By Shinovene Immanuel and Tileni Mongudhi | 24 February 2021
SWITZERLAND has alerted the Namibian government to look into N$21 million paid to lawyer Sisa Namandje’s firm by Russian billionaire Rashid Sardarov in 2018.
The country, known for its secrecy when it comes to financial transactions, has offered to assist local authorities in investigating the transaction and giving Namibia access to Sardarov’s Swiss bank accounts.
This is set out in voluntary disclosure letters from the Swiss government and reports submitted to its Namibian counterparts since June last year. Three Namibian state agencies and ministries have confirmed looking into the matter.
Questions sent to Sardarov have not been answered. Namandje – who often responds on behalf of Sardarov – yesterday said he did not get permission to speak on behalf of the Russian businessman.
He said he needed more time to determine if he can answer for Sardarov.
He, however, denied any wrongdoing.
“There was absolutely nothing wrong with that transaction,” he said.
Namandje was Sardarov’s lead lawyer when the Russian bought and donated four farms, valued at N$43 million, near Dordabis, south-east of Windhoek, to the government in 2018.
In exchange, Sardarov leased the farms from the government for 99 years. The Russian now owns seven farms and rents five farms in Namibia.
Sardarov paid Namandje N$21 million on 28 September 2018 for legal fees, “consultancy, agency and due diligence work”.
This was the same day on which Sardarov acquired the four farms for the government.
Namandje also did legal work on Sardarov’s oil refinery and oil desalination plant projects.
Sisa Namandje & Co allegedly used most of the N$21 million from Sardarov to reduce its mortgage at Bank Windhoek for the construction of its head office in Windhoek in 2018.
President Hage Geingob inaugurated the company’s head office – valued at about N$30 million – in December 2018.
Documents seen by The Namibian show that Swiss officials contacted Namibian officials last year to tip them off about possible irregularities involving the money paid to Namandje.
Executive director of international relations and cooperation Penda Naanda on Wednesday confirmed that the ministry has received communication from the Swiss authorities.
“In December 2020, [the] Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation received an invitation from the Swiss embassy in Pretoria to request Switzerland for mutual legal assistance,” Naanda said.
“The information was shared with the Ministry of Justice, which took up the matter with the Swiss authorities,” he added.
Namibia’s executive director of justice, Gladice Pickering, on Wednesday confirmed that the justice ministry, as the central authority in the matter, is cooperating with the Swiss authorities.
Pickering said her ministry was not in a position to reveal further information due to confidentiality.
The Swiss transaction was said to be questioned by the Financial Intelligence Centre in 2019, although the said FIC inquiry is believed to be independent of the latest investigation.
Bank of Namibia spokesperson Kazembire Zemburuka yesterday said the FIC is aware of the Swiss’ request.
“In line with its mandate, the FIC has made information available to relevant law-enforcement agencies,” Zemburuka said.
He said the confidentiality around assistance requests, as well as restrictions contained in the Financial Intelligence Act, prohibits the FIC from responding to questions on specific details.
Namandje’s supporters claim the under-fire lawyer is being singled out, while other lawyers, who are making millions of dollars from similar deals, are not scrutinised.
They also said the FIC has for years flagged several transactions involving law firms, but Namandje’s transaction appears to receive more public attention.
Documents seen by The Namibian show that Switzerland’s attorney general’s office wrote to Namibian authorities on 22 June 2020.
Switzerland’s federal prosecutor, Davide Francesconi, said their officials detected a suspicious transaction of around US$1,5 million (N$21 million) paid to Namandje on 28 September 2018.
Francesconi said the payment was made by Comsar Properties – owned by Sardarov – to Sisa Namandje & Co Inc.
Sardarov’s Swiss bank account at Bank Julius Bar & Co Ltd was used for the transaction.
“It cannot be ruled out that this payment is to be linked to the suspicion of corruption in connection with obtaining, under the form of a tenancy, the four additional ranches [farms] in Namibia,” Francesconi said.
He said the N$21 million transfer took place at the same time as the Namibian government’s authorisation to acquire the four farms.
“In light of the above, there is sufficient suspicion that infringements within your jurisdiction have been committed, and that evidence and/or assets relating to such infringements are available in Switzerland,” Francesconi said.
He said the Swiss government “remains at your disposal if, based on the above elements, the competent authorities deem it appropriate to send a letter rogatory to Switzerland”.
“It should be noted that, in the event of a request for the seizure of assets in Switzerland, it will be necessary to explain how the calculation of the funds to be frozen was carried out as well as the applicable legal basis,” Francesconi said.
Laura Schurr from Switzerland’s Federal Office of Justice also wrote a letter of explanation on the same day to support Francesconi. Schurr said Switzerland probed Sardarov.
She said during the course of their investigation, the office of Switzerland’s attorney general gathered information that may be of interest for the Namibian authorities.
“If the Namibian authorities are interested in receiving further information and evidence concerning the above-mentioned matter or in requesting the seizure of assets, the Swiss authorities should be provided with a request for mutual legal assistance,” Schurr said.
This transaction appears to haunt Namandje, whose firm has also been implicated in the Fishrot corruption scandal.
His firm was accused of being used to launder up to N$17,5 million in taxpayers’ funds from the state-owned National Fishing Corporation of Namibia (Fishcor).
Namandje has for years defended Sardarov, saying the Russian billionaire has good intentions to create jobs in Namibia.