The minister, the murdered sailor, the model and the arms dealer

Sleaze in France and Taiwan look set to soil the reputation of a major French electronics and armaments company involved in South Africa’s R43-billion arms deal. It stands accused of bribery—and far worse.

The trial of the company, Thomson CSF, may well focus unexpected international attention on South Africa’s arms deal closed at a time when such arms deals are being increasingly scrutinised for corruption.
In a bizarre case, Thomson CSF faces sensational allegations of murder and money laundering by its agents. The claims have been made by leading government officials on two continents. Among them is a claim that a French spy who knew too much about corruption involving the company was murdered in South Africa.

Thomson CSF in South Africa is one of the beneficiaries of the R43-billion arms deal and is controlled by majority shareholders Thomson CSF France. The local concern, however, is not involved in any way in the sensational corruption trial involving Thomson in France, which revolves around bribes paid to secure the sale of allegedly inferior-quality frigates to Taiwan. However the firm’s links to Chippy Shaik—the—have brought howls of outrage and allegations of nepotism from opposition politicians.

Last week the Mail & Guardian revealed that Shabir Shaik—Chippy’s brother—has been a director of Thomson CSF in South Africa since 1996. In addition to this directorship, Shabir is also a director of African Defence Systems—a company that is 80% owned by Thomson CSF. Moreover, Chippy Shaik’s wife, Zarina, is a part-time marketing executive at African Defence Systems (ADS). ADS—and Thomson CSF—are set to make considerable profits out of the arms deal.

The French industrial giant, an international force in military technology, is no stranger to South Africa or intrigue. In the 1980s a representative of the firm, Jean-Yves Olivier, helped secure the release from Angola of South African Special Forces soldier Captain Wynand du Toit. Du Toit, a reconnaissance commando, was captured by the Angolan military during an abortive mission to blow up oil refineries in the Cabinda enclave of Angola.

This week the firm will have its dirty washing thoroughly aired for the first time when—in a move that has rocked the French political system—former French foreign minister Roland Dumas goes on trial on corruption charges related to the Taiwanese deal.

Dumas (76) was the right-hand man of former president Francois Mitterrand. He was brought into the Thomson CSF scandal when his mistress, Christine Deviers-Joncour, a former lingerie model, was arrested and charged with corruption.

Magistrate Eva Joly, who is a legendary force in investigating corruption in France, put the woman on trial for allegedly bribing Dumas on behalf of her employer to rubber stamp the arms sale. Within days of her arrest the former beauty queen and her associates implicated Dumas. But the trial is about far more than just Dumas.

Sources in the Paris Palais de Justice have told the M&G that the practice of paying commissions—effectively bribes—to foreign governments will be one of the main issues. The way in which these bribes are tolerated in France may well prove crucial to South African investigators looking for a paper trail leading to crooked politicians and defence contractors inside South Africa.

Dumas has already publicly—on TV, radio and in print—admitted huge bribes were paid in the Taiwanese deal. Dumas was recently visited by Hsieh Tsung-min, a policy adviser to the Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian. During the visit, that occurred late last year, Dumas dropped a bombshell on Hsieh.

He claimed that millions had been paid in bribes by Thomson CSF and that the bribes were laundered through South African bank accounts. But he also pointed out that—thanks to a quirk in French financial laws—it would be easy to catch the bribe-takers.

Said Hsieh: “He told me that French companies paying commissions to foreign governments or individuals in relation to export sales are required to report these payments to the French ministry of finance and that the finance ministry has lists of these payments for individuals in Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China and the United States. Dumas suggested methods by which we could get a copies of the list for Taiwan.”

In France “commissions” are considered a legitimate business Pexpense.The implication of this quirk of the French law is that, if Thomson CSF—or any French firm, did bribe any South African official, investigators need only knock at the door of the French ministry of finance to get the full details of who was bought and with how much.

Sources within the Heath Special Investigating Unit told the M&G that this was one of the routes they would have “seriously considered” taking in order to probe any allegations of bribery in the deal.

However, this week Minister of Justice Penuell Maduna recommended Heath be excluded from the probe into the arms deal. But, far more shocking than the allegations of bribery, it has emerged that Thomson CSF agents stand accused of a string of murders. The accusations have not been made in France, but in Taiwan and have led to the Taiwanese police asking Interpol to help trace a prominent Thomson CSF official who was based in Taipei.

The Taiwanese police allege that Andrew Wang, a Thomson CSF agent, participated in the 1993 murder of navy Captain Yin Ching-fen who was about to blow the whistle on kickbacks paid by Thomson in order to secure the frigate deal. Yin, a young naval captain with an engineering background, had travelled to France together with a number of top Taiwanese government officials in order to inspect the construction of the frigates.

According to both his sister—who the M&G contacted through her website—and the policy adviser Hsieh, during one of these visits Yin compiled a list of serious defects in the vessels that were being built for Taiwan.

Within days of his return, an anonymous letter to the Taiwanese president accused the navy captain of corruption.In order to clear his name, Yin immediately began collecting information on the Taiwanese arms deal and taping his conversation with arms dealers. Two days after he began his quest his body was found in the sea off Eastern Taiwan.Wang immediately fled Taiwan.

Hsieh claimed: “Cracking the murder will be very difficult.” He pointed out that there is a lack of direct evidence as one Thomson official rumoured to have been involved in the murder, Jean-Claude Albessard, had died last March while a French national with knowledge of the deal, Thierry Imbot, “died in mysterious circumstances in South Africa last October”.

The M&G learned this week that French police and intelligence services secretly probed the death of Imbot, the son of former French intelligence agency chief Rene Imbot, and a possible connection with the Taiwanese frigate deal.

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