November 19 marked two years since the prominent Seychellois businessman Mukesh Valabhji and his wife Laura, a lawyer, appeared in the Supreme Court, after being arrested a day earlier by police on suspicion of money laundering of $50 million.
The couple have been on remand since.
The case is related to $50 million granted to the Seychelles’ government by the United Arab Emirates in 2002. The funds were transferred to a bank account of the Seychelles Marketing Board (SMB), now the Seychelles Trading Company (STC), to a Baroda bank account in England. At the time Mukesh Valabhji was the managing director of the SMB and the prosecution alleges that the funds were returned to Seychelles, an archipelago in the western Indian Ocean, to pay for hotels sold in the privatisation of the COSPROH holdings, a state-owned enterprise that owned several hotels, of which Mukesh Valabhji was the executive chairman.
SNA looks at the main points in the case two years after the arrest of the Valabhji couple.
Search of the property – arms discovery
During the search at the couple’s residence, the police discovered a cache of arms. Shortly after, Leslie Benoiton, a senior officer in the former Seychelles People’s Defence Forces – now known as the Seychelles Defence Forces – was arrested in connection to the cache of arms. A separate case was opened on the possession of these weapons.
High level officials arrested and former First Lady
On November 23, two former high government officials, former minister Maurice Loustau-Lalanne, who was one of the former directors of the Compagnie Seychelloise de Promotion Hôtelière (COSPROH) and Leikha Nair, a former director general at the Ministry of Finance at the time, were also arrested.
While Nair was granted bail, Loustau-Lalanne was remanded until all suspects appeared before the Supreme Court on December 3, 2021.
On November 27, Sarah Zarqhani Rene, the wife of late president France Albert Rene, was arrested as part of the ongoing case of the missing $50 million.
All six suspects were formally charged on December 17, 2021.
Mukesh Valahbji was charged with conspiracy to commit official corruption contrary to sections 91 and 381 of the penal code and conspiracy to commit money laundering. His wife Laura Valabhji was charged with money laundering.
Leslie Benoiton was charged with money laundering for corruptly obtaining $100,000 by way of payment from Mukesh Valabji without lawful authority or excuse.
Three others charged with money laundering were Lekha Nair, Maurice Loustau-Lalanne and Sara Zarqhani Rene.
Bail for Nair, Loustau-Lalanne and Zarqhani were granted while the Valabhji couple and Benoiton remain to date on remand.
Nair was released after paying a SCR50,000 ($3768) bail bond and Loustau-Lalanne after paying SCR250,000 ($18,837) bail bond and provided two sureties of SCR 100,000 ($7,535) each as well as handing his passport to the authorities.
Bail for Zarqhani was set at $2 million with two sureties of $1 million each. She did not pay the bail set and remained in police custody.
On December 29, two former officers of the Seychelles Defence Forces were arrested – 75-year-old retired brigadier and former Chief of the Seychelles People’s Defence Forces (SPDF), Leopold Payet, and 81-year-old retired lieutenant colonel and presidential chief security officer, Frank Marie.
The five suspects in the ongoing possession of firearms case, Valabhji and his wife Laura, Benoiton, Payet and Frank Marie were formally charged on February 11.
They were charged with abuse of authority of office for possession of firearms, use of property for commission of terrorist acts, conspiracy to commit offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, acquisition and possession of firearms or ammunition without licence under the Firearms and Ammunition Act.
Marie was released on bail on February 25 due to health issues.
Case transferred to Office of the Attorney General
On May 6, the money laundering case of the missing $50 million from Seychelles’ government accounts was transferred to the Office of the Attorney General.
This came after it was revealed that the powers of the Anti-Corruption Commission of Seychelles (ACCS) to prosecute six defendants are limited both in time and in regards to the offences until amendments are made to the Anti-Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism (AMLFT) Act 2020.
Charges amended, some accused released
After the amendments to the law were made by the National Assembly on May 19, the ACCS filed amended charges for money laundering against businessman Mukesh Valabji and former First Lady Sarah Zarqhani Rene. While Valabhji remains in custody, Zarqhani Rene was released.
All charges against Nair and Loustau-Lalanne in the money laundering accounts were dropped.
Charges concerning money laundering were withdrawn against Laura Valabhji pending further investigations but she remains on remand in relation to the firearms and prevention of terrorism case.
The Supreme Court had set December 1 as the date for the arms and ammunition trial, and the hearing is ongoing while the corruption case initial trial date was set for April 13, 2023.
This date was later moved to May 11, 2023, as the couple appeared before Judge Mohan Burhan concerning their request for Chief Justice Govinden’s recusal from their cases.
ACCS to resume corruption case once the ongoing illegal arms case concludes
Despite announcing the trial date for the corruption case, the ACCS head, May de Silva, announced in the National Assembly this week that it will only resume once the illegal arms and ammunition case comes to a conclusion.