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Israeli businessman Dan Gertler allegedly established a "money laundering network" designed to evade United States sanctions against him. He also was accused of using the network to "acquire new mining assets" in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On February 26, two Congolese whistleblowers identified themselves as the source of these and other disclosures involving Afriland First Bank.
"The whistleblowers, Navy Malela and Gradi Koko, worked for several years in the audit department of Afriland First Bank, the Congolese subsidiary of a Cameroonian bank," the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers (PPLAAF) in Africa declared. "They blew the whistle internally then transmitted these compromising documents to NGOs and journalists at great risk to their personal safety and that of their families."
"One of them was seriously threatened, and they had no choice but to go into exile in Europe," PPLAAF added.
There are unconfirmed reports that troublingly suggest a Kinshasa court issued a death sentence against the former bank employees.
Malela responded, "It would be incredible if whistleblowers are being sentenced to death without having the opportunity to defend themselves, while those who enable the Congolese people’s money to disappear are not being prosecuted."
According to PPLAAF, Afriland not only was aware of this corruption but were also participants.
"After being alerted by these two employees to some of these internal irregularities, Afriland’s management responded by implying one of the whistleblowers could get shot in the street, according to one of them."
Koko and Malela provided information that was published in “Undermining Sanctions” in July 2020 by PPLAAF and Global Witness. Bloomberg, Haaretz, and Le Monde covered the revelations.
The publication fueled international pressure against Gertler, but in February, the New York Times revealed President Donald Trump's administration exempted Gertler from sanctions during their final days in office.
Rolling back sanctions at the Treasury Department with no public documentation to justify the move—and without consulting officials at the State Department or National Security Council—flouted standard procedure, according to the Times.
Treasury officials asserted Gertler was granted a "special license" until 2022 because the U.S. had a "national security interest" in his Africa dealings, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other prominent Israelis backed the pressure campaign to remove sanctions.
No details were shared to prove it was in the interests of “national security” to allow a corrupt businessman to continue his exploitation of the Congolese people free from interference by the U.S. government.
When the Treasury Department sanctioned Gertler in June 2018, officials accused him of amassing a fortune "through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals in the DRC."
"Gertler has used his close friendship with DRC President Joseph Kabila to act as a middleman for mining asset sales in the DRC, requiring some multinational companies to go through Gertler to do business with the Congolese state," the Treasury Department stated in a press release. "As a result, between 2010 and 2012 alone, the DRC reportedly lost over $1.36 billion in revenues from the underpricing of mining assets that were sold to offshore companies linked to Gertler."
"The failure of the DRC to publish the full details of one of the sales prompted the International Monetary Fund to halt loans to the DRC totaling $225 million."
"In 2013, Gertler sold to the DRC government for $150 million the rights to an oil block that Gertler purchased from the government for just $500,000, a loss of $149.5 million in potential revenue," the Treasury Department further outlined. "Gertler has acted for or on behalf of Kabila, helping Kabila organize offshore leasing companies."
Gertler has been involved in the "conflict diamond" or "blood diamond" trade in the Congo, and he was only 23 years old in 1997 when he arrived to establish himself as a diamond supplier that could compete with De Beers, a diamond business rooted in the British colonial past of South Africa.
During his presidency, Laurent Kabila offered monopolies to businessmen like Gertler to help his government make war.
"Among them was a deal to export diamonds with Mr. Gertler, who was considered an appealing intermediary because of his ties to generals in the Israeli Army that could help Congo procure weapons, according to two reports issued by the United Nations in 2001," the Times recalled.
Gertler negotiated a peace deal in 2003 while President George W. Bush was in office, and that helped him "cement" a relationship with Kabila that allowed for the expansion of his "empire of companies" into the mining of copper, cobalt, gas, gold, and oil.
"In just five deals negotiated between 2010 and 2012 to sell copper and cobalt through offshore companies linked to the Fleurette Group, which is controlled by Mr. Gertler and his family, the citizens of Congo lost an estimated $1.36 billion because the nation's resources were being sold at one-sixth of their value, according to a report prepared in 2013 by Kofi Annan, the former U.N. secretary general, and other prominent African officials."
Malela and Koko, the former Afriland First Bank employees, took great risks to further expose this 21st Century colonialism.
Gertler, as the PPLAAF and Global Witness report alleged, relied on Afriland after sanctions were imposed in 2018 to obscure transactions so he could continue "customs and logistics" operations for "large mining companies in DRC."
Three U.S. representatives in Congress sent a letter [PDF] to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen on February 3 urging her to restore the sanctions against Gertler.
"The licensing action appears to have almost entirely bypassed established interagency processes," the letter stated. "No information has been provided by the Treasury Department to indicate that the Magnitsky Sanctions were wrongly implemented in the first place, nor are there any indications that Mr. Gertler has demonstrated contrition for his corrupt dealings and undertaken reform."
The letter added, "In fact, the publicly available evidence demonstrates the opposite is true. Since being sanctioned, he has created shell companies, opened accounts with tiny financial institutions in the DRC over which he maintains control, and received pay in foreign currencies to circumvent our laws."
Congo is one of the most resource-rich countries in the world, yet as of 2018, over 70 percent of the country lived in "extreme poverty."
“Thanks to the silent revolution of whistleblowers like Gradi and Navy on the African continent, no crime will remain a secret forever, and the change we desire will eventually make itself felt,” proclaimed Jean-Jacques Lumumba, who is a Congolese whistleblower and banker. “Acts like theirs are a source of hope for the DRC and for our continent.”
“Once again, whistleblowers are risking their lives to combat opacity and defend banking regulations,”Gabriel Bourdon-Fattal of PPLAAF concluded. “We call on the Congolese authorities to launch investigations into these acts and on President [Félix] Tshisekedi to promote mechanisms to protect whistleblowers, as he recently announced."