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Dodgy company behind corrupt passports deal

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LITHUANIAN company Garsu Pasaulis —which was controversially awarded a contract to produce e-passports by the Zimbabwean government under a murky deal — is a dodgy entity previously implicated in bribery allegations and corruption in Asia and several African countries.

OWEN GAGARE

It has also emerged that CBZ Bank, which will collect passport fees, will reap huge benefits in yet another unclear associated-party arrangement.

The shady passport deal has immediately raised a stink, choking transparency and accountability in public affairs.

The company owner, a Belgian national, has also been investigated in Belgium and the Comoros Islands for corruption.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Tuesday launched the country’s e-passport at the registry offices at Chiwashira Building in Harare.

This immediately raised suspicions as the late former president Robert Mugabe also launched a similar e-passport project in April 2016.

Nikuv International, which rigged the 2013 general elections in Zimbabwe, was producing the electronic passports that most Zimbabweans currently hold.

In a bid to justify the stinking deal, Mnangagwa said the e-passport would enhance security by preventing identity theft and forgery.

But the current e-passports already have those features. Mnangagwa added that the move was in line with the government’s vision to modernise the  economy through the application of advanced information communication technology systems.

Under the new deal, an ordinary passport will cost US$100, while an application fee of US$20,  processed through CBZ Bank, will also be required, bringing the total cost of acquiring the travel document to US$120.

The government gave current passport holders two years in which to acquire e-passports — after announcing that current passports will cease being acceptable on 31 December 2023, in a move seen by the majority of Zimbabweans as a rent-seeking manoeuvre aimed at fleecing the public.

It has, however, emerged that the company awarded the controversial contract has been embroiled in controvesy in Kyrgyzstan — a landlocked country in Central Asia bordering Kazakhstan, China, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — where it was accused of corruption, including bribery.

Its parent company and owners have been involved in controversy in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea Bissau and the Comoros.

In Kyrgyzstan, the company in 2019 won a 940 million soms (US$13.4 million) tender for the production of e-passports, but the country’s state security agency, GKNB, implicated government officials in the deal for accepting bribes in the form of payment for international travel.

Some officials from the State Registry Service, the agency that issues passports to citizens and put out the tender, were detained as a result.

Just like in Zimbabwe, the prices of passports shot up dramatically when the company took over production. They have risen from US$53 for the normal passport to US$100, although passport seekers will effectively pay US$120, given the US$20 application fee.

An investigation by Kyrgyzstan web outlet Kloop and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which scrutinised the tender procedure and analysed several documents, showed that Garsu Pasaulis, “appears to have been treated extremely leniently by the commission in charge of evaluating it, which consisted largely of State Registry Service officials”.

“Not only did the commission overlook Garsu Pasaulis’s failure to meet certain requirements — while disqualifying its main competitor on similar grounds — it also failed to evaluate the company’s bid on an important metric on which it would have fallen even further short,” the report reads in part.

“The documents further show that Garsu Pasaulis’s offer would result in higher passport prices for citizens. Reporters also looked into the ownership of Garsu Pasaulis, finding a Belgian company and Belgian citizen behind it. Both are reportedly under investigation in Belgium and the Comoros Islands for corruption involving passport contracts in the Congo and the illegal sale of identification documents.”

The company’s director, Ana Janauskiene, denied paying any bribes to Kyrgyzstani officials, at the time, although she admitted the company paid for some of their travel, speculating that it could have been business-related.

Five foreign companies had applied for the passport booklets tender, which was announced in October 2018.

“Three were rejected by the tender commission for failing to meet bid requirements. Of the remaining two — Garsu Pasaulis and a French competitor, IDEMIAFrance — the Lithuanian company won because it had submitted a lower bid,” the report reads.

“But an analysis by reporters shows that the same criteria were applied differently to different bidders. In particular, Garsu Pasaulis appears to have sailed through requirements that the others were disqualified for not meeting.

“One key criterion, meant to evaluate a company’s experience with large passport orders, was for bidders to have completed at least two projects and delivered at least 2 million booklets over the previous five years. To substantiate their claims, they were asked to provide copies of contracts, proofs of delivery containing exact figures, and reference letters.”

Although Garsu Pasaulis provided all the required documentation, its total number of delivered passports over the five-year period was under two million.

The report says to rise above the minimum requirement, the company included documents showing deliveries that took place over an additional eight-month period, an irregularity that appeared to have gone unremarked by the tender commission.

German company Mühlbauer and IDEMIAFrance complained to a separate review commission about the tender process, after Garsu Pasaulis was awarded the tender, although none of the appeals were succesful.

“In their own complaint, IDEMIAFrance had attempted to draw the review commission’s attention to the legal problems Garsu Pasaulis was experiencing in Belgium. Though it submitted links to news articles about the Belgian investigation, the commission rejected their complaint,” the report says.

The report further says since 2014 the company has been owned by Albert Karaziwan, a Belgian citizen, and Semlex Europe, a company operated by him and owned at least in part by him and his family.

Reuters reported that the Semlex head office was searched in January 2018 after the news agency published two reports examining the company’s activities in Africa involving a controversial contract in the Congo.

“About a third of the money from the Congo contract is alleged to have gone to an offshore company owned by a close relative of Joseph Kabila, the country’s president at the time. A separate inquiry by a parliamentary commission in the Comoros investigated the role of Semlex in illegally selling Comoros identification documents to foreigners who are suspected to be security threats by various countries,” the report reads.

Reuters also said the company had received other contracts without tenders and sometimes through political connections.

“In 2006, for example, Semlex reportedly won a passport, visa, ID card, and foreign residency card contract in Guinea-Bissau after making payments to the country’s defence minister,” the article says.

Janauskiene, Garsu Pasaulis’s director, however, dismissed the allegations against Semlex, its parent company. “Those were absolutely groundless articles ordered by competitors,” she said.

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