship; Moi himself was said to be a very religious man, an AIC faithful, whose habit was to wake up at 5am for prayer and reading the Bible.

Because of their closeness to the seat of power, the evangelical churches now came to occupy a privileged place in 1980s and 1990s Kenya.

The position taken by the EFK during that time was one of consoling the State rather than confronting it; the image of the President as “God’s anointed” became a frequent one.

Meanwhile, NCCK and Catholic leaders continued to speak out against government excesses. The most vocal of these leaders were Rev. Timothy Njoya of PCEA (who for a time headed my mother’s congregation at St. Andrews), as well as Bishops Alexander Muge, David Gitari and Henry Okullu, all Anglican. Among the Catholics, the most outspoken was Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Nakuru Catholic diocese.

As the university community was harassed and diminished, especially after state repression, detentions and surveillance were ramped up in the 1980s, the NCCK became the major institutional challenge to Moi’s regime. The churches had the organisational network and national infrastructure to mount and sustain a form of protest politics in what was then a one-party state.

In turn, government politicians adopted a defensive stance and challenged the legitimacy of the church in discussing matters of politics. The evangelical fellowship, for its part, led by Bishop Ezekiel Birech of the AIC and Bishop Arthur Kitonga of Redeemed Gospel Church, often denounced NCCK in vehement Sunday sermons that were then printed in state-leaning newspapers. Kenyan churchgoers saw the acrimonous split along denominational lines, but few saw its ethnic and political dimension.

Moi won the 1992 election against a badly fractured opposition and on the back of state-sponsored gangs that suppressed the vote in much of the country. But by this time Kenya was in dire economic straits, with decay everywhere you looked – uncollected garbage, spiraling inflation and crumbling public services.

I was just a child at this time, but I remember the panic that seemed to seep into my parents’ conversations when they talked about money; the faint disgust with which my father handled the newly minted Ksh500 note (previously, Ksh200 was the biggest denomination). He said that this new note was a sure sign that Kenya was going to the dogs.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart. Like the Pentecostal congregation that I was a part of, they were radical, emotionally speaking, in terms of an ecstatic worship experience. But politically, they were solidly conservative – they offered a privatisation of solutions in the face of public dilapidation that seemed beyond hope. Claim your miracle. Reap your blessing. Accept Jesus as your personal saviour.

***

As I grew older and became more politically conscious and intellectually mature, my faith began to be a source of deep internal strife. I was increasingly uncomfortable with interpretations of Scripture that seemed to be obsessed with meticulous sexual policing, which of course was always directed at the girls (“be careful not to cause a brother to stumble!”) but made almost no demands on the boys.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart.

Perhaps it wasn’t incidental that many of our fathers were disinterested in the church – except when they were looking for a good woman to marry. Church was a place women learned, practised and refined their marriageability. Men didn’t need to. We were discouraged from dating casually, unless the relationship was headed towards marriage. That produced an incentive to declare things more serious than they actually were, or needed to be. And then the power play began – it fell upon the boys to proclaim whether that relationship was indeed headed towards marriage and upon the girls to demonstrate how wifeable they were.

One of the major traits of wifeability was the maintainance of the “purity” in the relationship. So we (the girls, mostly) expended enormous amounts of energy discussing “how far is too far” in relating to the opposite sex (Holding hands? Kissing? Petting? Actually, what exactly is petting?). And then, it seemed the boys would adjudicate whether the girl had adequately maintained the collective purity of the relationship or had fallen short of the glory of God. It was a bizarre dance that rested upon the presumption that a woman’s body was a kind of blank slate with no innate desires of its own.

This was during Mwai Kibaki’s first term as president. In the course of just five years, Kenya’s political mood made a full about-turn – from the joy and optimism of the 2002 election in which democracy had triumphed to the violent aftermath of the 2007 election.

Kibaki’s first swearing-in ceremony was the first, and I believe the last, political meeting my mother attended in her life; she walked from our home in South B to Uhuru Park to join the celebratory throng and watch a new democratic government take power. (Throng is a word I like. It is dense and heaving, as though people’s bodies were compressing and purging themselves, and each other, of the weight of dictatorship and failed dreams.) By then I was in my early twenties, and the friction between my mother and I would increasingly shift from being a dispute over denomination into one over politics.

Kibaki quickly consolidated power around his own Kikuyu elite, which seemed to me an obvious betrayal of the multi-ethnic and popular mandate that had brought him to power. But at family meetings, funerals and weddings, I would hear my relatives proclaim quite categorically that Kenya was much better off under a Kikuyu president. In fact, Kibaki was God’s anointed. At home I would constantly challenge my mother on those kinds of declarations, my voice shrill and my manner emphatic. How do we know that whoever is in power is God’s anointed? What is godly about chauvinism? Are we now saying that Anglo Leasing is the will of God? She would only wearily listen to me and wave me off.

Just five years later, in the aftermath of a disputed 2007 election, I watched in horror the smouldering remains of a church in Kiambaa, where a mob shut dozens of people in a church, blocked the door with a mattress and set the sanctuary on fire. As the smoke billowed on the television screen, my mother turned to me and calmly said the most cutting words she had ever said to me. “Do you think that when they come for you they will ask you who you voted for?”

It was clear what she meant. Kenya was a country where your ethnicity was everything. It could be the difference between life and death. And I hated to admit it, but she was right.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

I spent the next eight years of my life vaguely describing myself as an agnostic, “spiritual but not religious”, or generally avoiding matters of faith. It increasingly seemed absurd to me that one could be an African and a Christian, and even less a self-respecting, or at least politically conscious African, with any kind of serious commitment to social justice. Christianity is a white man’s religion, I thought. I don’t really know any African religions, so I will have none.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

***

First-century Judea was a colonial project. The land itself brought in little revenue to the Roman treasury, but by controlling it, Rome could control the land and sea routes to Egypt, which was the breadbasket of the empire.

Judea was also a border province against the Parthian Empire (in modern day Iraq and Iran), a rival of Rome in the east. The Bible records that the Jews had been taken into exile in Babylon some centuries before, and though they had returned to their homeland, the Jews were viewed as suspicious and potential fifth columnists by Rome, because of that lengthy exile to the east.

It was here that the New Testament records than God became incarnate into man. Jesus, as described in the Bible, was not only from Judea, but from a town in Galilee called Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian faith now reflexively associates Nazareth with the power, awe and authority of the Divine, but in the first century Nazareth was nowhere to be bragged about.

The historic Nazareth was an area of entrenched poverty in the ancient world. The people of Nazareth were on the bottom of society. When Herod the Great – the Jewish king who was little more than a Roman colonial administrator – died in 4 BC, the Roman armoury in Sepphoris, just outside Nazareth, was robbed. The Romans retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a public warning against such revolts. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery.

Less than a decade later, there was another revolt, this time against paying taxes. Another Roman crackdown followed, with many more crucified. The place earned a reputation for being a hotbed of unrest; young Nazarenes were labelled gangsters and thugs.

The elite one percent in Jerusalem – the priests, teachers of the law and Sadducees – looked upon those from Nazareth as uneducated and uncultured; Nazarenes were subjected to slurs on their purported lax morals and were policed for their lack of manners. The people of Nazareth were considered a Problem People.

One can thus understand the disciple Nathaniel’s jaded statement when Philip excitedly tells him that he has met the Messiah: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” In fact, we ought to consider “Jesus of Nazareth” a politically loaded statement, akin to Jaymo kutoka ghetto. In the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is spoken about in this metaphor of Empire.

The Mediterranean world called Caesar sôtêr (saviour of the world). Caesar was the one who brought Peace, Love and Unity, Pax Romana, to the ancient world. So when the gospel writers used the word sôtêr to announce the birth of Jesus: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” (Luke 2:11) they were essentially undermining the authority of the empire.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

The way the Roman State tortured and executed Jesus and his early followers was not incidental. It tells us who Jesus was in relation to the state – crucifixion was done publicly, as a warning, in response to a perceived offence against the authority of Caesar.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

More than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched in the American South between 1900 and 1950. Lynchings were public events, sometimes announced in advance. Photographs were taken and used as postcards. Bodies were dismembered and parts handed out as souvenirs.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists, writes American theologian James Cone, who passed away this April. According to Cone, Jesus and blacks in America suffered a similar fate: both were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity, unfairly tried and quickly condemned, tortured and left to die as a public warning.

During colonialism, several Kenyans experienced similar indignities. Otenyo Nyamaterere was killed by a British firing squad in Kisii in western Kenya for resisting the advance of the colonial state in the early 20th century. He was beheaded and his headless body left on a bridge. Waiyaki wa Hinga, the Kikuyu chieftain who resisted harassment and forced taxation, was buried alive at a prison camp in 1890. Koitalel arap Samoei, the Nandi chief who fought British occupation for eleven years, mounting guerrilla attacks on the railway and colonial forts, was shot at point blank range by a colonial official who had asked him to meet and discuss peace; Koitalel’s skull was then carried off to Britain.

Then there was General Baimungi Marete of the Mau Mau, a leader of the armed rebellion of the 1950s that fought for Kenya’s self-rule. General Baimungi and his lieutenants held out in forest camps as Jomo Kenyatta, who would become Kenya’s first president, negotiated an independence treaty with the British. The colonial structures were left intact; Kenyatta would now head this new expropriating state.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

Kenyatta went on to publicly declare: “Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated, and must never be remembered again.” The Mau Mau remained a banned organisation in Kenya until 2003. The colour of the administrators had changed, but the colonial logic remained intact.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

The fact that white colonisers would use the symbol of a Nazarene anti-colonialist to enforce and entrench the very project of colonisation is a testament to the twisted genius of white supremacy. But Jesus of Nazareth was no coloniser.

***

There’s a difference between priests and prophets, as religious scholar Jonathan Walton describes in his book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. Priestly leaders believe that the structures of society are fundamentally good and that any political or social problems are the result of a few bad apples or degraded moral standards, as opposed to inherent flaws in the structures of society. Priests seek to nurture humility, patience and goodwill in their congregations in order to integrate them into the culture as productive and loyal citizens. By doing this, priests accommodate themselves and their parishioners to injustice without necessarily affirming it – at most, they encourage the congregation to endure those things that cannot be readily changed.

Priests generally seek to “stay out of politics”; whenever they do get involved in politics, it is usually to use their respectable social standing to have access to the ear of the powerful. Priests believe they can be a “good influence” to the ruling class, appealing to their moral goodwill to try and obtain justice. Pray for your leaders, they say. Touch not God’s anointed.

Priests are uncomfortable with social protest or real reform because it might lead to a loss of their social capital.

But the prophet is different. “The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

The prophet is social reformer with no moral middle ground. No form of oppression is consistent with God’s will, the prophetic witness declares, and is actually in opposition to the very physical form that God chose to be incarnated in first-century Judea. Turn around! the prophet declares. You’re going the wrong way! It seems to me that Christianity’s prophetic roots were never fully formed; they were prematurely twisted into an entwining conformity with colonial and neo-colonial states – Rome, Britain, America, Kenya.

“The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

I now see that the focus on personal piety and private redemption that energised my formative years ended up obscuring calls for social justice. The uncritical embrace of society’s unjust structures – especially the capitalist economy that has its colonial logic intact and the obsession with morals and manners – reflects the non-confrontational stance of the priest rather than the radical reform of the prophet.

The prophet is never neutral in the face of oppression. The prophet doesn’t want to “hear both sides”, doesn’t want to be “fair and balanced”, cannot be “objective”. The prophet is on the side of justice.

It is time for Kenyan Christians to live out their ministry for those caught on the underside of power today, for the “least of these”. In the words of James Cone, we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualising it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death.

The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

Author’s note:
Many thanks to Jeremy L. Williams for the many conversations that helped clarify my thinking for this article, and to Jonathan Walton for his ministry, and insightful books Watch This! and the forthcoming A Lens of Love.

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Christine Mungai is a Kenyan writer, journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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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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