The Honorary Consul of the Maldives in Bulgaria Hristo Chepishev, one of the founders of the SIC criminal organisation Krassimir Bebov, the notorious drug lord Hristoforos Nicos “Taki” Amanatidis and the brother of the former Deputy Speaker of Bulgarian Parliament Rositsa Kirova, Konstantin Lyubenov Varbanov appear in the investigation of the Seychelles Anti-Corruption Commission into the theft and subsequent laundering of USD 50 million, as well as into the illegal possession of firearms and terrorism .
Back in 2002, the United Arab Emirates donated USD 50 million to the Seychelles, which was stolen. Nineteen years later, several people have been detained after an investigation into this record thieving, including the wife of the former President France-Albert René, a former finance minister, a former head of a pension fund, a former head of the largest state-owned enterprise and his prosecutor wife, as well as a former senior officer in the Seychelles Defence Forces. During the searches, a large number of illegally owned heavy and light firearms, a large number of ammunition for them, as well as live grenades were found, which adds the charge of terrorism to the indictment.
This is the largest corruption scandal in the history of the Seychelles. The case is now in the hands of the court. The next hearing will be on December 14.
The arrests came after a change of regime in Seychelles in 2020, when Wavel Ramkalawan was elected president. Until then, those in power in the island republic were people close to the former President France-Albert René, who retired in 2004 after 30 years of rule. The new Seychelles government has started to pull the skeletons out of the closet and to support the work of the Anti-Corruption Commission, created in 2016. The European Union also provided help with experts and equipment.
On November 18, 2021, the first big fish was caught – the richest Seychellois Mukesh Valabhji was arrested, together with his wife Laura, who is a prosecutor. This was followed by the arrest of the wife of the former president France-Albert René, Sarah Zarqhani René. She was later released on bail, but the Valabhjis remain in custody, accused of stealing and laundering the USD 50 million grant as well as of illegal possession of firearms and the preparation of a terrorist act.
In this explosive case file, there is a serious Bulgarian trail leading to organized crime and the party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB), which until recently has been ruling the country for the past 12 years, reporters of BIRD.BG and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) discovered within the framework of the “Shadow Diplomats” project.
Shadow Diplomats is a global investigation into honorary consuls led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists ICIJ and ProPublica, involving 160 journalists from 56 media outlets in 49 countries. The investigation sheds light on one of the least studied roles in international diplomacy, that of the honorary consul. This first-of-its-kind global investigation has identified at least 500 current and former honorary consuls who have been involved in scandals or criminal cases. Some have been convicted of serious crimes or caught using their status for personal gain, others have been investigated for money laundering linked to corruption and terrorism, and others have been criticized for supporting authoritarian regimes.
Who is Mukesh Valabhji and what connects him to Bulgaria?
Born in 1960 and a former economic adviser to President René, in 1984 Mukesh Valabhji headed the largest state-owned company in Seychelles – the Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB), which deals with all imports into the small island nation. He left in 2006 to found the firm Capital Management Group. Valabhji owns the luxury resort Zil Pasyon on the private Félicité Island, a telecom, an internet provider and a cable TV.
But Valabhji also owned in Bulgaria (and probably still owns through a proxy) several companies with serious assets in real estate, a check by BIRD.BG in the Trade Register showed. His business partners in Bulgaria are the Honorary Consul of the Maldives Hristo Chepishev and the founder of the first SIC company Krassimir Bebov. SIC, standing for Security Insurance Cars is the name of a notorious Bulgarian criminal organisation form the 90s.
In addition, copies of the passports of Hristoforos Nicos “Taki” Amanatidis, number 331150126, and Konstantin Lyubenov Varbanov, number 331150139 were found during the search of Valabhji’s computer. This is evident from a review of the legal documents in the “Valabhji” case examined by BIRD and ICIJ reporters.
Hristoforos Nicos “Taki” Amanatidis is considered a major drug lord and was wanted on a red notice by Interpol after his drug ring was busted. It is believed that he lives in Dubai, but he also has businesses in Bulgaria.
Konstantin Varbanov is the brother and business partner of Rositsa Kirova, a current MP from GERB and a former Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly (Parliament).
The documents in the case further show that Amanatidis and Lyubenov traveled together to the Seychelles in 2006, and subsequently separately on several occasions. The documents include a table with the dates of their visits.
Hristoforos Nicos AMANATIDIS
Konstantin Lyubenov VARBANOV
It is noteworthy that from 2007 to 2008 Amanatidis was the one visiting the Seychelles, and then Varbanov. This is probably related to the break-up of Amanatidis’ group by the Bulgarian organized crime police unit in 2009, his escape abroad and his being declared wanted by the Interpol.
Why Valabhji had copies of these passports is unclear. One possible explanation is that Amanatidis and Kirova’s brother registered companies there with Valabjhi’s help. The Seychelles is famous as an offshore destination and the investigation “Pandora Papers” reveals the system of registering a company in the name of “straw men”. The actual owner must still declare themselves in the registry there, leaving a copy of their passport. Their name is kept secret, and the nominal owners of the company are local people.
Rositsa Kirova and Konstantin Varbanov are not only siblings but also have a joint business in the company “Danube Dredging Fleet Vidin” and in other companies.
This is not the first involvement of Kirova’s family with the underworld. She was also partner with the Kosovo drug lord Ismet Osmani, an investigation by BIRD.BG revealed. Despite the disclosure of this fact, she was nominated by GERB for Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly and elected as such.
Another connection of Valabhji with Bulgaria is revealed through the firearms that were found in his home. An entire arsenal of heavy and light automatic firearms, 40,000 cartridges for them, dozens of grenades and even a Dragunov sniper rifle were seized during the raids.
These are firearms purchased by the previous government of the Seychelles under President René, the investigation found. The former senior officer in the Seychelles Defence Forces Andre Leslie Benoiton, who provided the firearms, was also charged, and Valabhji and his wife Laura were charged with illegal possession of combat firearms and the preparation of a terrorist act.
According to data from the case, BIRD was able to identify the serial number of one of the firearms – a Makarov pistol with serial number BE 393578, which was manufactured in Bulgaria, at the Arsenal plant in June 1999.
The main defendant is a partner with an honorary consul and with a close to him founder of the SIC
he name of Mukesh Valabhji appeared for the first time in the Bulgarian Trade Register at the beginning of 2006, when he became partner with Krasimir Traikov Bebov and Rumen Ralchev in the company “BS Bulgaria”. In September of the same year, he joined the company “KM.BG” as a co-owner, together with Bebov and Ivo Hristov Vassilev. The two companies did not re-register in the new Trade Register in 2007 and have not been active since then. There is no real estate in their name either.
Mr. Bebov, born in 1952, is known to have been in the close circle of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov’s son Vladimir, who was his best man. In 1994, together with Nikolay Andreev “The Little Marguin” Marinov, he founded the company Security Insurance Company (SIC), which grew into one of the major criminal groups of after the fall of the communist regime. However, Bebov did not stay long in its management board.
While Valabhji, Bebov and Ivo Vassilev were partners in “KM.BG” they sealed a unique deal. On October 17, 2006, Ivo Vassilev ‘s daughter bought a property for BGN 100,000 in the village of Lozen, the next day she donated it to her father, and on October 19 he sold it to Krasimir Bebov for BGN 4.2 million.
Investigators in the Seychelles found that shortly before the deal, Krasimir Bebov received a direct transfer of USD 3 million from Mukesh Valabhji’s account as a personal loan. The money was transferred to Bebov’s account at Investbank.
Coincidentally or not, exactly one month after this property deal, on November 19, 2006, Amanatidis and Varbanov landed in the Seychelles for the first time.
The deals with this land and its transfer between partners in the company strengthen the suspicions that Valabhji’s Bulgarian partners are helping him launder money through properties in Bulgaria.
However, the big money is not with Bebov, but in construction companies, in which Valabhji is a partner with the honorary consul of the Maldives, Hristo Chepishev. According to the investigative authorities of the Seychelles, EUR 27.8 million were laundered through them.
Hristo Chepishev was born in 1962, and is a lawyer, restaurateur and construction developer. He lives on a family basis with Krasimir Bebov ‘s daughter. His eponymous (Chepishev) restaurant in Boyana is often visited by politicians and influential businessmen. A year ago, he became the honorary consul of the Maldives in Bulgaria, replacing the late Borislav Dionissiev.
Mr. Chepishev’s business history began in the early 1990s, when he was on the Board of Directors of “Balkanmilk” together with the boss of Multigroup Iliya Pavlov. He was a partner from 1996 to 1998 in “TAT” with the murdered by a gunshot Todor Tolev, who in 1997 became a partner with Boyko Borisov in the company “TBI – 97”. More recently, the name of Chepishev has been associated with the construction business through the companies “Buildinvest”, “Sofia Office Center” and “Euro Property”.
According to a classified diplomatic cable by the US State Department, published by Wikileaks, SIC (in which Bebov was a member) and Multigroup (founded by Ilyia Pavlov) had been leading criminal groups in Bulgaria in the 1990s.
Mukesh Valabhji was a partner with Chepishev in the company “Euro Property BG” through a British company. This was declared in the Trade Register in July 2019, after the obligation to declare the actual owners of the offshore companies was imposed by the Measures against Money Laundering Act (MAMLA).
In addition, Valabhji was declared by Chepishev as the ultimate owner of the companies “Euro Property 88“, “Sofia Office Center Building” and “Sofia Office Center Building – 2“, in which Chepishev is the manager.
These companies in turn own the capital of other companies. “Euro Property BG” is the owner of “Edelweiss 3 – Boyana” and “Edelweiss 4”, “Sofia Office Center Building” is the owner of “Sofia Office Center”, “Sofia Office Center Building – 2” is the owner of “Sofia Office Center – 2”, and “Euro Property 88” holds 99% of the capital of “Fohar”, in which Chepishev and Bebov are managers.
All these Bulgarian companies are owned by the British company Euro Property (Real Estate) Co Limited, which in turn is owned by Clareville Capital Opportunity Master Fund Limited, registered in Mauritius, which in turn is owned by Strategic Asset Management Ltd again in Mauritius, with ultimate owner Mukesh Valabhji.
In April 2022, while Valabhji was in custody, several straw persons from the Philippines and Hong Kong were declared as the ultimate owners of Euro Property, and thus the connection with him was severed.
Another interesting investment of Valabhji is located in the Bulgarian Black Sea city of Varna, where in 2019 he became a co-owner of the company “Medical Monitoring Center”. It was declared bankrupt and deleted on March 1, 2022. In this transaction, his lawyer presented a power of attorney certified by notary Rositsa Rasheva, who was partner of Hristo Chepishev in the “Buildinvest” company.
Valabhji’s main assets are in real estate in Sofia. The “Edelweiss” and “Edelweiss 3” complexes in Boyana generate serious profits from the sales of luxury apartments. Only the company “Edelweiss – 3 Boyana” has declared over BGN 33 million in sales revenue for the period 2018-2021. In it, Valabhji is a co-owner with Chepishev through “Euro Property BG”.
It was this company that sold two apartments to the young son of Deputy Prosecutor General Borislav Sarafov in 2019 for the amount of BGN 540,000, as revealed by the Bivol website in the “ApartmentGate” saga.
This means that money stolen from the Seychelles is laundered through a real estate investment by a family member of a Bulgarian senior prosecutor.
It was not only Sarafov’s son who unknowingly joined the criminal act as a third person in good faith. The widow of mobster Milcho “Bai Mile” Bonev, the wife and son of the former Minister of Agriculture Rumen Porozhanov and other well-known persons are also among the clients of Valabhji’s and Chepishev’s company.
“Edelweiss” also reveals a connection with Amanatidis. The lawyer representing the latter in Bulgaria is Victor Rashev. In 2016, he was authorized by Chepishev to represent the company “Edelweiss 4”. This happened when the company became the property of Valabhji through “Euro Property 88”.
Another large-scale investment of Valabhji is the two office buildings of Sofia Office Center on “Tsarigradsko Shosse” boulevard with a total of 45,000 square meters of leasable area.
BIRD asked Hristo Chepishev for a comment on the phone of the Maldives consulate in Bulgaria, which was answered by his assistant. We sent questions to the email, which his assistant promised to pass on. Until the editorial closure of the article, a response from Chepishev was not received.
We also sent a request for comment to lawyer Basil Hoareau, who is representing Valabhji in the terrorism case and is listed in the file case records. We did not receive a response until the editorial closure of the article.
Meanwhile, our previous publication on the ongoing money laundering and terrorism investigation into Amanatidis and Konstantin Varbanov prompted two parliamentary questions to caretaker Interior Minister Ivan Demerdzhiev.
To a question from MP Ivaylo Mirchev, he replied that the Ministry of the Interior could not provide information “since it concerns its daily work with its partner services”.
In essence, this answer does not deny that such an investigation exists and that the Ministry of Internal Affairs knows about it.
But to another question on the same topic, asked by MP Rositsa Kirova, the minister’s answer was contradictory. It claims that the BIRD.BG publication did not specify the country in which the investigation is ongoing, and the Ministry had no way of knowing what kind of investigations are being conducted in which country.
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