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The Gay Debate: Decriminalising Homosexuality in Kenya

Courts, individuals, movements, state human rights organs and government health agencies have already established Kenya’s legal consciousness on how continued criminalisation of homosexuality undermines our constitutional principles and goals.

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The Gay Debate: Decriminalising Homosexuality in Kenya
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Private consensual sexual conduct between adults of the same sex is criminalised in Kenya and 32 other African countries. How did private consensual sexual conduct between adults become the subject of criminal laws in Kenya and most of these African countries? How does the secrecy surrounding matters related to sex and sexuality influence the implementation of these laws? Let’s take a journey through Kenya.

According to legal historians, what is today known as Kenya started off as the British East Africa Protectorate in 1896. The protectorate was ruled under British law; prior to that period, no formal legal structure existed. Further, the name Kenya did not exist until it was named so as a colony in 1920 and as a country in 1963 (upon independence). Criminalisation of same sex relations in Kenya dates back to between 1897 and 1902, when the British colonial authorities applied the Indian Penal Code that had been drafted by the British and which criminalised same sex relations. The Indian Penal Code was a novel colonisation project aimed at using legislation to model British values and common law to govern British protectorates and colonies abroad.

Research by Dr. Nancy Baraza characterises the history and rationale of the criminalisation of homosexuality as part of the disguise to civilize “natives”, stop slavery and spread Christianity. She found that it led to social coercion into British moral and Christian religious values whose aim was to standardise divergent ethnic sexualities for ease of ruling and colonising them. Dr. Baraza found that these colonial laws that policed sexuality and gender were closely tied to Judeo-Christian religious beliefs that gradually displaced African customary laws that recognised the harmony of gender, sexuality and spirituality.

Upon Kenya’s independence in 1963, the pre-colonial Penal Code was adopted by the post-colonial state without substantive changes, save for the renamed title of the statute to reflect promulgation by the newly created sovereign Parliament of Kenya. Kenya, therefore, remained among those African countries that mete varying punishments for same sex relations. The death penalty is imposed for homosexual sex in Sudan, Nigeria (12 northern states), Somalia and Mauritania. Life sentences are prescribed by penal law in Tanzania, Uganda and Sierra Leone. Kenya imposes a fourteen-year imprisonment term. To prove the crime of homosexual sex, forced anal examinations are used to in Tanzania, Cameroon, Egypt, Tunisia and Uganda. (Kenya’s Court of Appeal banned the practice in 2018.) Attempts to commit homosexual sex are also punished in Kenya, including indecent acts between males. The crime of homosexual sex is framed as an “unnatural” offence, carnal knowledge against the order of nature, or indecent acts between adults.

The legal challenges

The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) has noted that individuals in Africa continue to face infractions due to real or imputed sexual orientation and/or gender identity. According to the ACHPR, common infractions include “corrective” rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extrajudicial killings and executions, forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail. In a 2014 resolution against violence on ground of sexual orientation or gender identity in Africa (resolution 275), the African Commission called on African states to take preventative actions and redress these violations, including through legal reform.

This history of an imposed legal system in relation to criminalisation of same sex conduct in Kenya was slightly altered through Act No 5 of 2003 when section 162 of the penal code was amended to remove corporal punishment, which had existed as a supplementary punishment to the prison sentence of fourteen years for homosexual sex. This amendment also distinguished punishment for consensual unnatural offences (14 years) and non-consensual (sodomy) unnatural offences (21 years). Removal of corporal punishment for unnatural offences was part of general penal reforms to align Kenya’s laws to international obligations against torture and cruel, degrading or inhumane treatment and punishment.

The African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) has noted that individuals in Africa continue to face infractions due to real or imputed sexual orientation and/or gender identity. According to the ACHPR, common infractions include “corrective” rape, physical assaults, torture, murder, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extrajudicial killings and executions, forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail.

By the time the nation was debating a new constitution, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was being discussed inconclusively by constituent assemblies, including at the subsequent 2010 referendum. The new 2010 Constitution entrenches an elaborate Bills of Rights that affords constitutional protection from discrimination. Article 27 states: “The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.” While being inclusive, Article 27 does not explicitly list sexual orientation or gender identity. On the contrary, the Constitution recognises only heterosexual unions in Article 45, which states that “every adult has the right to marry a person of the opposite sex, based on the free consent of the parties”.

In addition, Section 158 of the Children’s Act of Kenya explicitly prohibits adoption of children by homosexuals, In brief, Kenya’s legal system is generally hostile to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and queer persons. The law is also vague on the constitutional protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no comprehensive or specific equality legislation to guarantee protection from sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination, particularly in employment, health, housing and other social economic spheres.

In 2012, a Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR) report on sexual and reproductive health rights in Kenya recommended decriminalisation of same sex relations. This was in order to ensure the realisation of the right to the highest attainable standard of health, including reproductive healthcare, as enshrined in article 43 of the Constitution 2010.

Studies have shown that gay men suffer discrimination when they access health services in Kenya and taboos around homosexuality prevent many others from seeking health services. Similar findings on the effects of criminalisation on state health policies and recommendations on their decriminalisation have been made by the Kenyan Ministry of Health in its HIV and AIDS Strategic Plan (2009/10-2012/13 as well as the 2014-2019). The justification of the health ministry and the KNCHR is that decriminalisation will remove structural barriers that impede access to the provision of the highest attainable standard of health care to all, which is a constitutional right in Kenya. KNCHR and the ministry have been consistent every year on their recommendations on decriminalising homosexuality, including through supporting civil society and individuals working on this reform issue. These empirical findings and recommendations by the health and the state human rights institution stand in contrast with active prosecutions against suspected homosexuals in Kenya by the police and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Religion and politics

The most common rhetoric against same sex relations in Kenya has been coming from the religious and political elite who often characterise homosexuality as being against African tradition and biblical teachings. Studies have found that this charge of homosexuality being exogenous to Africa is politically designed to erode the legitimacy of same sex sexualities in Africa and to assert a homogenous “cultural identity”. This makes the public dependent upon political and religious leaders for “a communal sense of self”. It reminds the public what the government is – that it is in charge, in power and working or aspires to work for their best interests and survival, including protecting the most vulnerable (especially children) from “recruitment” and securing the future of the nation (by securing reproduction). The law under study therefore becomes political bait, an attractive instrument to regenerate political power domestically and internationally. This is made possible when arguments intersect with popular religious doctrine and social anxieties over reproduction, marriage and the future.

The most common rhetoric against same sex relations in Kenya has been coming from the religious and political elite who often characterise homosexuality as being against African tradition and biblical teachings. Studies have found that this charge of homosexuality being exogenous to Africa is politically designed to erode the legitimacy of same sex sexualities in Africa and to assert a homogenous “cultural identity”.

The public discourse becomes more difficult when homosexuality is politicised with religious doctrines whose nature hardly allows deliberations, which are necessary for democratic progress. This politicisation of religion is conflated with social anxieties over reproduction and social security.

Studies have found that economic inequalities give such political rhetoric traction. In this power analysis of law, the inflation of claims (such as saving the morality of the country) work to displace desires and failures within society and fix them on minority human objects who are generalised and whose presence or distinguishing factor (such as sexual orientation, in this case) is not distinctive or new to Kenya.

We are a developing country that is struggling with poverty and a high population growth rate. Poverty, religious doctrine that does not allow reasoning or deliberations, and an education system whose compulsory curriculum teaches homosexuality to be a moral/social deviance can be seen as part of the key social economic factors involved in shaping the public posture against homosexuality.

A convenient distraction

Activists have argued that the political capital invested by the Kenyan state on homophobia is a tactic to distract the public from pressing economic issues, such as rampant corruption. Studies show that after the end of colonialism, arbitrary governments in most post-colonial African states “latched onto anti-homosexuality laws as ammunition in a battle for power”. Such political rhetoric has also been found to thrive more in countries with weak institutions, inadequate basic equality statutes, poor participatory rights and social protection law, increasing inequalities, high unemployment amongst youth, and a general restrictive civic space. Studies have also established that compared to full democracies, authoritarian regimes and flawed democracies have a higher propensity to criminalise homosexuality

There are findings that support the need for reform on this issue. Research by the World Bank shows that a country’s economic growth is inversely correlated with the level of discrimination against ethnic, religious and sexual minorities under the law. The study found that criminalisation of homosexuality is connected with economic development with multiple links and that criminalisation costs as much as 1.7 per cent of a country’s GDP. Other studies have argued that criminalisation of homosexuality is “irreconcilable with good governance” because it hinders progress within a country, particularly in regard to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, public health, and economic development

The economic benefits of ending discrimination using the rule of law, therefore, resonate with many aspirations of middle- and low-income African countries. Continued discrimination against sexual and gender minorities through law is a grave economic concern in emerging African economies such as Kenya, which is currently working to achieve inclusive development.

In the social-cultural sphere, Kenya’s creative/arts scene has increasingly become a mirror of the diversity in Kenya’s gender and sexuality fluidity. Notable among them are the films Stories of Our Lives and Rafiki, whose same sex themes have been banned locally but have spiked local and international demand. Art galleries and cultural centres in Kenya have in recent years been hosting Lesbian Gay Bisexual Trans Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQ) art and cultural events without state sanction. Reputed artists, such as Michael Soi, with his provocative paintings on sexuality and Kawira Mwirichia, with her Kanga love art, also continue to highlight the changing social landscape on matters sexuality and gender in Kenya. Although the education curriculum in primary and secondary schools still teaches that homosexuality is a social deviance, many public universities and colleges have been pushing back with a much more inclusive curriculum, especially in law schools. In addition, student-led bodies in universities and colleges have been engaging in research, internships, moot courts and other public service partnerships with civil society organisations dealing with LGBTIQ equality in Kenya.

Enforcement of gay laws

The existing laws against homosexual offences are actively enforced in Kenya. In 2015, a “Ministerial statement on non-enforcement of anti-gay laws in Kenya” indicated that between 2010 and 2014, the Kenya Police had prosecuted 595 cases of homosexuality across Kenya. An independent due diligence report of this police report found gross errors and conflation of homosexuality with bestiality and defilement charges. The conflation was either deliberate or was meant to increase social opprobrium towards homosexuality (by conflating consensual private adult same sex intimacy with bestiality and defilement). It could also be due to mistakes due to poor record-keeping by the police whose documentation remains largely manual.

The existing laws against homosexual offences are actively enforced in Kenya. In 2015, a “Ministerial statement on non-enforcement of anti-gay laws in Kenya” indicated that between 2010 and 2014, the Kenya Police had prosecuted 595 cases of homosexuality across Kenya. An independent due diligence report of this police report found gross errors and conflation of homosexuality with bestiality and defilement charges.

In addition, civil society organisations continue to document human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In 2010, the Kenya Human Rights Commission (KHRC) found that LGBTIQ persons in Kenya are routinely harassed by police, evicted from housing by landlords, fired from jobs, denied access to healthcare and cut off from families, religious groups and social support structures. The National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) has since 2012 been responding to and documenting violations against LGBTIQ persons. Annual legal aid reports from NGLHRC indicate that recurrent violations include “corrective” rape, physical assaults, arbitrary arrests, detentions, extrajudicial killings and executions, forced disappearances, extortion and blackmail, entrapment, among others. NGLHRC has been litigating on some of these violations, including challenging the use of forced anal examination to prove sexual orientation, forced evictions by landlords, dismissals from work, denial of government services and documents, etc.

Interpreting anti-homosexuality laws

Be that as it may, Kenya’s judicial jurisprudence on this issue demonstrates a compelling state interest to extinguish legal discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity that is often justified and excused by the existence of criminal sanctions against LGBTQ persons. In Petition 440/2013 that sought to register the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission with the NGO Board, Justices Lenaola Odunga and Mumbi Ngugi ruled unanimously that sexual orientation was constitutionally protected from discrimination in Kenya and allowed the registration of the NGO. In February 2018, the Court of Appeal struck down the use of anal examination to prove homosexual orientation after the NGLHRC challenged anal examination, which had been performed on two suspected gay men at the Coast General Hospital. In the Baby A case, the court found that intersex persons in Kenya have the right to be recognised as persons before the law and went further to task the relevant state organs to develop relevant policy to secure recognition of intersex persons as persons before the law.

Courts in Kenya have also allowed the registration of transgender groups and the change of gender markers on official documents issued by the government to transgender persons. The first stream is an internal analysis of the legal system using Kenyan law jurisprudence from which finds that there is arbitrary interpretation and application of the criminal rule under study which is inconsistent with the rule of law. The courts have become aware of this inconsistency and framed it as a constitutional issue, thereby triggering public discourse. The second stream is external in that it makes observations “outside” of the law on the performance of this criminal rule and characterises the performance of this law as political instrumentalisation of arbitrariness. This arbitrariness is more instrumentalised by the democratic branch of government through inflated paternalistic moral and religious claims within the domestic and international public spheres. I conclude by predicting how the criminal rule under study is under imminent foreclosure through court action under a rule of law analysis.

Moving towards a less homophobic society

I predict that criminalisation of homosexuality will grow into an exceptional doctrine in criminal law and will incrementally be foreclosed by courts as erroneous and excluded within the general domain of law. Criminal law is meant to prevent harm to society and enhance harmony and order within persons. To achieve order, the law can regulate how humans relate by way of justifiable legal stipulations and legal constrains. Over time, equality and non-discrimination will become the dominant theories in the transformation of the law in Kenya, but the foreclosure of the criminalisation described in this essay is a necessary first step.

Claims against the negative effects of criminalisation of homosexual conduct will continue to sharpen the consciousness of the courts on the structure, meaning and effects of this law. The claims will allow the courts to be the public repository of accounts of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The critical studies movement has taught us that we can reform our legal practice to deliver legal justice without breaking legality. This reformed legality supports the foreclosure of criminalisation with the aim of protecting the constitutional/immunity rights of persons affected by this law because these rights already exist in our constitutional texts.

The ongoing litigation work by LGBTIQ individuals are therefore democratic efforts by citizens and organised groups to instill the rule of law, human rights and good governance in Kenya. Such efforts fulfill the civic duty that individuals and social movements have in promoting the democratic values of their communities and the country through institutional enforcement of their rights in courts. It is also a follow-up from constitutional drafting conferences that appreciated the issue as contentious but offered no closure to the affected. Individuals and social movements are using the judiciary to communicate and document their discriminatory lived experiences. By framing these claims as constitutional breaches, individuals are building public value of human rights as an essential part of their democracy and societal values. Courts therefore become entry points of building human rights and democratic values into social and political pillars of society.

Claims against the negative effects of criminalisation of homosexual conduct will continue to sharpen the consciousness of the courts on the structure, meaning and effects of this law. The claims will allow the courts to be the public repository of accounts of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The fact that these cases are being entertained, processed and resolved without dismissals due to technicalities and despite the fact that there are existing laws that criminalise homosexuality are green shoots and omens that suggest that access to justice is being realised in Kenya, which is a score for our democracy. It shows that the courts in Kenya are rooting for the rule of law and the constitutional constraints in the law’s predictability.

Because the Constitution of Kenya 2010 was promulgated through a public referendum, courts enjoy sole curatorship of the Constitution, arguably raising the public acceptance of their decisions and the democratic pedigree of their legitimacy. Their decisions, therefore, play a leading role in public discourse.

Foreclosure through decriminalisation will, however, need enforcement. This might translate to a reduction of arrests and prosecutions of suspected homosexuals as well as reduced social and economic exclusion. It is possible that LGBTIQ persons have begun to value their constitutional rights and will take more chances for equal protection within the civic commons. It is also possible that sexuality, citizenship and belonging will remain a live constitutional issue for judges in Kenya for the next decade as the cases move to the appellate stages through the courts.

Regardless of the outcome of these cases, Kenya’s legal consciousness on how continued criminalisation of homosexuality undermines our constitutional principles and goals has already been established by courts, individuals, movements, state human rights organs and government health agencies. By litigating towards decriminalisation of homosexuality, activists are implementing evidence-based recommendations of state agencies as well as upholding the constitutional promise of non-discrimination, including equal benefit and equal protection under the law. The day may finally come when homosexuality in Kenya will truly be a “non-issue”, as President Uhuru Kenyatta recently stated in a televised interview.

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Eric Mawira Gitari is a PhD Candidate (SJD) at Harvard Law School and the former Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission-Kenya (NGLHRC).

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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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