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Congo president’s $19m seized in San Marino after ‘spending more than $2m on watches and crocodile shoes’

One of Africa’s longest-serving presidents has been accused of laundering €19million (about 20 million dollars), using shell accounts in Europe.

The republic of San Marino, a small country landlocked by Italy, launched an investigation into a money-laundering scheme allegedly masterminded by Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso.

According to the Telegraph, President Nguesso and his co-conspirators diverted €69 million ($76 million) to San Marino from 2006 to 2011 and the country has been able to confiscate €19 million ($20 million), which is reported to be one of the biggest amounts to be seized by the republic.

Nguesso allegedly used the money to fund his overly extravagant lifestyle. He bought a pair of crocodile skin shoes for a whopping €114,000 ($125,000) and with his taste for the fine things in life, he spent €2.3 million ($2 million) on watches.

Presiding over a former French colony, the Congolese leader often travelled to Paris, allegedly paying €11,000 ($12,000) a night in hotels.

To divert attention from his money laundering schemes, the money was kept in 36 different accounts making his relatives account holders, the investigations said. For the people of San Marino, this bust is a big win for them because they are keeping the seized funds.

Nicola Renzi, the country’s foreign minister, said: “This was an important result which crowns the investigations by the courts of the Republic of San Marino. It demonstrates our capacity to fight against international money laundering.”

Nguesso’s family name has been involved in several corruption allegations. In August, an investigation revealed that the son of Congo’s president, Christel Sassou-Nguesso, has misappropriated $50 million of public money by routing it through shell companies and secrecy jurisdictions.

According to Global Witness, six countries in the EU, the U.S. state of Delaware, and the British Virgin Islands, all played a key role in Denis-Christel Sassou-Nguesso’s scheme.

The campaign group said the money was siphoned off through an apparent sham contract the Congo-Brazzaville had with a Brazilian infrastructure company.

The alleged embezzlement dates from 2013 and 2014 and is linked to the Cypriots Companies that are secretly owned by Sassou-Nguesso.

The money-laundering scheme said to have been used by Sassou-Nguesso, an MP, as well as, the son and namesake of the man who has spent 35 years as president, is similar to the one his sister Claudia allegedly used to steal $20m of state funds, part of which she used to buy a luxury apartment in the Trump Tower in New York; allegations she has denied.

Investigators obtained documents that they said showed $675m left Congo-Brazzaville’s treasury, and that sums totalling more than $50 million subsequently went through companies in Delaware and the British Virgin Islands before reaching Cyprus.

Global Witness said Cypriot companies, which are secretly owned by Sassou-Nguesso, received the money through which he used it to make payments to companies based in Poland, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.

“As we followed the trail of money we found that it was funnelled through several jurisdictions which pride themselves on having strong anti-money laundering regimes, such as the EU and the US,” said Mariana Abreu, who led the investigation.

Congo-Brazzaville has large oil reserves, but almost half of its people live in poverty.

A Portuguese businessman, José Veiga, who is already under investigation for corruption, allegedly facilitated part of the money-laundering, by helping secure public works contracts in Congo-Brazzaville for the Brazilian company Asperbras.

According to Global Witness, Asperbras was contracted to carry out a geological survey, and subcontracted part of the work to a Cypriot company called Gabox Limited, despite the fact that Gabox had been set up just two days before the deal was signed, and had no employees or capital.

Gabox was to receive 25% of what Asperbras got from the Congolese government – $50m of the $200m that the Swiss NGO Public Eye said the project was worth.

Veiga, who is a former director of Benfica football club and was reportedly known as the “Portuguese wizard” of the Congolese president, was briefly arrested in 2016 as part of an investigation, still ongoing, into money laundering and international corruption.

He was released after three months in jail and a further two under house arrest. In 2017, responding to the Public Eye investigation, Veiga denied all the allegations against him, saying everything he had done was legal.

Documents obtained by Global Witness allegedly show that in November 2013, a department responsible for managing Congo-Brazzaville’s treasury transferred roughly $675m to a Delaware-based Asperbras subsidiary called Asperbras LLC, seemingly for major public works contracts.

According to Global Witness, 11 days later, Veiga set up a company in Cyprus called Gabox Ltd. Two days later, said Global Witness, this company signed a contract with Energy & Mining, an Asperbras LLC subsidiary based in the British Virgin Islands, ostensibly to carry out part of a geological mapping project in Congo-Brazzaville.

Global Witness, which has long campaigned for public registers of beneficial ownership in jurisdictions where it is difficult to ascertain who really owns companies, said the investigation showed that there were major gaps in the implementation of anti-corruption measures in European countries.

Earlier this year the anti-corruption NGO Global Witness also released documents that showed that the daughter of the president of Congo-Brazzaville had allegedly misappropriated public funds to buy a luxury apartment in the Donald Trump residential and hotel complex in New York.

Claudia Sassou-Nguesso, who is also the president’s director of communications, allegedly purchased the $7 million apartment in Manhattan in the summer of 2014, raising new concerns about Trump’s ties to international money laundering.

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