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NOTICES & DOCUMENTS  

PRESS STATEMENT IN SIERRA LEONE BY DR. ABASS CHERNOR BUNDU REGARDING THE IMMIGRATION INVESTMENT PROGRAMME AND HIS PROSECUTION FOR LARCENY IN 1996
By Abass Bundu
Dec 12, 2005, 20:08
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Members of the Press,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

 

It is my pleasure to welcome you all to this my first Press briefing since I returned home in August last year. I have invited you here today in order to set the record straight on a matter of great public importance, a matter that has been in the public domain for the past nine years. It is the matter of the Immigration Investment Programme (IIP), generally dubbed by the Press as the “Passport Saga”, and my prosecution for larceny in 1996.

 

During the past nine years, much has been written and said about the IIP. I have never been able to get the Press away from harping on what has been perceived as the greatest scandal ever to be associated with our country’s passports. Almost every public mention of my name was viewed in some quarters of the Press as offering an opportunity to remind their readers about the scandal. For others it triggered an invocation of derision. In short, my name became synonymous with the alleged “illegal” sale of Sierra Leone passports in Hong Kong. Only a few publications resisted the temptation of employing defamatory language. Some even went to the extent of insinuating guilt and of wishing to see me put behind bars. I blame no one for this. Most of these publications were more a function of the dynamics of the moment than a deliberate attempt to slur. All I ask now is for the record to be set right so that the general public can get to know the truth.

 

1996, the year I was arraigned for larceny, should be noted as a particularly difficult period. The brutal war, unleashed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1991, was then ravaging the country, leaving in its trail despicable and unfathomable atrocities, having no parallel in the country’s history. Freetown, which hitherto had escaped the ravages of the war, was rapidly becoming enveloped in a frenzy of anxiety as nervous residents in the outskirts came increasingly under serious threat. Fear and anxiety thus became the order of the day, and lurking just beneath the surface was generalized disaffection for the NPRC junta, which had then failed to make good its promise to rid the country of the rebel war; it had also failed in its desperate bid  to succeed itself in office.  

 

It was against this backdrop that the new SLPP Government acceded to office in May 1996. The public was demanding vigorous action against corruption and more particularly against rampant allegations of sleaze on the part of the NPRC and their associates. I had served in the NPRC Government as Foreign Secretary for 18 months from November 1993. Even though I had resigned in July 1995 to form my own party, the People’s Progressive Party, and to become its flag bearer for the 1996 Elections, my name continued to be associated with the NPRC. Whatever public opprobrium was reserved for them, it rubbed off on me too.

 

Neither did my outspokenness about the 1996 Elections help matters. On the contrary, it raised my profile and made me stand out as a visible target. And that probably contributed to the circumstances leading to my prosecution in July 1996.

 

The case never actually went to trial. Contrary to Press reports, there was no guilty verdict nor was I sentenced to pay a fine by any Court. Instead, the matter was settled extra-judicially by way of an agreement between the parties.  Under that agreement I was required to pay immediately US$105,000, being one-half of the total monies I received from a Mr. Frank Yiu, who was then the Contractor responsible for the execution of the IIP in Hong Kong. The other half (US$105,000) was to be paid later. The assumption the Prosecution made in preferring those charges against me, was that the monies I received had come directly from the IIP; in other words that they were funds belonging to the Government of Sierra Leone which I had compelled Frank Yiu to part with.

 

The key question is: Was the money Government money?

 

I had argued vigorously that the funds were not Government funds. Neither did I at any stage seek to pressurize Mr. Yiu into giving me Government money.  I argued, though unsuccessfully, that Mr. Yiu had led me to believe that his contributions to my electioneering campaign fund (totalling US$210,000) came from his private business interests in Hong Kong and worldwide, including South America. I spent all the monies he contributed on my election campaign in 1996 including the purchase of vehicles for travelling in the country, rent for buildings for temporary campaign offices, and on the usual electioneering expenses. Nothing was done that was contrary to law.

 

The fact that Frank Yiu’s contributions did not come from the proceeds of passport sales is plain from his letter to me of 29 March 1995 regarding the means by which the donations would be made by his brother. That letter reads in part: “In addition, please be noted [sic] that I have a personal arrangement with you in US Dollars for TT to London will be done in between April and May, and which will be done by my brother from S. America.” It was solely on this assurance that I had agreed to accept his donations to my campaign. However, I must admit that I had difficulty proving conclusively that the funds I had received from Mr. Yiu had indeed come from sources other than the IIP. I had only his letter of 29 March to show and this was not adequate. New and more convincing evidence was needed.

 

In the circumstances, therefore, I had no choice but to pay under protest. The letter from my Solicitors, dated 12 September 1996, which accompanied the payment, made the point that I had agreed to pay only to underscore the contention that I had had absolutely no criminal intent whatsoever in all my dealings, official or private, with Mr. Frank Yiu.

 

Upon this understanding the Government duly received, by way of a Bank Draft, the sum of US$105,000. So, again, contrary to widespread speculation in the Press, I did not issue a personal cheque to the Government which subsequently bounced.

 

Relationship with Frank Yiu

 

You might wonder what my relationship with Mr. Frank Yiu was. Why was he ready to give me so much money? Well, let us remember that Mr. Yiu was a prominent businessman in Hong Kong. He had investments worldwide. He also had businesses here in Freetown as well as business associates. I first met him in March 1994 when he visited Freetown for an official briefing. Our second meeting took place in August 1994 when he told me that he had been informed by his business associates about my plans to run for president. He said from what he had been told, he had come to develop respect for my leadership qualities and would like to be associated with my political plans. He also said he was particularly impressed by my desire to forge closer links with the tiger economies of South-East Asia as a possible source of new investment capital for Sierra Leone and asked to be made a key player in that project if I won the presidency. He further explained that although he was not a rich man, he was not without substantial investments in Hong Kong, China and South America, and that his passport business with Sierra Leone constituted only a fraction of his overall business. He then offered to finance my campaign. In the process he made several contributions, all totalling  US$210,000.   

 

The new evidence

 

The new conclusive evidence I needed to prove that the funds from Frank Yiu were not Government funds did not come to hand until 1997. Although the documents containing that evidence had been sent to the then Government since early 1996, I did not get to know about them until 1997. This evidence is in the form of two Financial Statements on the IIP that Frank Yiu submitted to the Government on 31 January and 7 February 1996 respectively. They provided the evidence I sought all along. Even though the Financial Statements were addressed to the Director-General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, I did not know they existed. This was because at that point in time I was no longer with the NPRC Government, having resigned from that Government on 14 July 1995. Nor did I know of their existence when I was charged to Court in July 1996. So I could not use them to defend myself at that most crucial moment.

 

As you will have deduced, monies did change hands in Hong Kong and other places for Sierra Leone passports. Whether we call it a “sale” of passports or a “fee” for administration is really immaterial. The practice of charging some money for new passports or for the renewal of old passports is unexceptional and is indeed universal. Every country in the world demands some sort of payment. Rather what are of great significance are the following three questions: First, who “sold” the passports? Second, why were they sold? And third, what were the proceeds used for?

 

Let me now deal with each of these questions in turn.

 

First, who sold the passports?

 

Well, again contrary to Press speculations over the past nine years, the passports involved in my case were all sold by the Government of Sierra Leone. The Immigration Investment Programme (IIP), under which passport were sold, had been adopted as State policy by the Government of President Momoh in early 1992. The NPRC Government maintained it after it overthrew President Momoh in April 1992. For national security reasons, and, as will be elaborated later, because of the purpose for which it was conceived, the IIP was operated in the utmost secrecy by both Governments. The public was never informed and they had good reason for that.

 

Thus seen, the IIP was put in place long before I joined the NPRC Government as Foreign Minister in November 1993. I neither ran the Programme nor had primary responsibility for it. The only major thing I did was to introduce some changes in the implementation of the Programme when I became Foreign Minister. I transferred responsibility for the custody of the passports from Mr. Frank Yiu to a Sierra Leonean indigene, Mr. Sahr Johnny, whom the NPRC Government appointed as Consul-General in Hong Kong and established there a Consulate-General. Frank Yiu was appointed as an Adviser to the Consul-General.

 

The Programme was based in Hong Kong for a simple reason. Britain’s lease over Hong Kong was about to expire. The citizens of Hong Kong were getting nervous about the future of the Territory once it changed hands from Britain to China, and naturally they were concerned also about their own future. A large number of them decided to emigrate. The wealthy among them were offered citizenship by developed countries such as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, etc. The less wealthy ones sought refuge in other parts of the world, including Africa. In Sierra Leone the Government adopted the IIP. It was aimed at the citizens of Hong Kong who wished to emigrate. For a fee they were offered naturalization and a passport to go with it. They were required to come to Sierra Leone with their wealth and expertise to invest in small-scale industries in order to boost our industrialization programme. So the IIP aimed at achieving two objectives: to attract foreign investors into Sierra Leone and to raise much needed revenue for the country.

 

Why were the passports sold?

 

The plain truth is that the passports were sold to raise money for the prosecution of the war against the RUF rebels. The whole world knew that Sierra Leone was fighting a war against the RUF insurgents. But the IMF, which was a major contributor to the national budget, was not happy that the Government was using the budget to fight the war. It therefore imposed a  conditionality. It said that the Government must not use the budget and the support the IMF was providing, to fight the rebel war. Faced with this conditionality, the Government found itself in a serious dilemma: either it used the budget to fight the war and lose the support of the IMF or find new extra-budgetary avenues to raise money. Either way, it could not risk losing the war to the RUF, for the consequences were just too grave to contemplate. So the Government was compelled to look at extra-budgetary avenues to raise money for the prosecution of the war. And the main avenue it found was the “sale” of Sierra Leone passports in Hong Kong and elsewhere. And, as already stated, this sale had started as far back as early 1992.

 

What were the proceeds of passport sales used for?

 

As will be seen from the evidence provided by Mr. Yiu in his Financial Statements, the total income earned from the IIP up to the end of 1995 amounted to US$5,640,890.00 while total expenditures made on behalf of the Government stood at US$6,909,683.78. The deficit of US$1,268,793.78 was financed by way of a loan from Frank Yiu to the Government, using the passports as collateral. These entire funds were disbursed as directed by the NPRC leadership for the purchase of arms and ammunition and other sinews for the prosecution of the war.          

 

The next question one might ask is why did I not say all this before, especially when I was charged to court for offences I knew I did not commit?

 

The answer is two-fold. First I did not have this evidence then. I did not even know it existed. Second, there was no way I could have mounted a defence against the charges without divulging information that was guarded by the State as “top secret”. Imagine if I had gone into the witness box and stated in my evidence in chief that the Government did not have the financial capacity to prosecute the war against the RUF and that it had to depend on the sale of Sierra Leone passports to raise money for that purpose, and that information had got to the knowledge of the RUF while the war was still raging in 1996. Imagine also that the RUF became energized as a result of this disclosure and decided to take Freetown by force. What would have been my fate and that of my family in the hands of the residents of Freetown when they come to know and believe that my disclosures were responsible for energizing the RUF to venture to take the city? It takes little imagination to know what our fate would have been. Remember what happened to the many unfortunate victims whose only crime was that they were suspected, merely suspected, rightly or wrongly, of collaborating with the enemy!  

 

In the circumstances, I opted to protect the State by guarding its secrets. At the same time I also protected the lives of myself and my family by agreeing to the out-of-court settlement mentioned earlier rather than risk making such disclosures at a trial. In the process, I have suffered socially in that I have had to live with the social stigma that the Indictment visited upon me over the past nine years. I also suffered financially in that I had to part with US$105,000.  

 

When subsequently new evidence came to hand, represented by the Financial Statements of Frank Yiu, I took immediate steps to bring them to the attention of the Government. On 28 September 2005, a meeting was held with the Honourable Vice-President, in the presence of the current Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, where the exonerative value of the new evidence was accepted. This was followed by an exchange of letters between my humble self and the Honourable Attorney-General dated 30 September and 7 October 2005 respectively. At long last, after nine painful years, the truth about the passport saga has prevailed. And I hope, from now on, my good name, character and reputation will be restored.

 

I wish to take this opportunity, therefore, to record my deep appreciation to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Vice-President Solomon Berewa for agreeing to accept the new exonerative evidence which in turn will facilitate the restoration of my good name. Such happenings are indeed very rare in Africa. The exoneration is that if, as alleged in the Indictment, it was true I had forced Frank Yiu to part with monies he was holding for the Government, nothing had prevented him from disclosing that fact in his Financial Statements. The fact is that he did not. And that is sufficient evidence to show that the monies he provided to my electioneering campaign fund did not come from the IIP.

 

What this also means is that it is open to me to claim from the Government a refund of the amount of US$105,000 I paid in 1996. Although it is my legal right so to do, I have been persuaded for a variety of reasons not to pursue that claim. I have agreed, not because I did not need the money – of course I do – but simply because I consider the vindication of my good name and reputation as far more important to me and my family.   

 

I thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen, for your kind attention. It is my fervent hope that, with this new development, this matter of the so-called “Passport Saga” will be allowed to rest for good. And if you have published before based on rumours and hearsay resulting in tainting my character reputation, I bear you no grudge. All I ask now is that you be good enough to consider it your professional duty to make amends and repair the damage.

 

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