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BAHRAIN: King fires minister in wake of international money-laundering probe

March 23, 2010 | 11:15 am


A multimillion-dollar international money-laundering scheme allegedly involving a senior Bahraini official and believed to involve several countries has gripped the island emirate and stunned Bahrainis.

In the latest development in the row, Bahrain's king Sheikh Hamad bin Isa, decided Monday night to sack the country's minister of state, Mansoor bin Rajab, who is being investigated for alleged money laundering activities at home and abroad, media reports say.  

The king did not give a reason for Rajab's sudden firing. But he issued a decree saying that the 55-year-old minister was relieved of his duties as of Tuesday.

Rajab confirmed his dismissal in a telephone interview with the pan-Arab news channel Al-Arabiya but he vehemently denied accusations that he had been involved in shady business dealings.

"My dismissal is perhaps aimed at facilitating the ongoing investigation," the Reuters news agency quoted Rajab as telling Al-Arabiya.  "I have the right to defend myself ... and the accusations are completely untrue," he said.

But the tainted minister finds himself at the center of a probe into a murky money-laundering network that is just starting to unravel and creating a media storm with speculations flying on the size of the scheme.  

The amount of money involved in the scheme remains unconfirmed but most reports say it exceeds $12 million. Others, however, estimate the amount of money laundered at as high as $80 million.

Theories as to where the money might have ended up has also started to surge in local media reports.

The United Arab Emirates-based daily Gulf News quoted a report from the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Watan saying that the money-laundering activities included the funneling of money from drug and narcotics sales from Colombia, Azerbaijan and eastern China through the Bahraini minister to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Gulf News cited no source in reference to the Iran allegations other than Al-Watan.

Another report by the Bahraini Al-Bilad newspaper said that the country's security services had confronted Rajab with photos of Bahraini military facilities that the minister allegedly sent to Iranian security sources.

"Bahraini security staff presented to Mansoor Bin Rajab, the state minister, and to the head of his office an electronic device containing pictures of sensitive military locations that had been sent to Iranian security contacts," the Al Bilad report said, also cited in Gulf News without no other source but the newspaper.

Sectarian tensions remain in the island kingdom of Bahrain, where the U.S-backed Sunni-dominated government is nervous about the country's Shiite majority, which is sympathetic to co-religionists in Iran and among Lebanese Hezbollah.

Local press reports also claim other arrests have been made in connection with the affair, including in Kuwait and Dubai.

Al-Watan said that the scheme involved various countries in the Persian Gulf and beyond and that a 45-year-old Kuwaiti woman had been interrogated over her alleged role in the Bahraini money-laundering affair.

But the head of public prosecution in Bahrain, Nawaf Hamzah, has dismissed the majority of the media reports as mere speculation, according to The National newspaper. He said that the findings of the investigation will soon be ready and released.

It was Thursday that Rajab and some of his staff were first questioned and temporarily detained. The police then raided both the offices and homes of the minister and his office manager.

A number of computers were apparently seized from Rajab's office and the minister will be summoned for a second interrogation session next week once investigators have finished going through the computers' contents, said Bahraini media reports.

Rajab's arrest came after a yearlong investigation. The Bahraini Interior ministry said investigators had closely monitored their activities inside Bahrain and abroad, including through phone-tapping.

"The arrest took place after intensive investigations by the Anti-Money Laundering Directorate, which has legal permission to use monitoring and recording techniques," the Saudi-based English-language daily Arab News quoted assistant undersecretary of legal affairs at the Ministry of Interior, Mohammed Rashid Buhamood as saying in a statement.  "His phone calls and meetings with his associates were tapped."

Reports have also surfaced that western security apparatus, including the French, were involved in the Bahraini authorities' investigation into the minister.

This is the first time a senior official is arrested on corruption charges in Bahrain, which happens to be the home to the regional headquarters of the international anti-money-laundering watchdog Financial Action Task Force. The Bahraini penal code reportedly carries a minimum punishment of five years in jail and a fine for money-laundering.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Bahrain's minister of state, Mansoor bin Rajab, was sacked by the Bahraini  king Monday and is being investigated in a multimillion-dollar money-laundering scheme. He is seen here at his home in Manama, Bahrain receiving visitors Friday. Credit: EPA