Nepal figures in leaked money laundering report

Illustration: CIJ NEPAL

Top secret documents prepared by the US government’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) and leaked to the media have revealed $2 trillion in suspicious money transfers, and include files that involve some of Nepal’s top banks.

The information is contained in ‘Suspicious Activity Reports’ (SARs) sent by banks to the American financial watchdog between 1999 to 2017, and most involve transactions with countries on which the US has imposed sanctions, like Russia, North Korea, Iran and Cuba, or Chinese companies which Washington has blacklisted. 

Some of these SARs involve transfers through Kathmandu-based banks, and by Nepali firms a few of which appear to be front or fake companies, or ones that are defunct. Banks report transactions when they suspect that money laundering or criminal activity is suspected, but they do not necessarily mean that the companies or individuals named have broken the law.

The Nepal files contain transactions made through nine banks, 10 companies and other individuals between 2006-2017 and include some of the big names in banking. However, the companies are less well known, and some of the individual names appear to be security guards or Nepali overseas workers sending money home. 

Even so, some of the Nepal-based companies named appear to have been involved in smuggling gold, antiquities, or trading in asphalt and telecommunication equipment. The transactions flagged in the FinCEN leaks in Nepal were through Standard Chartered Bank, Prime Commercial Bank, Bank of Kathmandu, Nepal Investment Bank, Everest Bank, Mega Bank, Himalayan Bank, Apex Development Bank of Kaski, and Nepal Bangladesh Bank.

The leaked documents contain the names of 10 little known Nepal-based companies including Rauniyar Brothers & Co of Birganj, Subha Samriddhi Traders Pvt Ltd of Kathmandu, Shasta Trading Company, Setidevi Export Import Pvt Ltd, L D International Pvt Ltd, Felt and Yarn Pvt Ltd, Woman’s Paper Crafts, Acme Money Transfer Service, and Sunny Enterprises. Some these were never registered, others appear to be front companies, and some are closed. 

Of the nearly $300 million worth of transactions through Nepal that were flagged in the FinCEN documents, $177.6 million were bank transfers of which $103 million were transferred out of Nepal and $74.6 million were remitted into the country. There were also $48.2 million worth of possibly illegal transactions in various countries with Nepal links, and another $75 million transactions not in Nepal, but involving Nepali-sounding surnames and addresses. 

Most of the transactions in the FinCEN leaks that raised red flags, including those by Rauniyar Brothers and Shubha Shambridhi Traders, involved over $70 million in Letters of Credit through Standard Chartered Bank in Nepal and its branches abroad. The Rauniyar transactions went through the Dubai-based Kite International FZE, and involved import and export of petroleum products. They were sourced from Bandar Abbas port in Iran in contravention of US-sanctions, and the shipment documents were reportedly forged to look like they came through Dubai.

When asked to respond, Pranu Singh of Standard Chartered Bank Nepal said the bank was bound by client confidentiality and did not comment on specific cases. ‘The reality is that there will always be attempts to launder money and evade sanctions,’ she wrote in an email reply. ‘We take our responsibility to fight financial crime extremely seriously and have invested substantially in our compliance programs.’  

The other companies involved appear to have been involved in using banking channels to fund gold smuggling operations via jewellery companies in Hong Kong and Dubai between 2009-2011. 

Some banking transactions appear to have been listed in the SARs because they involved Chinese telecommunication company ZTE that is on a US blacklist, while others were  transfers from Nepal to known tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, Seychelles and Luxembourg.  

The leaked files also include transfers of amounts as small as $120-500 to Nepali companies and from Nepali workers in Iraq and other countries that for some reason were in the suspicious activity reports sent by corresponding banks as long as ten years ago. However, some of the companies listed, like Woman’s Paper Crafts, are not even officially registered in Nepal.

Two separate reports in the FinCEN leaks concern possible payments for smuggled Nepali religious artifacts. Standard Chartered Bank New York flagged American Nancy Wiener Gallery and several other dealers suspected to be involved in the illegal trade of antiquities. Some of them were linked to Subhash Kapoor, an Indian national and the Art of the Past Gallery owner in New York, who used to facilitate artifacts smuggling from India to the United States. He was arrested by Interpol in 2011 at Frankfurt airport.

Nancy Wiener Gallery was cited in the FinCEN leaked files for suspicious transactions worth $27 million between 2010-2017. This is the same gallery that sold a stolen 16th-century bronze from Nepal in 2010 and transferred the payment to Pantheon Worldwide in Hong Kong. The bank that filed the suspicious activity report said: ‘The transactions appear to be related to antiquities that were potentially purchased and sold illegally.’

Nepal’s Money Laundering Prevention Act requires banks and financial institutions to report suspicious transactions to the Nepal Rastra Bank’s Financial Information Unit (FIU). The Act bars clients from making transactions under anonymous or fictitious names. 

Financial institutions also need to keep a separate record of transactions of high-ranking officials in the political, administrative, and judicial spheres. Although some of the suspicious transactions in the FinCEN report are dated, there appears to be a gap in the way Nepal’s banking sector monitors international transfers. This poses a serious challenge, and could push Nepal towards an international blacklist of high-risk countries.

Nepal Rastra Bank Governor Maha Prasad Adhikari says Nepal has enacted laws against money laundering and has set up a Financial Information Unit (FIU) at the central bank. 

“However, having legal provisions doesn’t mean that money laundering will not happen. We don’t claim that we are good at implementing laws, but it’s getting better as time passes,” Adhikari added. “We have fined six banks and financial institutions for mishandling Know Your Customers forms and failing to monitor and report money laundering. Nepal Rastra Bank is committed to preventing money laundering. There won’t be any ifs or buts.”

The latest ‘FinCEN Files’ contain top secret financial records obtained by BuzzFeed News and shared with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and other news organisations. In Kathmandu, follow up investigations were conducted by the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal (CIJ-N).

Krishna Acharya, Ramu Sapkota and Shiva Gaunle. Arun Karki and Pramod Acharya also contributed to this report.

Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal

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