Congo’s ‘PassportGate’: FIDH, LDH, UNIS and 51 Victims Initiate Proceedings in Belgian Courts

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The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), the League for Human Rights (Belgium - Ligue des droits humains) and UNIS (Pan-African Anti-Corruption Network) filed a civil party petition on 8 May 2020 in the criminal investigation into the Semlex case Belgium has been conducting since 2017. Fifty-one Congolese victims have also filed as civil parties as part of the "Congo is not for sale" campaign. Belgian company Semlex is under investigation for its contract with the Democratic Republic of the Congo to produce biometric passports. According to Reuters, the investigation covers alleged acts of corruption and money laundering.

Since 10 January 2019 (1) non-governmental organisations can now file complaints in Belgium in human rights related cases.

“By filing these criminal complaints with the support of NGOs, Congolese victims are finally becoming actors in this emblematic case. They will be able to request access to the case record and request additional investigations. Far from being merely symbolic, there is a real added value that could finally lead to the conviction of a company suspected of offering bribes to obtain lucrative contracts—to the detriment of Congolese citizens,” said Paul Nsapu, FIDH Vice President.

According to Reuters, Semlex had negotiated the passport contract with former President Kabila and some of his closest associates in 2014-2015. During negotiations in Dubai and Kinshasa, the unit price of the passport rose from US$21.5 to US$185.

According to the contracts seen by our organisations, US$60 from each passport sale must be paid to a shell company called LRPS, registered in the United Arab Emirates. According to Reuters, LRPS is reportedly owned by Makie Wangoi Makolo, a member of the former presidential family. Since the contract between Semlex and the Congolese government came into force, this shell company has likely received over US$35 million.

“We hope that the Belgian judiciary will succeed in shedding light on the US$60 that accrue to a shell company with suspicious beneficial ownership," said Jean-Jacques Lumumba, a whistleblower and co-founder of UNIS, an organisation specialised in the fight against corruption.

"US$60 amounts to the average salary of a Congolese civil servant. This money should have stayed in the pockets of passport buyers!”

Jean-Jacques Lumumba, a whistleblower and co-founder of UNIS

The Belgian judiciary opened an investigation in 2017 and searched Semlex’s office in January 2018. Since then, the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office has provided no public update on the investigation’s progress.

More generally, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights observed in March of this year that Belgium lacks “an effective complaint system (...) for victims of human rights violations committed companies may commit.” Similarly, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development has been concerned for years about the gross lack of resources Belgium allocates to the judicial system for cases relating to corruption abroad.

“While foreign corrupt practices have been punishable under Belgian law for more than a decade, to the best of our knowledge no Belgian company has been convicted to date," said Olivia Venet, President of the League for Human Rights (Belgium).

"Given the gravity of the suspicions surrounding the Semlex contract, it is important to put an end to this apparent impunity and to pursue the case to its conclusion."

Olivia Venet, President of the League for Human Rights

(1) Date of effect of the new Article 17 para. 2 of the Judicial Code granting associations a right of legal action when their corporate purpose is violated.

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