By David Lewis, Philippe Engels
MORONI, Comoros Islands/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – In the tiny nation of the Comoros Islands, lying off the east coast of Africa, Albert Karaziwan is a big man – even though he doesn’t live there. He’s been a roving ambassador for the country, has twice attended the United Nations General Assembly with the Comoros delegation and holds three current Comoros diplomatic passports.
But Karaziwan is not a politician or a professional diplomat or a native of the Comoros. He’s an international businessman, born in Syria and a citizen of Belgium, whose company Semlex Group has supplied and made passports or other ID documents for the Comoros and over a dozen other African nations.
A Reuters examination of Semlex emails, corporate records and signed contracts found that Karaziwan has won business in the Comoros and elsewhere in Africa – on paper worth hundreds of millions of dollars – through political connections, sometimes without going through open tender processes and sometimes while making payments to intermediaries.
At the same time, presidential decrees and other documents from the Comoros shed new light on how Comoros passports, supplied by Semlex, are being bought by foreign citizens, some of whom are suspected by Comoros and foreign authorities of being security threats. Reuters determined that at least two buyers of Comoros passports are people accused by U.S. authorities of breaking sanctions against Iran.