By Ameen Izzadeen
Most politicians and the politically connected elite have no conscience and we can say this with certainty just as we say that water flows from a high pressure point to a low pressure point. The Panama Papers that dominate world headlines these days only confirm this. If they have a conscience, how could they grab dirty money and stack them in secret accounts away from their home countries, where millions of people live in poverty?
Tax dodgers and plunders, aren’t they? Yes we know that most of them are plunderers, while others, however good they claim to be, are still accomplices in the crime. It is in the silence of the good that evil thrives.
If only the rogue politicians had a conscience, the fact that they are amassing dirty money would have pricked their heart and justifiably deprived them of their sleep. But this does not seem to have happened. They have no qualms about flying to Panama with bags full of dirty money amassed through commissions and other forms of corruption. They are least bothered that the money they stack away belongs rightfully and mainly to the impoverished people of their countries.
Many politicians named in the scandal may say they have done no wrong, because having offshore accounts or companies is not illegal. But there could be questions about its legitimacy and morality.
While the people are told to tighten their belts, the rich avoid paying taxes, politicians rob the people’s purse and drug lords with political connections make billions. Politicians governing the state say the treasury has no money to raise salaries, pay subsidies and sustain social services. Then they borrow billions from donor nations and commercial banks. In addition, they raise funds by selling dollar bonds. Accounts are cooked and half the money obtained through loans and aid is channeled to their secret foreign accounts in offshore tax havens. It is said that the dirty money hidden in secret accounts exceeds US$ 22.9 trillion or some 30 percent of the global GDP — US$ 77 trillion.
Selfish and avaricious, tax-dodging elite and wealth-hungry politicians do not believe in fair distribution of wealth. Coming to the aid of corrupt politicians and treacherous tax dodgers are offshore law firms. One such firm is the Panama-based Mossack Fonseca and the mannequin or the voluptuous model it displays to attract clients is its pledge of secrecy. Its activities came to light because of a whistleblower who leaked the files to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung in August 2015, saying he wanted to expose criminal wrongdoing.
The firm has, for the past 40 years, remained tightlipped as to who its clients are and how it, with the help of big banks, helps its clients to set up shell companies to open secret bank accounts. One such bank was the global giant HSBC. In December 2012, HSBC Holdings Plc agreed to pay a record $1.92 billion in fines to US authorities for banking lapses and allowing itself to be used to launder drug money flowing out of Mexico. In the current controversy, it is alleged that HSBC and Coutts, the world’s seventh largest bank and wealth manager, have asked Mossack Fonseca to create more than 2,000 offshore companies for their clients. Among the other 500-odd banks involved in the scandal are big names such as UBS, Credit Suisse and Societe Generale.
Swiss banks were once the biggest magnet for dirty money. But following decades of allegations that Swiss banks were a hindrance to combat tax evasion and money laundering, Switzerland last year signed deals with the European Union and the Organisation for Economic Corporation and Development (OECD) to cooperate with investigations.
But long before this agreement was signed, Switzerland had a policy of cooperating with foreign governments if the evidence of corruption was overwhelming. One such case was that of Benazir Bhutto, a former Prime Minister of Pakistan, and her husband Asif Zardari, a former President of Pakistan. It is alleged the Bhuttos had received kickbacks from a Swiss firm that was given the contract to inspect goods entering the Karachi port. The money was sent to a bank account of an offshore company owned by Zardari and his foreign lawyer.
Ironically, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose government pursued the corruption cases against the Bhuttos, himself was exposed this week when the Panama Papers were leaked. Sharif denied any wrongdoing by him or his family members, but the exposé has caused a political storm short of a people’s power uprising in Pakistan.
Pakistan’s cricket legend and opposition politician Imran Khan tweeted: “Only reason ppl open offshore accts through Panama is to either hide wealth, esp ill-gotten wealth, or to evade tax or both.”
In response to the outcry, Sharif in a televised address to the nation on Tuesday said: “I want the truth to be presented to the nation, and for every Pakistani to be aware of the reality behind these allegations.”
It is strange why the Pakistanis who are politically pro-active have not taken to the streets so far. Perhaps, this is because Sharif has appointed a judicial commission to probe the allegations.
But the people of Iceland have no such tolerance for corruption or allegations of corruption. Iceland, the 13th cleanest country on the transparency international index, saw its people gather outside parliament demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson who was one of the 12 present and former state leaders named in the Panama Papers. Admitting, he had connections to a company registered in a Caribbean tax haven, as revealed by the Panama Papers, he resigned on Tuesday.
Among those world leaders implicated in the scandal are Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, whom the West — when it engineered a regime change in 2014 — touted as incorruptible and a man who has Ukraine’s and its people’s interest at heart.
But most Western media, pursuing Cold-War type hostility against Russia, are putting a spin on the Panama Paper revelations to hit out at Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has not been directly named, though his close friends have been.
Also implicated in the scandal are the family members of China’s President Xi Jinping and big names in China’s rising billion dollar state ventures. What is shocking is that in China President Xi is known as an anti-corruption crusader. He has promised zero tolerance of corruption among Communist Party officials and warned that he will go after “both the tigers and the flies”. Since the Panama Papers hit the world headlines, China has curtailed social media discussions on the subject.
If this was a shock, prepare for a bigger shock which will come in early May: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which together with a group of more than 100 global newspapers and tv channels exposed the racket, on Sunday, is still demining the 11.5 million confidential documents that provide detailed information about more than 214,000 offshore companies and their clients. More names will appear and we will know who these money launders are. Yes Mossack Fonseca is just a tip of the iceberg.
(This story first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)