Tag Archives: The Guardian

“The whole truth about the poisoning of Navalny”

*Update August 19, 2021. A message from Alexei Navalny from his prison cell, from The Guardian, “Only action against corruption can solve the world’s biggest problems”(translated by Arch Tait):

Exactly one year ago, I did not die from poisoning by a chemical weapon, and it would seem that corruption played no small part in my survival. Having contaminated Russia’s state system, corruption has also contaminated the intelligence services. When a country’s senior management is preoccupied with protection rackets and extortion from businesses, the quality of covert operations inevitably suffers. A group of FSB agents applied the nerve agent to my underwear just as shoddily as they incompetently dogged my footsteps for three and a half years – in violation of all instructions from above – allowing civil investigating activists to expose them at every turn.

To be fair, a regime based on corruption can perform more elementary tasks to perfection. The judicial system – the first thing autocrats intent on robbing their nation take control of – functions perfectly on a quid pro quo basis. That is why, when I went back to Russia after medical treatment, I was taken straight from the plane to prison. There is not much to celebrate in that, but at least I now have time to read the memoirs of world leaders.

In those books, the world’s leaders write terribly interestingly about how they solved the main problems facing humankind: wars, poverty, migration, the climate crisis, weapons of mass destruction. These are the issues on the “big agenda”. The fight against corruption, on the other hand, rarely figures as part of what they hope will be their legacy. This is not surprising; it is a “secondary agenda” item.

Amazingly enough, though, corruption nearly always merits a mention when the world’s leaders are describing failures – whether their own or, more commonly, those of their predecessors.

“We spent years, hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of human lives in Iraq [or Afghanistan, you name it] – but the corrupt government of al-Maliki [or Karzai, you name them] alienated the people with its thieving, opening the path to victory to radicals armed with slogans about honest, fair government and RPGs.”

This leads to an obvious question. Guys, if corruption is preventing us from finding solutions to the problems of the “big agenda”, has the time perhaps come to raise it to a priority on that agenda?

It is not difficult to see why that has not already been done. Corruption is a tricky issue to discuss at global summits. Suppose you are discussing Syria and cyber-attacks with Vladimir Putin. Everyone finds that interesting, everyone knows where they are. At the concluding news conference everyone will have something to say.

Now imagine a meeting with Putin on the issue of corruption. The very fact it has been raised represents a move to personalities. The whole thing, from start to finish, is awkward. The richest leader in the world, who has fleeced his own country, is being invited to discuss how to deal with the problem of himself. Very tricky, very awkward.

Now turn on the news. It is precisely the fact that the west “failed to notice” the total corruption in Afghanistan – that western leaders preferred not to talk about a topic they found embarrassing – which was the most crucial factor in the victory of the Taliban (with the support of the population). The west did not want to discuss the plundering of the budget; it was much better to focus on people being stoned to death or execution by beheading.

After the implosion of the USSR and the end of the global ideological confrontation, it was corruption – in its classical definition, “the exploitation of an official position for personal gain” – that became the universal, ideology-free basis for the flourishing of a new Authoritarian International, from Russia to Eritrea, Myanmar to Venezuela. And corruption has long ceased to be merely an internal problem of those countries. It is almost invariably one of the main causes of the global challenges that face the west.

A new “hot” war in Europe with the use of airstrikes and artillery? That is Putin taking revenge on Ukraine for the anti-corruption revolution that deposed his protege, Viktor Yanukovych. Religious extremists of all stripes find it easier to conduct propaganda when their opponents are driving Rolls-Royces through the streets of penniless countries. Migration crises are caused by poverty, and poverty is almost always caused by corruption.

“It’s just as well climate change is unrelated to corruption!” you may ironically reflect. I invite you to say that in the face of the millions of hectares of Siberian forest that burn every year because of barbaric total clearance, violating the fire regulations for forest management. I am reluctant to make this prediction, but fear the next big terrorist attack will not be just another bomb blast by religious fanatics but, for example, a chemical weapon in the water supply network of a major city or a devastating attack on the IT infrastructure of an entire country, and that those commissioning the terrorism will be one or other of the people in possession of a golden palace. The reason for perpetrating it will be to divert the world’s attention from golden palaces to global security issues.

So it is not we who should feel awkward about confronting corrupt authoritarians with tough questions and getting personal but, on the contrary, they who should know that their shady dealings will invariably be the main focus of discussion at world summits. That would be a crucial step towards eliminating the root cause of many “big” issues.

OK, but what are we supposed to do? Surely there isn’t much that people in Washington or Berlin can do to combat the corruption of officials in Minsk or Caracas?

True, but it is also the case that an important aspect of corruption in authoritarian countries is the use it makes of the west’s financial infrastructure – and in 90% of cases, what has been stolen is stored in the west. An official working for an autocrat knows better than anyone how important it is to keep his capital well away from his colleagues and boss.

All it takes to get started is for western leaders to show determination and political will. The first step is for corruption to be transformed from a source of limitless opportunities into an onerous burden for at least some of the elites surrounding autocrats. That will split them, and increase the voices in favour of modernisation and scaling back corruption – who will be strengthened and provided with new arguments to put forward in elite circles.

The following five steps are entirely realistic, easy to implement, and can make a highly effective start to combating global corruption.

First, the west should formulate and recognise a special category of “countries that encourage corruption”, which will enable the taking of uniform measures against groups of countries, rather than imposing sanctions on particular states.

Second, the main sanction – the main tax on corruption, if you will – for this group of countries should be “enforced transparency”. All documentation relating to contracts concluded between western companies and partners from countries representing corruption risks should be published if the contracts are to the slightest degree connected with the state, its officials, or their relatives.

You work for a state-owned company in a country at high risk of corruption and want to buy a villa on the French Riviera? Fine, go ahead, but you should know that all the information about the deal will be publicly available. You want to have dealings with an official in Minsk or the aunt of a Russian governor? No problem, but you will have to publish the entire paper trail of the transaction, and will no longer be able to conceal the bribe you pay through that “regional representative” or “local partner”.

Third, combating corruption without combating corrupt individuals is the merest hypocrisy and undermines voters’ trust. Until personal sanctions are imposed on oligarchs, primarily those in the entourage of Putin – the role model for all the world’s corrupt officials and businessmen – any anti-corruption rhetoric from the west will be perceived as game-playing and hot air.

There is nothing more frustrating than reading the latest sanctions list, replete with the names of intelligence service colonels and generals nobody has ever heard of, but meticulously cleared of the people in whose interests these colonels act. The west needs to free itself of a semantic mindset where the label “businessman” acts as an indulgence, making it very difficult for them to figure on sanctions lists. Putin’s oligarchs, those heading “state-owned” companies and companies that are formally private but whose prosperity is linked to Putin’s group, are not businessmen but leaders of organised crime groups. At present, alas, the western establishment acts like Pavlov’s dog: you show them a colonel of the intelligence services and they yell, “Sanction him!”; you show them the oligarch paying the colonel, and they yell, “Invite him to Davos!”

Fourth, the US, UK and Germany already have excellent tools for combating foreign corruption, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the Bribery Act, and so on. Guess how many cases have been brought following reports by our Anti-Corruption Foundation, now categorised as an extremist organisation by Putin’s government?

That’s right, none. The sad fact is that even western law enforcement agencies treat corrupt foreign officials with kid gloves. With a little political will on the part of the government (and pressure from public opinion) that situation can be put right.

Fifth, obstructing the export of political corruption clearly deserves the establishment of an international body or commission. Take a look at what is going on right now. By investing relatively small sums of money, the redoubtable Putin is buying up extreme-right and extreme-left movements throughout Europe – turning their politicians into oligarchs and agents of his own. Legalised bribery is flourishing, often in the form of board memberships at state-owned companies. A former German chancellor, or a former Italian prime minister, or a former Austrian foreign minister, can act as background dancers for the Russian dictator, normalising corrupt practices. All contracts linking former or current western politicians with business partners from corrupt authoritarian countries should also have to be open to public scrutiny.

These are first steps, but even they will have a significant impact, creating elite groups within authoritarian countries for whom campaigning to reduce levels of corruption will become a rational choice.

No money, no soldiers, no reconfiguration of industry or world politics are needed in order to start taking action. Only political will – which, unfortunately, is often in short supply. Public opinion and the wishes of voters are what can finally get things moving. Then some day world leaders will be able to write in their memoirs that they solved many major problems on the “big agenda” simply by eliminating their root cause – without troops, without billions of dollars, and without wasted decades.

Misleading Conduct? US and UK Intelligence Obstruct Justice of UN Investigation

Vlado's casket Geneva Lutheran Church

From Julian Borger’s Guardian article, 24 August 2016, “Dag Hammarskjold: Ban Ki-moon seeks to appoint investigator for fatal crash”:

“[…]Ban [Ki-moon] noted that the UK had stuck to its position last year that it had no further documentation to show the UN investigation. He appended a letter sent in June by the British permanent representative to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, saying “our position remains the same and we are not able to release the materials in question without any redactions”.

Rycroft added “the total amount of information withheld is very small and most of the redactions only consist of a few words”.

The wording of the letter echoed a similar letter, turning down the UN request for more information, the UK sent in June 2015, which said that “no pertinent material” had been found in a “search across all relevant UK departments”.

In reply the UN legal counsel, Miguel de Serpa Soares, reminded Rycroft of the shared responsibility of the UN and its member states “to pursue the full truth” about Hammarskjold’s death, and asked him to confirm that the search of “all relevant UK departments” included security and intelligence agencies.

In reply, Rycroft simply quoted the former UK foreign secretary Philip Hammond telling parliament that the foreign office had “coordinated a search across all relevant UK departments”.

“I think the British response is extraordinary. It’s very brisk and curt and evasive,” said Susan Williams, a British historian at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, whose book Who Killed Hammarskjold: The UN, The Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa, revealed new evidence that helped persuade the UN to open a new investigation into the crash near Ndola, in what was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia.

Part of that evidence was a report from a British intelligence officer, Neil Ritchie, who was in the area at the time of the crash and who was trying to organise a meeting between Hammarskjold and a rebel leader from neighbouring Congo, where the UN secretary general was trying to broker a truce.

“This was British territory and they had a man on the ground. It doesn’t make them responsible for the crash but it does indicate they knew a lot of what was going on,” Williams said, adding it was “highly unlikely” that Ritchie’s report which she found in an archive at Essex University, was the only British intelligence report coming the area at the time.”

On 28 August 2016, Dr Mandy Banton (Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Commonwealth Studies), Henning Melber (Senior adviser/director emeritus, The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation), and David Wardrop (Chairman, United Nations Association Westminster Branch) published letters together in the Guardian, “UK’s lack of transparency over plane crash that killed Dag Hammarskjold”. From Melber:

“The US and British responses to the efforts by the United Nations to further explore the circumstances of the plane crash at Ndola should be an embarrassment to all citizens in these countries (and elsewhere), who have an interest in seeking clarification of what happened. The reports so far already present sufficient evidence that there is more to it than what the official government responses are willing to admit.

This form of denial through non-compliance with legitimate demands for access to information is tantamount to obstruction and sabotages the sincere efforts to bring closure to one of the unsolved cases involving western states and their security operations. Such an arrogant attitude further dents the image of those who claim to be among civilized nations then and now.”

From 2 September 2016, here is an excerpt from Justice Richard Goldstone’s letter to the Guardian, “Hammarskjold case is not yet closed”:

“[…]it is highly likely that some member states of the UN, especially but not only the US, hold records or transcripts of cockpit transmissions in the minutes before the plane came down. If so, these may well put the cause of the crash, whatever it was, beyond doubt. But neither the US National Security Agency, which has gradually resiled from its admission to our commission that it held two relevant records, nor, as Dr Banton’s letter (29 August) suggests, the UK government, has so far responded with any vigour to the secretary-general’s plea for cooperation.”

From the 6 September 2016 New York Times, “Release the Records on Dag Hammarskjold’s Death”, written by The Rt. Hon. Sir Stephen Sedley:

“There was also evidence that the N.S.A. was monitoring the airwaves in the Ndola region, almost certainly from one of two American aircraft parked on the tarmac. Our inquiry therefore asked the agency for any relevant records it held of local radio traffic before the crash. The agency replied that it had three records “responsive” to our request but that two of those were classified top secret and would not be disclosed.

At its close, my commission recommended that the United Nations follow up this lead. The General Assembly appointed a three-person panel, which repeated our request to the N.S.A. This time, the agency replied that the two documents were not transcripts of radio messages as Southall had described and offered to let one of the panel members, the Australian aviation expert Kerryn Macaulay, see them. This she did, reporting that the documents contained nothing relevant to the cause of the crash.

This makes it difficult to understand how those two documents were initially described as “responsive” to a request explicitly for records of radio intercepts, or why they were classified top secret. It raises doubts about whether the documents shown to Ms. Macaulay were, in fact, the documents originally identified by the N.S.A. The recent denial that there is any record of United States Air Force planes’ being present at Ndola increases the impression of evasiveness.”

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From the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA) website, “What You Should Know About Obstruction of Justice”:
“Q: Does obstruction of justice always involve bribery or physical force?
A: No. One particularly murky category of obstruction is the use of “misleading conduct” toward another person for the purpose of obstructing justice. “Misleading conduct” may consist of deliberate lies or “material omissions” (leaving out facts which are crucial to a case). It may also include knowingly submitting or inviting a judge or jury to rely on false or misleading physical evidence, such as documents, maps, photographs or other objects. Any other “trick, scheme, or device with intent to mislead” may constitute a “misleading conduct” form of obstruction.”