Bahraini ex-minister 'laundered money for arms and drug dealers'
MANAMA // For the second day in a row, the former minister of state Mansoor bin Rajab appeared before the public prosecutor yesterday to answer questions about his alleged links to a money-laundering ring, which authorities say has ties to international drug-trafficking and illegal arm sales networks. On Tuesday, Mr bin Rajab was called into the attorney general's office for questioning, a day after Bahrain's king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, issued a decree removing him from office.
He was questioned for about seven hours, late into the evening, in the presence of his five lawyers. A statement issued by the public prosecutor following the interrogation and quoting the attorney general, Ali bin Fadel al Buainain, said Mr bin Rajab was charged with the acquisition, receipt and possession of illicit funds and with disguising the nature of his funds despite the knowledge that they were obtained through criminal activity.
The statement officially accused Mr bin Rajab of engaging in money-laundering crimes in Bahrain and abroad while he was still in office, in return for a cut of the profits. It also said the accused was presented with evidence that the interior ministry said last week it had gathered during the course of its year-long investigation. It was the first time that the authorities here have named Mr bin Rajab as their suspect after his initial arrest last Thursday, when a statement issued by the interior ministry referred to him only as an "official".
The questioning of Mr bin Rajab also marked the first time since Bahrain gained independence from British rule in 1971 that a senior government official has lost his post and been brought up on criminal charges for an alleged misuse of his power. The statement by the public prosecutor on Tuesday night also said that one of the suspects in the ring was a woman from the Gulf who Mr bin Rajab attempted to help cash a check issued by a European bank for ?6 million (Dh29.5m).
"The money for the check was raised from drug trafficking and arms sales," the statement said. "He attempted to help her cash it in return for a percentage by opening an account abroad with the assistance of other suspects of Arab nationalities." The comments confirmed Kuwaiti press reports that a prominent woman was arrested earlier in the week in connection to the ring after her name came up during last week's initial interrogation of the former minister and his office manager when their homes and offices were raided.
With a travel ban in effect and an order to freeze his assets, Mr bin Rajab was allowed to return home on Tuesday. "I am a million per cent sure of my innocence. These allegations do not merit the charges they are accusing me of," a visibly exhausted Mr bin Rajab, flanked by his lawyers, told reporters as he left the public prosecutor's office. He declined to answer questions about whether he believed he was the target of a political vendetta, saying only that such questions should be directed to "those who were behind it".
Mr bin Rajab denied local press reports suggesting he was laundering money to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the statement by the public prosecution made no reference to it. The Iranian Embassy was also quoted by several local papers yesterday denying such links. Mr bin Rajab's lawyers for their part said none of the evidence presented incriminated their client or linked him to anything, saying that the evidence involved other people.
One of his lawyers, Fatima al Hawaj, told reporters that none of the documents presented proved that any of the alleged funds were transferred into Bahrain and none of them carried the name of her client. Another lawyer, Abdul Rahman Ghoneim, said the investigation carried out so far did not link his client or his office manager directly to these allegations. A third lawyer, Mohammed Radhi bu Hussein, also said that the evidence presented were not enough to link and charge his client, describing the evidence as "fiction".
In May 2008 Mr bin Rajab, 55, who was earlier a member of the appointed upper house of the National Assembly, was one of two ministers to be quizzed by parliament over financial, administrative and constitutional irregularities before they were cleared. He continued to head the municipalities and agriculture affairs he was appointed in charge of since late 2006 for five more months after his May questioning before was moved out of it and appointed as a minister of state in a limited cabinet reshuffle.
Updated: March 26, 2010 04:00 AM