Pandora Papers: Rich and powerful deny wrongdoing after dump of purported secrets

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Czech prime minister, the king of Jordan and the chairman of a well-known Indian conglomerate were among global figures denying wrongdoing on Monday after the leak of what major news outlets called a secret trove of documents about offshore finance.

India said it would investigate cases linked to the data dump, known collectively as the “Pandora Papers,” while Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin said officials named in the documents would be investigated – including himself.

The Kremlin said it had seen no evidence in the leak of hidden wealth among Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage, after the Washington Post said the documents showed Putin’s mistress had used offshore funds to buy a flat in Monaco.

The dump of more than 11.9 million records, amounting to about 2.94 terabytes of data, was five years after the leak known as the “Panama Papers” exposed how money was hidden by the wealthy in ways that law enforcement agencies could not detect.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a Washington-based network of reporters and media organizations, said the files are linked to about 35 current and former national leaders, and more than 330 politicians and public officials in 91 countries and territories.

It did not say how the files were obtained, and Reuters could not independently verify the reports or the documents detailed by the consortium.

The use of off-shore companies is not illegal or by itself evidence of wrongdoing, but news organizations in the consortium said such transactions could be used to hide wealth from tax collectors and other authorities.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, a close U.S. ally, was reported to have used offshore accounts to spend more than $100 million on luxury homes in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The royal palace said in a statement it was “no secret that His Majesty owns a number of apartments and residences in the United States and the United Kingdom. This is not unusual nor improper.”

In his first comments on the matter, Abdullah told tribal leaders: “The cost of these properties and all related expenditures have been personally funded by His Majesty. None of these expenses have been funded by the state budget or treasury.”

“There is nothing I have to hide from anyone but we are stronger than this and this is not the first time people target Jordan,” the monarch told the gathering.

DLA Piper, a London law office representing Abdullah, told the consortium of media outlets that he had “not at any point misused public monies or made any use whatsoever of the proceeds of aid or assistance intended for public use.”

The U.S. State Department spokesman said the United States was reviewing the findings of the Pandora Papers but was in no position to comment on specifics.

Addressing a specific query about Jordan, a significant recipient of U.S. aid, Ned Price said U.S. assistance to Amman was “in the direct national security interests of the United States.”

“We carefully conduct monitoring and evaluation of all of our programs to ensure they are implemented according to their intended purpose,” he said.

The Washington Post, which is part of the consortium, also reported on the case of Svetlana Krivonogikh, a Russian woman who it said became the owner of a Monaco apartment through an offshore company incorporated on the Caribbean island of Tortola in April 2003 just weeks after she gave birth to a girl. At the time, she was in a secret, years-long relationship with Putin, the newspaper said, citing Russian investigative outlet Proekt.

The Post said Krivonogikh and her daughter, who is now 18, did not respond to requests for comment.

The Kremlin said it had seen no evidence in the leak of hidden wealth among Putin’s inner circle.

“For now it is just not clear what this information is and what it is about,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said. Asked about Putin’s alleged relationship with Krivonogikh in November, Peskov said he had never heard of her.

PAKISTAN OPPOSITION SEEKS RESIGNATIONS

Days ahead of the Czech Republic’s Oct. 8-9 parliamentary election, the documents reportedly tied prime minister Andrej Babis to a $22 million estate near Cannes, France.

Speaking in a television debate, Babis, who was a billionaire before he entered politics, denied any wrongdoing.

“The money left a Czech bank, was taxed, it was my money, and returned to a Czech bank,” Babis said.

Lebanon’s former prime minister Hassan Diab said he had given up shares in a company he was linked to in the leak, and denied wrongdoing. A statement by his office said he had taken part in founding the company in 2015 and owned 17 shares, but that the firm had no activity since then and he had resigned and sold his stake.

The Indian Express, part of the consortium, said the documents showed that businessman Anil Ambani and his representatives owned at least 18 offshore companies in Jersey, the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus.

Set up between 2007 and 2010, seven of these companies had borrowed and invested at least $1.3 billion, the report said.

In 2020, following a dispute with three Chinese state-controlled banks, Ambani, chairman of Reliance Group, had told a London court his net worth was zero.

Ambani did not immediately respond to a Reuters request seeking comment.

An unidentified lawyer, on behalf of Ambani, told the Express: “Our client is a tax resident of India and has made disclosures to Indian authorities as required to be made in compliance with law. All required considerations were taken into account when making disclosures before the London court. The Reliance Group conducts business globally and for legitimate business and regulatory requirements, companies are incorporated in different jurisdictions.”

India’s Finance Ministry said it would investigate cases linked to the Pandora Papers and take appropriate action, adding: “The government will also proactively engage with foreign jurisdictions for obtaining information in respect of relevant taxpayers/entities.”

Pakistan’s opposition called on Prime Minister Imran Khan to order cabinet ministers and aides named in the leak to resign and face investigation.

Finance minister Tarin, among the Pakistanis identified, told Geo TV everyone would be investigated, including himself. He denied wrongdoing.

“If any wrongdoing is established we will take appropriate action,” Khan said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Washington newsroom; writing by William Maclean, Peter Graff; Editing by Jon Boyle and Grant McCool)

Unofficial Hong Kong vote sees new generation take over battle for democracy

By Jessie Pang and Yanni Chow

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A younger, more defiant generation of Hong Kong democrats has secured the most votes in unofficial primary elections in the Chinese-ruled city, setting the stage for a battle with pro-Beijing politicians for control of the city’s legislature.

The success of young contenders in the primaries organized by the pro-democracy camp on the weekend to pick candidates for a Sept. 6 election for a 70-seat city assembly comes amid widespread resentment of a national security law that Beijing imposed last month.

Beijing denounced the vote as illegal and warned it may have violated the new security law, which has raised fears for the freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong’s open society and success as a financial hub.

Prominent pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong won in his district, but he has been disqualified from previous elections and could face similar hurdles this time.

Wong warned against any sweeping disqualification of candidates when he held a news conference with 15 other young politicians who won in their districts.

“If the government cracks down on us and disqualifies all the candidates who joined the primaries, it will cause more outrage in the international community and encourage more people to vote for the pro-democratic camp in September,” Wong said.

The 16 – all but one under 30 and dressed in black T-shirts – are part of a so-called localist or resistance camp, which outshone the cohort of traditional democrats, which had secured 12 candidate slots as of Wednesday afternoon.

Full results are expected later in the day.

The localists – a term for those who do not see themselves as Chinese and focus on saving the former British colony’s freedoms – tend to be more assertive than traditional democrats.

The localists talk of resistance and saving democracy but they do not all have the same vision for Hong Kong’s future. Some dream of independence – anathema for Beijing – but do not speak of it openly, which would see them fall foul of the new security law and face up to life in prison.

Their performance in the primaries reflects frustration, especially among younger voters, with Hong Kong’s more moderate, traditional pro-democracy politicians.

“Localism has become the mainstream,” said localist candidate Henry Wong. “We will resist against the tyranny.”

The new security law punishes what Beijing broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison and sees Chinese intelligence agents operating officially in the city for the first time.

Critics fear it will crush wide-ranging freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, while supporters say it will bring stability after a year of often violent anti-government protests.

‘DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND’

The law has already had a chilling effect on many aspects of life.

Earlier on Wednesday, former democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said he was pulling out as an organizer of the weekend vote amid accusations from Beijing that it was illegal.

“Withdrawal is the only choice … (to) protect myself and others,” Au said in a Facebook post.

A spokesman for Beijing’s top office in the city, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, said the pro-democracy camp’s bid for a legislative majority was an attempt to carry out a “color revolution,” referring to uprisings in other parts of the world.

In comments that critics said were aimed at instilling fear, the Liaison Office as well as Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, have all said the primaries could violate the national security law.

Benny Tai, another organizer of the pro-democracy polls, was defiant.

“For those who do not recognize democracy, or do not agree with democratic values, it is difficult to understand the meaning of the primary election,” Tai said.

Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested the vice chairman of the city’s Democratic Party, Lo Kin-hei, on charges of unlawful assembly related to a protest in November.

The political tension in Hong Kong has alarmed the business community while the new law has raised concern in countries that support the “one country, two systems” formula of government meant to safeguard its freedoms.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered an end to Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to punish China for what he called “oppressive actions” against the city.

China said it would impose retaliatory sanctions on U.S. individuals and entities after Trump signed a law penalizing banks doing business with Chinese officials who implement the new law.

In an interview with state agency Xinhua, Chief Executive Lam said U.S. sanctions won’t hurt Hong Kong and in time, concern about the security law would prove unfounded.

In another blow to the city’s standing, the New York Times said it would shift part of its Hong Kong office to Seoul, as worries grow that the security law will curb media and other freedoms.

(Additional reporting by Aleksander Solum; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Stop hurling insults and listen, Pope Francis tells politicians

Pope Francis

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) – Politicians should lower the volume of their debates and stop insulting each other, Pope Francis said on Friday, adding that leaders should be open to dialogue with perceived enemies or risk sowing the seeds of war.

“Insulting has become normal,” he said in a 45-minute-long improvised talk to university students in Rome. “We need to lower the volume a bit and we need to talk less and listen more.”

Francis, the son of Italian migrants to Argentina, also warned against anti-immigrant movements and urged that newcomers be treated “as human brothers and sisters”.

While the pope spoke mostly in general terms about the need for more dialogue in society as he answered questions from four students at the Roma Tre campus, he singled out politicians.

“In the newspapers, we see this one insulting that one, that one says this about the other one,” he said.

“But in a society where the standards of politics has fallen so much – I am talking about world society – we lose the sense of building society, of social co-existence, and social co-existence is built on dialogue.”

He spoke of “political debates on television where even before one (candidate) finishes talking, he is interrupted.”

Francis did not single out any countries for criticism. Italian political talk shows are often shrill and last year’s U.S. presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were peppered with insults.

In one debate last September, for example, Trump called Clinton a “nasty woman” and she accused him of having “engaged in racist behavior”.

Francis urged everyone to seek “the patience of dialogue”.

He added: “Wars start inside our hearts, when I am not able to open myself to others, to respect others, to talk to others, to dialogue with others, that is how wars begin.”

The pope also warned against anti-immigrant movements, which have grown in the United States and a number of European countries, including Italy.

“Migrations are not a danger. They are a challenge for growth,” he said, adding it was important to integrate immigrants into host countries so they keep their traditions while learning new ones in a process of mutual enrichment.

He said immigrants should be welcomed “first of all as human brothers and sisters. They are men and women just like us.”

(Reporting by Philip Pullella; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

U.S. voters want leader to end advantage of rich and powerful

Hundreds of Temple University students wait in an hour-long line to vote during the U.S. presidential election in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.

By Chris Kahn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans who had cast their votes for the next president early on Tuesday appeared to be worried about the direction of the country, and were looking for a “strong leader who can take the country back from the rich and powerful,” according to an early reading from the Reuters/Ipsos national Election Day poll.

The poll of more than 10,000 people who have already cast their ballots in the presidential election showed a majority of voters are worried about their ability to get ahead and have little confidence in political parties or the media to improve their situation. A majority also feel that the economy is rigged to mostly help the wealthy.

The poll, which will be updated as additional responses are tallied and votes are counted throughout Tuesday, found:

– 75 percent agree that “America needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful.”

– 72 percent agree “the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful.”

– 68 percent agree that “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me.”

– 76 percent believe “the mainstream media is more interested in making money than telling the truth.”

– 57 percent feel that “more and more, I don’t identify with what America has become.”

– 54 percent feel “it is increasingly hard for someone like me to get ahead in America.”

The Reuters/Ipsos online opinion poll was conducted on Election Day in English in all 50 states. It includes 10,604 Americans who have already cast their vote in the presidential election and has a credibility interval, a measure of accuracy, of 1 percentage point.

The poll also includes a variety of questions about the presidential race, which candidate people supported, and why. Those results will be published later in the evening, after most of the votes have been counted and state races have been called.

(Reporting by Chris Kahn; editing by Richard Valdmanis and Grant McCool)

Philippine defense chief says Duterte may be ‘misinformed’ on U.S. alliance

Philippine President Duterte

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippine defense minister sought to patch up cracks in a military alliance with the United States on Wednesday, saying President Rodrigo Duterte, who has appeared intent on scrapping joint programs, might be misinformed about their value.

Referring to recent strongly worded comments by Duterte, in which he has declared that the Philippines military gained little from U.S. security ties, Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the armed forces were still weak and the country got a lot out of the U.S. relationship.

“That’s why I said the president was misinformed, because I think the information he is getting is incomplete,” Lorenzana told reporters, a day after the launch of the latest round of PHIBLEX military exercises involving troops from both sides.

“Maybe, the defense ministry and the armed forces were remiss in providing him the correct information. This, we will address in the coming days.”

The United States has been on the receiving end of a torrent of hostility from Duterte, who was angered by U.S. expressions of concern over his war on drugs.

On Tuesday, Duterte said U.S. President Barack Obama should “go to hell” and that in his time, he might “break up” with Washington, with which Manila has had a security treaty since 1951.

Last week, he also caused a stir when he said the PHIBLEX exercises would be “the last one” and on Sunday said a U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement would be reviewed.

That deal includes setting up storage facilities for maritime security, humanitarian and disaster response operations and grants U.S. troops some access to Philippine bases.

Lorenzana said the ongoing exercises gave Philippine troops exposure to new guns, technology and body armor and training in warfare tactics, marksmanship and quick responses to natural disasters.

“According to him, only the American troops are benefiting from those exercises,” he said, referring to his president.

“But based on what we gathered from the GHQ (general headquarters) and army, there are (benefits).”

U.S. officials have played down Duterte’s remarks, focusing instead on the decades-long alliance which they have sought to bolster in recent years in response to China’s moves to enforce its claims over the South China Sea.

The White House said on Tuesday the United States had not received any formal communications from Duterte’s government about changing the relationship.

(Reporting by Martin Petty; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Chinese President Arrives in U.S. Denies Hacking

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Seattle on Tuesday. He is in the U.S. on a week-long visit that will include meetings with U.S. business leaders, a black-tie state dinner at the White House and an address at the United Nations.

His arrival was met by questions on subjects such as economic reform to cyber attacks, human rights and commercial theft.

Xi, delivered a keynote address to some 650 business executives and other guests in Seattle and touched on a many of the issues that have caused friction to U.S.-China ties.

“China will not manipulate its currency to boost exports and will never engage in commercial theft,” he said, adding his country will not discriminate against foreign businesses, will speed its market opening and make efforts to improve human rights.

“If China and the U.S. cooperate well, they can become a bedrock of global stability…,” Xi said. “Should they enter into conflict or confrontation, it would lead to disaster for both countries and the world at large.”

In an attempt to reassure high tech businesses Xi offered, “The Chinese government will not in whatever form engage in commercial theft, and hacking against government networks. These are crimes that must be punished in accordance with the law and relevant international treaties.”

The Pentagon said on Tuesday that a Chinese aircraft performed an unsafe maneuver during an air intercept of a U.S. spy plane off China’s northeast coast last week as a reminder of the potential hot points between the two countries.
Among the few agreements expected to result from the Obama-Xi summit has been a military-to-military confidence building step aimed at reducing the risk of aerial collisions between warplanes in areas including the South China Sea through agreeing on common rules of behavior.