(Updates with Mokas comment in fourth paragraph)
By Stelios Orphanides
The Cyprus branch of Tanzania’s FBME Bank Ltd may have assisted the Syrian regime in financing and developing its chemical weapons programme by facilitating transactions between a number of shell companies worth hundreds of million dollars which should have raised red flags, a report suggests.
Balec Ventures Limited, a company registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and its owner Issa al-Zeydi, a Syrian national, appear to have played a central role in by-passing US sanctions against Syria, according to a report produced by the London-based accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY) and obtained by the Cyprus Business Mail. EY identified Balec’s link to the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Centre (SSRC), responsible for the development of chemical weapons for Bashar al-Assad’s regime, after the US placed al-Zeydi on its sanctions list.
Balec, registered at P.O. Box 3321, Drake Chambers, Road Town, Tortola, shared the same BVI address with five other companies with mainly Russian or Belorussian ultimate beneficial owners (UBO), and Tredwell Marketing Ltd, the EY report said. The Central Bank of Cyprus (CBC) appears to have suspected Tredwell -which was transacting with Balec and the other five companies- of being linked to SSRC, according to the EY report.
EY did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the authenticity of the report. The Central Bank of Cyprus was not immediately available for comment. The anti-money laundering squad Mokas said that it was unaware of the existence of the report.
The other companies, EY identified for sharing the same address with Balec and Tredwell, were Maribo Group Ltd, Paramia Ltd, GloBalance Group, Osborn Holdings Inc (all operating from Russia with Russian UBOs) and Sunhouse Consulting (operating from Belarus with a Byelorussian UBO).
According to the US Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council directives, uniform standards for federal examinations of financial institutions in the US, “transacting businesses (that) share the same address, or have other address inconsistencies,” are reason for raising a “red flag” for compliance officers in banking.
“Issa Al-Zeydi is the sole ultimate beneficiary of the account, holds a Russian passport, was born in Syria and maintains a Russian address,” EY said in their report. A review revealed that Al-Zeydi’s passport listed Moscow, as his address. Balec’s operating address was Office 31, House 14, Gubkina Street, Moscow, Russia, according to the EY report.
Law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP commissioned the EY report on behalf of FBME. EY looked into 11 notices of finding by the Finance Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN), a branch of the US Treasury which in July 2014 described FBME as a financial institution of primary laundering concern. FinCEN barred US banks from opening and maintaining correspondent accounts with FBME. The “confidential” EY report is dated December 5, 2014.
FBME challenged at US courts FinCEN’s findings and decision by imposing the fifth measure under the US Patriot Act, to shut it out from the US financial system.
In October 2014, the US included al-Zeydi, together with Ioannis Ioannou, a Cypriot national, and two Cyprus-based companies, Piruseti Enterprises Ltd and Frumineti Investments Ltd, in the list of specially designated nationals of the US Department of Treasury, citing support, including “financial, material, or technological” to the Assad regime on behalf of which they acted. Piruseti and Frumineti were not FBME customers.
“FBME facilitates U.S. sanctions evasion through its extensive customer base of shell companies,” said FinCEN in July 2014 in its notice of finding in relation to the Syrian regime’s SSRC. “For example, at least one FBME customer is a front company for a U.S.-sanctioned Syrian entity, the SSRC, which has been designated as a proliferator of weapons of mass destruction. The SSRC front company used its FBME account to process transactions through the U.S. financial system”.
The FinCEN report prompted the Central Bank of Cyprus to place the FBME Cyprus branch under administration and subsequently resolution. In 2015, the CBC fined FBME €1.2m for failing to adhere to the provisions of anti-money laundering legislation and revoked its licence.
According to FinCEN, the SSRC front company -which in July 2014 it did not name-, “also shared a Tortola, British Virgin Islands address with at least 111 other shell companies, including at least one other additional FBME customer that is subject to international sanctions”.
The EY report was shared with FinCEN, the US Department of Justice, the Bank of Tanzania, which supervised FBME Bank Ltd, the Central Bank of Cyprus, supervisor of FBME Bank (Cyprus) Ltd, the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Commission. The last three bodies were overseeing Cyprus’s bailout programme at the time, which included provisions for tougher measures against money laundering.
As a result of the stricter anti-money laundering rules put in place, Cyprus scored best among a list of 12 analysed countries -including the US, UK, Germany and Australia- in a February 2017 report prepared by the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
“The Bank (FBME) identified Tredwell from a list of 9 FBME customers for which the CBC requested past files from FBME on 08/07/2014 (August 7, 2014),” EY said in their report. “FBME noted that on the list received from the CBC, the comment “SSRC?” was written next to Tredwell”.
On March 19, 2014, five months before the central bank inquired about Tredwell at FBME, Tredwell closed its account and transferred its funds to Armas Marketing Ltd. The UBO of Armas was Ruben Nadra, a Syrian with a Russian Passport, who happened to be Tredwell’s former UBO, while its address was in Seychelles.
On April 10, 2014, the FBME compliance department closed Maribo’s account. It also froze Balec’s account on October 17, and did the same with that of Osborn on May 29, 2014. GloBalance closed its account on May 10, 2011, while by the time of the completion of the report, the Paramia and Sunhouse accounts were open when the report was completed.
The US and other western countries blamed Assad, an ally of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for the August 2013 attacks with chemical weapons in Ghouta, an area east of Damascus, in which hundreds of civilians lost their lives. The Russian government disputed that Assad, involved for more than six years in a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions, was responsible for the attack.
“The business operates in the dealings of securities and shares and has reflected an expected turnover on the account of approximately $10m annually since account inception,” EY said in reference to Balec which included in its business profile other activities such as the wholesale sale of textiles, steel, construction equipment supplies and other goods.
After Balec opened an account at FBME on December 4, 2006, it carried out from that date until July 18, 2014 transactions with other 50 FBME customers, entities and individuals, worth $255.4m (€232.5m), the report said. The firm also carried out additional transactions with other 342 non-FBME customers in the same period totalling $252.6m. The sum of all transactions carried out through FBME totalled $508m.