Special Report-How a little-known G7 task force unwittingly helps governments target critics By Reuters


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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: The brand of the FATF (the Monetary Motion Activity Drive) is seen throughout a information convention after a plenary session on the OECD Headquarters in Paris, France, October 18, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photograph

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By Angus Berwick

(Reuters) – In late 2020, when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni confronted a contemporary problem to his 35-year rule, a brand new software helped to silence his critics: anti-money laundering laws promoted by the G7.

The Monetary Motion Activity Drive, established by the G7 group of superior economies to guard the worldwide monetary system, had written to Uganda’s authorities eight years earlier telling it to do extra to fight cash laundering and terrorism financing or danger being positioned on a “gray listing” of poor nations, in response to a prime Ugandan official who described the personal letter to Reuters. Such a transfer may injury Uganda’s ties to overseas banks and buyers, which carefully comply with the FATF’s updates.

Inside a 12 months, Uganda’s parliament handed a brand new regulation to criminalize each offences and established an intelligence unit to implement it.

However Uganda did not deploy the regulation because the FATF supposed.

Final December, as Museveni ready for a January election, authorities used the regulation to quickly freeze the financial institution accounts of three rights teams and arrest a outstanding lawyer, 40-year-old Nicholas Opiyo, on cash laundering expenses associated to the funding of an NGO he based. Opiyo, who was later launched on bail, referred to as the fees “spurious.” The federal government has denied utilizing the regulation to focus on its critics. In January, amid accusations of voter fraud by Museveni’s most important rival, the electoral fee declared Museveni had gained re-election.

Uganda is not distinctive.

Reuters discovered that in not less than 4 different nations – Serbia, India, Tanzania, and Nigeria – laws handed to fulfill FATF requirements was utilized by authorities to analyze journalists, NGO staff, and legal professionals. Based mostly on interviews with individuals focused, authorities officers and monetary crime consultants, the reporting by Reuters supplies the primary account of the unintended penalties arising from the duty power’s mandate.

By fixed assessments of nations’ measures, the FATF performs a little-known however key function in shaping monetary crime laws and in dictating governments’ safety priorities. Throughout the globe, it has strengthened legal guidelines to crack down on cash laundering and terrorist financing. However by pressuring nations with weak democratic frameworks to undertake and bolster such legal guidelines, the FATF has unwittingly handed a brand new authorized instrument to authoritarian governments, in response to a dozen researchers at assume tanks and human rights teams.

“Its requirements are more and more not simply being misunderstood, however are being purposefully abused,” mentioned Tom Keatinge, director of the Centre for Monetary Crime on the Royal United Providers Institute in London.

Particularly, a spotlight on the FATF from the early 2000s on tackling terrorist financing by means of non-profit organizations has allowed some governments to pursue professional civic teams underneath the quilt of imposing worldwide requirements, in response to researchers. “Non-profit organizations can get caught in these crosshairs,” mentioned Tracey Durner, a director on the International Heart on Cooperative Safety in New York.

The FATF, in emailed responses to Reuters’ questions, mentioned it was conscious of reviews its suggestions have been misused and was monitoring governments’ oversight of nonprofits. It mentioned this 12 months it established a working group on the “unintended penalties of poorly carried out” measures and was figuring out doable choices to mitigate them.

“Any misapplication of the FATF Requirements in a means that suppresses the professional actions of non-profit organisations or curtails the human rights of people is clearly a matter of grave concern and can’t be condoned in any means as a part of the struggle in opposition to cash laundering and terrorist financing,” it mentioned.

Requested concerning the warning letter despatched in 2012 to Uganda’s then finance minister, Maria Kiwanuka, the FATF mentioned it “doesn’t touch upon personal correspondence with governments.” Kiwanuka, who was changed in 2015, advised Reuters she acquired letters from many alternative events and referred remark to the finance ministry, which didn’t reply to emails.

Uganda’s prime anti-money laundering official, Sydney Asubo, who reviewed the letter on the time, mentioned Opiyo’s arrest was a police matter and declined to touch upon the deserves of the case.

Asubo defended the federal government. “We’re doing what’s required by the FATF,” he mentioned.

Terrorist financing consultants consulted by Reuters mentioned the FATF has restricted the funding of teams like al Qaeda by making banks extra danger averse and giving authorities extra powers to analyze an entity’s funds. Nonetheless, they faulted the duty power’s blanket strategy to bettering requirements as a result of it fails to take note of the political motivations of governments and the chance of misuse of the principles. Since final 12 months, Turkey and Myanmar – nations the place authorities have jailed journalists and democracy advocates – have launched new laws and procedures to fulfill FATF requirements which allow authorities to hunt extra monetary info from NGOs.

“THE DAMAGE IS DONE”

From its headquarters in Paris, the FATF has lengthy nudged nations into compliance with Western safety requirements. For the reason that G7 established the duty power in 1989, over 180 nations have dedicated to implementing its suggestions.

Nations deemed non-compliant with FATF requirements are “grey-listed,” or blacklisted, a tag at present held simply by North Korea and Iran. Within the case of Uganda, even after passing the 2013 regulation, it spent three years on the gray listing. A stint on the listing retains a rustic underneath shut monitoring, doubtlessly unnerving its overseas buyers and complicating its abroad banking relationships.

Civil teams for years have complained the FATF unfairly stigmatizes them as conduits for unlawful funds. Within the wake of the 9/11 assaults on america, the FATF issued a advice warning that non-profit teams have been “significantly susceptible” to terrorist financing, citing the chance that terrorist organizations may exploit the sector to lift and transfer funds. This advice required states to overview their legal guidelines to make sure such teams “can’t be misused.”

The advice sophisticated funding for numerous NGOs all over the world as banks, nervous of falling foul of regulators, closed their accounts or blocked transfers. “It was arguably ‘open season’ on nonprofits,” mentioned Keatinge, of the Royal United Providers Institute.

NGOs’ vulnerability to terrorist financing has been challenged in research by Keatinge and different researchers, together with in a 2019 report by the United Nations’ Particular Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism. The report warned the FATF “lent a veneer of legitimacy” to states that used its provisions to manage civil society.

In 2016, the FATF revised its advice to take away the phrase “significantly susceptible.” And advocates like Vanja Skoric, program director on the European Heart for Not-for-Revenue Regulation, say they welcome the FATF’s new working group to look at abuses of its requirements.

However, mentioned Skoric, “the injury is finished.”

The FATF positioned Serbia on the gray listing in early 2018, saying its authorities wanted to strengthen its legal guidelines so authorities may higher hint people’ monetary info. After Serbia did so, the FATF de-listed it.

In July 2020, Serbia’s monetary intelligence unit despatched a letter to native banks requesting personal shopper knowledge on some 50 NGOs and media retailers identified for criticizing what they think about to be President Aleksandar Vučić’s more and more autocratic rule. The letter, reviewed by Reuters, sought knowledge on their overseas foreign money inflows, underneath order of the amended regulation.

After information of the letter leaked, Finance Minister Siniša Mali advised a neighborhood tv channel the intelligence unit was “doing its job” and the information requests should not be an issue for the targets “if nothing is hidden.” No people have been charged up to now.

Maja Stojanovic, director of Serbian nonprofit Civic Initiatives, which was named within the letter, advised Reuters she believes the federal government is utilizing the information for smear campaigns to undermine NGOs’ work. She cited the instance of a senior lawmaker from Vučić’s celebration who in a speech this March attacked NGOs as foreign-funded coup-mongers and referenced switch particulars which teams had not disclosed publicly.

When Stojanovic and different focused NGOs consulted the banks concerning the requests, the banks mentioned they could not disclose what info they shared with authorities, in response to emails reviewed by Reuters. Spokespeople for 3 of the banks, Banca Intesa Beograd, OTP banka Srbija, and Erste Group Financial institution, declined to remark, citing banking secrecy legal guidelines. Serbia’s Workplace of Media Relations didn’t reply to emailed questions.

Final 12 months, it was India’s flip to arrange for one more FATF analysis. The then junior dwelling affairs minister tweeted the federal government would “disrupt the terror-financing networks” to fulfill FATF requirements.

In October, the nationwide counter-terrorism company raided the workplaces of 10 NGOs in New Delhi and India-controlled Kashmir, the place safety forces are battling a decades-long insurgency. It mentioned in a press release the organizations have been utilizing overseas funds for “secessionist and terrorist actions” in Kashmir. No arrests have been made.

A number of of the NGOs, together with Delhi-based aid group Charity Alliance, denied the company’s claims. They mentioned they have been both offering humanitarian assist or researching alleged rights abuses dedicated by safety forces deployed in Kashmir – work which was supported by a number of UN particular rapporteurs. One of many Kashmir-based NGOs advised Reuters that throughout the raid officers seized paperwork and laborious drives with delicate info on victims of torture. They halted the analysis, fearing additional reprisals.

Charity Alliance’s chairman, Zafarul-Islam Khan, advised Reuters it was a “blatant lie” that his charity funded terrorism in Kashmir. The counter-terrorism company has not supplied proof of any alleged crime, he mentioned, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s authorities of attempting “to throttle Muslim, Christian, leftist and human rights NGOs.”

India’s Ministry of House Affairs declined to remark.

“SIGNIFICANT PROGRESS”

On the time of the FATF’s 2012 warning to Uganda, monetary crime there went successfully unchecked.

Its cash-based economic system, porous borders, and weak legal guidelines meant the federal government had little means or willingness to hint funding for armed insurgent teams or examine the large sums of public cash that officers embezzled, in response to researchers and a report by the Worldwide Financial Fund. “It positively wasn’t a precedence,” mentioned Liat Shetret, a U.S. anti-money laundering skilled who research East Africa.

The FATF spurred the federal government into motion. Asubo, a former prime prosecutor who studied regulation on the College of Liverpool, was appointed to guide the brand new monetary intelligence unit.

Nicholas Opiyo, the lawyer later arrested, was nervous about how authorities may use the unit, having represented people detained throughout a authorities crackdown on opposition members two years earlier. His human rights group, Chapter 4, organized a convention to voice issues, however few individuals attended.

Asubo arrange his new unit inside the finance ministry. He employed investigators from different state companies and purchased software program so they might gather knowledge from banks and overview transfers. He additionally introduced on a number of overseas advisors to assist conduct a nationwide danger evaluation, a key step required by the FATF. This evaluation decided that nonprofits had a “medium/excessive” vulnerability to terrorist financing, the identical as casinos and treasured metallic sellers, the report confirmed.

In 2017, the FATF eliminated Uganda from the gray listing, highlighting its “vital progress.”

However the regulation criminalizing cash laundering and terrorist financing had been barely used. Solely a handful of low-level circumstances had led to prosecutions, in response to a overview of Ugandan prison circumstances and a dozen individuals acquainted with authorities’ efforts. A Ugandan prosecutor, talking anonymously, mentioned there nonetheless was no “political will” to focus on anybody with authorities connections.

Then got here the 2020 run-up to the election.

Police briefly arrested opposition chief Bobi Wine in November, sparking protests which the army dispersed with reside rounds. Opiyo and Chapter 4 drew consideration to alleged extrajudicial killings carried out by police. The federal government has mentioned police used proportionate power to revive order throughout “violent riots” led by “prison parts.”

The monetary intelligence unit ordered banks to freeze accounts belonging to a number of organizations monitoring the election marketing campaign, in response to a number of individuals acquainted with the requests.

Asubo advised Reuters this was for a routine verify and the accounts have been later unfrozen. His unit additionally supplied police with info on Opiyo as a part of an investigation into his funds, he mentioned.

On December 22 of final 12 months, Opiyo was having lunch with a number of colleagues when officers stormed the restaurant and took him away in a van. Two days later, a court docket charged him with cash laundering for receiving, within the identify of Chapter 4, $340,000 in undefined “proceeds of crime.”

Opiyo advised Reuters this was an annual grant from a long-standing donor, American Jewish World Service, a New York-based charity which funds human rights packages all over the world. An AJWS spokesperson confirmed this and mentioned the grants have been in accordance with U.S. and Ugandan legal guidelines.

Opiyo mentioned he believed his arrest was supposed to disrupt his analysis on the election crackdown. “It despatched a powerful and chilling message to civil organisations: No person was protected.”

For every week, Opiyo remained in a most safety jail. He handed the time handing out authorized recommendation to different inmates. After the United Nations referred to as for his launch, a court docket granted him bail and he’s now awaiting trial while the investigation continues. In January, Museveni gained a sixth time period, which Wine denounced as a fraud.





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