The Man Who Keeps the Secrets

Last week, a Maltese politician dropped a bombshell into the investigation of allegations of kickbacks in the sale of French submarines to Malaysia, saying French prosecutors were on the trail of a soft-spoken Frenchman named Jean-Marie Boivin and his Malta-based company, Gifen.

Boivin, according to a plethora of news stories in France and Luxembourg, is at the heart of a scandal that stretches across half the earth to Pakistan, Taiwan, Malaysia, India and untold numbers of other countries whose defense ministries bought armaments from the French defense giant DCNS around the turn of the century. At least three of those sales have been dogged with stories of bribery and the murder or unexplained deaths of 19 people. According to other revelations, the sale of submarines to India is also suspected of “non-compliance” with the OECD Convention on Bribery.

Paris Match reported on Nov. 24, 2010, in a story titled Boivin, Celui Qui Fait Trembler le Republique (Boivin, the Man Who Shakes the Republic), that Boivin was “at the head of a myriad companies in tax havens.” Other news media reported that “outlandish commissions” travelled through what were described as a galaxy of companies, including gifts to the former security chief of onetime Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet for the sale of two submarines to Chile.

According to the news stories, Boivin, described as “a quiet man, even mysterious, multilingual, with a quite surprising international network of relationships,” operates in the very top European circles. He accompanied the Grand Duke and Duchess of Luxembourg on a state visit to Brazil two years ago. Other reports say he was a friend of Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker and former Minister of the Interior Michel Wolter, inviting them on a South African safari at DCN expense.

The French government signed the OECD Convention on Bribery on July 31, 2000, which calls for fines of €150,000 and, according to the convention, “shall be punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties….comparable to that applicable to the bribery of the (signatory country’s) own public officials and shall, in the case of natural persons, include deprivation of liberty sufficient to enable effective mutual legal assistance and extradition.”

Did DCNS decide that the way around the bribery convention was to put space between France and the countries to which it was selling weapons? If so, that space appears to have been occupied by Boivin, who left DCNS after heading the defense company’s international financial operations from 1994 to 2004 to establish a tangle of companies in the Isle of Man, Malta, Ireland, Switzerland, Mauritius, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, the Caymans and other principalities that have never signed the convention.

When his Luxembourg-based company Eurolux – which allegedly was established through DCN and is also under investigation by French prosecutors – was on the edge of bankruptcy, according news reports, Boivin wrote letters to Nicolas Sarkozy, Michele Alliot-Marie, then the defense minister, and President Jacques Chirac, saying he had explosive letters in a safe in Zurich, Switzerland. The letter, described as “friendly but determined,” was on the theme “Retain me, or I do something.” Apparently it worked. Boivin, according to several other publications including Le Nouvelle Observateur, was paid €8 million by DCN.

“To believe documents seized by the courts,” according to Paris Match, “the galaxy of shell companies…served, among other things, to settle contract commissions for Agosta submarines sold to Pakistan, part of which, according to statements by former Defense Minister Charles Millon and former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, could be returned to France in the form of kickbacks.”

Despite Sarkoxy’s denials, documents in the DCN files show that the former French President, as Minister of the Budget in 1994, had agreed to the creation of at least one of Boivin’s companies, the Luxembourg-based Heine, which was central to the Pakistan case.

In what has become known as L’Affaire Karachi, in which Pakistan bought the three Agosta-class submarines from a DCN subsidiary, 14 people including 11 DCN engineers were killed when the van in which they were riding was hit by a bomb that at first was said by Pakistani officials to have been set off by Al Qaeda operatives.

It later transpired that, according to investigations by the anti-terrorist judge Marc Trevidic in Paris, the bomb was the work of Pakistani officials who were outraged when Chirac, after he defeated Edouard Balladur for the French presidency in 1995, blocked kickbacks, some of which reportedly went into Balladur’s campaign. Sarkozy at the time was Balladur’s campaign manager. The former French president, who was defeated in national elections last month by Socialist Francoise Hollande, has repeatedly denied any knowledge of the kickbacks.

Boivin is also said to have been involved in the sale of six Lafayette-class frigates to Taiwan, a deal so lucrative that some US$600 million paid in commissions on the US$2.8 billion contract disappeared into various Swiss accounts established by Andrew Wang Chuan-pu, the Taiwan agent for the French company Thomson CSF, now Thales, a unit of DCN. Wang abruptly left Taiwan when the matter began to leak into the public and has never been seen or heard of since.

Two years after the contract was signed, the body of a Taiwanese naval captain, Yin Ching-feng, was found floating off the coast, a victim of foul play. Although Taiwanese authorities said he had died by drowning, an autopsy ordered by the family found he had been battered to death. Among those who have also died since 1993 were Thierry Imbot, a French intelligence agent who was assigned to watch the frigate deal for the French secret service and who fell to his death from his Paris apartment. A year later, a former Taiwan-based Thomson executive named Jacques Morrison, who told associates he feared for his life because he was a witness to the talks, also fell or was pushed to his death. Yin’s nephew also died under unexplained circumstances.

The French government blocked all inquiries into the affair by judicial officials who were unable to obtain relevant documents. In October 2008 the judge finally ruled that no one could be prosecuted because of lack of evidence. Thus the case was finally closed on huge payoffs to high ranking French politicians – and on suggestions that Communist party officials in Beijing had been induced to mute criticism of the sale of arms to Taiwan in return for hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes. Roland Dumas, who was foreign minister at the time and changed French policy to allow the frigate sales at the urging of a mistress who was being paid by another French company, has implied that he knows where the money went.

Ultimately, the Paris-based International Court of Arbitration, an offshoot of the International Chamber of Commerce, ruled in 2010 Thomson-CSF, which has since changed its name to Thales SA had spent over more than $500 million on bribes to secure the deal. Taiwan is suing for another US98 million.

The final case is that of Malaysian Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak and the purchase for US$1 billion of two Scorpene submarines from the DCN subsidiary Thales by Malaysia, with a €114 million commission paid to a shell company wholly owned by Abdul Razak Baginda, at the time Najib’s best friend. Razak Baginda’s onetime mistress, the Mongolian translator and party girl Altantuya Shaariibuu, accompanied Baginda on at least one trip to France dealing with the training of the submarine crews. DCN also paid a Hong Kong company owned by Razak Baginda and his father €39 million for a document allegedly describing the Malaysian military’s specifications for the submarine purchase.

Altantuya was murdered by two of Najib’s bodyguards at the direction of unknown persons after she had flown to Kuala Lumpur to demand US$500,000, which she termed “blackmail” in a letter found after her death in September of 2006. The French law firm headed by William Bourdon and representing the Malaysian NGO Suaram, said that Gifen had intervened in negotiations over the submarines “so as to facilitate the money transfers in this case,” and particularly to finance the trips of Baginda and Altantuya.”

As for Boivin, he has since taken out citizenship in Luxembourg. He was summoned by French magistrates in June of 2010 but he did not show. He was eventually indicted. However, he remains free although he has said he would cooperate with authorities. When his lawyer, Philippe Lauzeral, was asked if the €8million requested in his letters to Sarkozy and others was paid for his silence, Lauzeral answered: "False. There have been discussions, but no financial agreement has been formally signed. My client is very upset by what he reads. It is not the deus ex machina that is presented. He merely carried out orders from his superiors in the DCN, which is a state enterprise. It is the feeling of having served his country."

John Berthelsen is the editor of the Asia Sentinel.