The missing $50m: Seychelles gears up for historic high-profile trial
Nine people – including a former first lady, ex-generals and top officials – face charges of stealing aid in 2002 and storing illicit firearms.
In recent months, the Seychelles government has sent shockwaves through the country as it has arrested several high-profile figures, including a former first lady and numerous ex-generals. Between November 2021 and January 2022, authorities detained nine individuals on suspicion of embezzling $50 million in aid donated by the UAE in 2002.
The arrests were authorised by President Wavel Ramkalawan, who came to power in the October 2020 elections promising to clamp down on corruption. He says he wants to punish graft and return the missing $50 million. His critics, however, claim that the charges are politically motivated and that the president is exploiting the graft case to go after his opponents.
Who was arrested?
Nine prominent individuals – sometimes referred to as the “Seychelles 9” – have been arrested. They were all associated with the government of the late France-Albert René, who was president from 1977 to 2004. They are:
- Sarah Zarqhani René, the former first lady.
- Leslie Benoiton, the late president’s son and a former Lieutenant-Colonel and Coast Guard Fleet Commander.
- Frank Gaiten Marie, René’s chief of security.
- Antoine Leopold Payet, former Chief of the Seychelles Defence Force.
- Mukesh Valabhji, one of the islands most prominent businessmen and former director of the parastatal Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB).
- Laura Valabhji, an attorney and the wife of Valabhji.
- Fahreen Rajan, a business associate of Valabhji.
- Maurice Loustau-Lalanne, the former finance minister.
- Lekha Nair, the former Director General of the Ministry of Finance.
What are the charges?
The charges have been divided into two categories.
The first involves financial crimes. According to the allegations, the accused took advantage of their positions of power to misuse funds that were earmarked for public benefit. The UAE’s aid was donated at a time of economic crisis in the Seychelles and was meant to be used to buy essential food items, but went missing.
The second category involves security crimes – specifically, the possession of illegal weapons with the intention to commit acts of terrorism after firearms and ammunition were discovered at the properties of five of the suspects.
What is the evidence against the accused?
The prosecution accuses the defendants of collaborating to launder the $50 million. It says the suspects – such as the former director of the SMB, which received the donation, and former senior officials in the finance ministry – abused their roles to siphon the aid money into foreign bank accounts.
It remains to be seen what concrete evidence they have, but the defendants vehemently deny the allegations. The lawyers for Mukesh and Laura Valabhji, hired from the international legal firm Kobre & Kim, have described the trial as a “politically motivated prosecution case riddled with errors of fact, procedural defects, and breaches of the basic principles of due process”. In arguing for Laura’s bail, they said “there is simply not one jot, one iota, one piece of evidence” against her.
Regarding the weapons charges, the suspects have not denied the discovery of firearms but say they were placed in their properties by the military as part of a government cache to be used in the event of security threats. The weapons have been identified as government-owned through their serial numbers and tests conducted by third party investigators.
Will there be a fair trial?
Critics warn that the law in Seychelles is being instrumentalised for political goals. They say Ronny Govinden, the judge overseeing the trial, is a known associate of President Ramkalawan and suggest the Anti-Corruption Commission of the Seychelles (ACCS) is serving a political agenda. They also point out that bail has been denied to some defendants despite little flight risk and that the government retrospectively amended the law so the defendants could be tried in the first place.
The defence says their clients and the lawyers themselves have been mistreated. Some suspects say they have been refused access to legal representation, basic sanitary facilities, and medication. Meanwhile, lawyers from Kobre & Kim say the government has used intimidation tactics against them, including accusing them of breaching immigration and employment laws.
Two UK barristers who have been employed by the Seychelles government to lead the prosecution have been criticised for working with a foreign country with a questionable human rights record. Beyond that, the case has received little international attention, including from the European Union despite it providing $300,000 in funding for anti-corruption capacity building in the country.
What does this mean for the Seychelles?
President Ramkalawan came to power vowing to stamp out corruption and ensure democratic governance. He sees the high-profile case as evidence of him making good on his promise. However, he has also been accused by critics of doing the opposite of what he campaigned on. The CEO of the Seychelles Broadcasting Corporation has complained of political pressure under the new administration, while the State Ombudsman warned that a recent bill that expands the military’s power “does not sit well with notion of democracy”.
The country’s highest profile trial to date will provide a strong test of the rule of law under Ramkalawan and will have important ramifications for the future of both the Seychelles’ democracy and its fight against corruption.