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Suspicion circles Israeli diamond maven who 'understands negroes'

James Wood, Craig McKune, Stefaans Brümmer

"Yossi, you don't get it. I understand the politics of negroes," Dan Gertler once bragged of his talent for cutting audacious deals with the DRC.

Businessman Dan Gertler, pictured at DRC President Joseph Kabila's wedding. (Supplied)

Recorded in about 2 00, the revealing slur was made during the early days of the Israeli diamond ­scion's ambitious Democratic Republic of Congo venture.

It is a venture that gained him an unsavoury reputation after he ingratiated himself with two successive DRC presidents and a shadowy presidential adviser and kingpin while laying claim to a host of sought-after mining concessions – in often shady circumstances and on often questionable terms.

Now Gertler is dogged by investigations in Israel, where it is alleged he made large payments to companies said to have been controlled by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman while Lieberman held other public positions.

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Gertler denied the claims, whereas Lieberman declared that he had sold his shareholdings. Prosecutors and police remain suspicious.

An ultra orthodox Jew, Gertler hails from an influential line of diamond traders. His grandfather, Moshe Schnitzer, founded Israel's Diamond Exchange and Gertler established his own firm when he was just 22. He arrived in Kinshasa soon afterwards.

Military training
This was in about 1999. The DRC was tied up in a civil war and then-president Laurent Kabila needed money. Gertler made short work of befriending the president and bagged his first big deal: exclusive rights to export the country's artisanal diamonds. In return, Gertler was said to have promised Kabila $20million on unclear terms and it was alleged that he had promised to organise arms and military training for Kabila's fighters.

However, the details of whatever military assistance was discussed with Kabila senior have been fiercely disputed in Israeli courts after Yossi Kamisa – a former Israeli border policeman said to have been roped in for the task – sued Gertler for breach of contract in 2004 after he was cut from the deal.

In Kamisa's version, he was summoned to Lieberman's Jerusalem office in July 2000 and told that he and Gertler were "partners" in  "future transactions with tremendous economic potential". In court papers Kamisa claimed: "Gertler explained that paying bribes is very accepted in Congo and that his stay in the country, connected with making the transaction, had already cost him more than a million dollars."

Gertler has consistently and vehemently denied Kamisa's claims and he and Lieberman later reached a settlement with Kamisa retracting his allegations, causing the court to reject the case outright.

In his appeal against the dismissal of the case, which was also rejected, Kamisa presented a transcript of a disturbing conversation between the two. Gertler, who was removing Kamisa from the deal, offered his version of African politics, as reported by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "A kushi [a derogatory Hebrew term for a black person] who wants something from you 'sits on your vein' … A negro likes to talk and make promise after promise, blah blah blah …"

Politics of negroes
Kamisa then claimed that, if it was not for him, Gertler would not have landed the concession, to which Gertler responded: "Yossi, either you are mentally ill or I don't know what. Are you saying that the diamond contract was signed because of you?" And then: "Yossi, you don't get it. I understand the politics of negroes."

Lieberman has strenuously denied his role as described by Kamisa.

After Kabila senior was assassinated in 2001 and succeeded by his son, Joseph, Gertler was able to rekindle relations with the new incumbent as well as his notorious adviser, the late Augustin Katumba Mwanke. Gertler then moved on to claim more lucrative mining concessions in the country.

More recently, Gertler has been hammered by human rights campaigners and international media for "secretly" acquiring mining assets from the DRC government using a complex web of offshore companies. Whereas Gertler's role in these companies has either been deduced or acknowledged, the companies' full lists of beneficiaries remain unknown.

The most infamous example was the Kolwezi copper and cobalt tailings project, "grabbed and flipped" from First Quantum through a Gertler company to Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC) in 2010.

Others described by human rights campaigner Global Witness include:

  • SMKK copper and cobalt mine: A Gertler-linked company acquired a stake in this mine from the DRC for $10million in February 2010 and sold it to ENRC for $75million that June.
  • Kansuki copper and cobalt mine: The DRC transferred a stake to a Gertler company in July 2010. A month later, Glencore took control of half the stake but is financing the entire mine development.
  • In May 2011 the DRC government transferred the remaining 25% stake in Kansuki to another Gertler "associated" company for $17million. Global Witness cited valuations suggesting the stake was worth between $86million and $209million.
  • Mutanda copper and cobalt mine: The DRC sold an allegedly undervalued 20% stake to another offshore Gertler company in March 2011.

Gertler does not deny that he "enjoys a close friendship" with Joseph Kabila and he openly attended Katumba's funeral early this year. He also claimed to have served in the mysterious role of the Congo's "honorary consul" in Tel Aviv.

But through a spokesperson he ­stridently rejected all claims of impropriety.

According to him, his proximity to the Kabilas and Katumba had no bearing on his business deals. And, he said, the mining assets were purchased, not "grabbed", at a fair price and sold – "not flipped" – thus bringing significant investment into the DRC.

Gertler prefers to draw attention to such investment, claiming to have spent millions on "community support and environmental programmes" in the DRC, as well as the Chabad House he finances in Kinshasa, advancing his orthodox views.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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