Paradise Papers, Panama Papers, Snowden files: When leaks rattled rich and powerful
A vast leak of financial documents could expose the secret wealth of hundreds of rich Indians, including politicians, corporate heavyweights and entertainment leaders, who are suspected to have used offshore tax havens to dodge taxes.
The British queen, Donald Trump’s cabinet ministers; Indian politicians, and film stars: the world’s rich and powerful are under scrutiny after the publication of the Paradise Papers allegedly exposed how they shelter their wealth in secretive tax havens.
The details in the Paradise Papers come from a leak of 13.4 million files related to two offshore service providers and the company registries of 19 tax havens. Document leaks have shaped and shocked public opinion in recent years: from Edward Snowden revealing the reach of American intelligence agencies to Indian corporate lobbyist Niira Radia using her contacts with journalists and politicians to allegedly fix ministerial appointments.
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A look at other disclosures in modern history that have hit governments, citizens and people in power.
Millions of secret files of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca were sent to German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which collaborated with the ICIJ and 100 other media organisations to study the documents.
The records, published in 2016, revealed the names of individuals who paid the firm to set up offshore entities in tax havens around the world. More than 500 Indians featured in the list, including Bollywood stars Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Amitabh Bachchan, DLF CEO KP Singh, and Indiabulls chairman Samir Gehlaut among others, The Indian Express said.
Former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified from office over allegations stemming from disclosures in the Panama Papers that said his family’s wealth was more than his known sources of income.
Another investigation by the ICIJ revealed secret documents of HSBC’s Swiss private banking arm, which contained the names of account holders and their balances in 2006-07. It included the names of 1,195 Indian clients, nearly double the names given to the government by French authorities in 2011 that led to an investigation directed by the Supreme Court, reported The Indian Express.
Whistleblower Herve Falciani, a former bank staffer, had handed over the 100GB information to French officials in 2008 and the data was then given to French newspaper Le Monde by tax authorities.
After the leaks, money parked by Indians in Switzerland’s banks nearly halved to 676 million Swiss francs (about Rs 4,500 crore) in 2016 to hit a record low amid a continuing clampdown on the suspected black money stashed behind their famed secrecy walls.
In 2013, ICIJ analysed 2.5 million leaked offshore files with over a 100 journalists in 58 countries. The database includes 100,000 secret companies, trusts and funds created in offshore locales such as the British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Cook Islands and Singapore.
The investigation shook political and economic establishments and prompted world leaders to call for greater transparency, said ICIJ. Popular tax haven Luxembourg announced after the leaks it will share information with tax authorities of Europeans and American citizens with the governments.
More than 100 taped conversations between Niira Radia — a corporate lobbyist for Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata — and journalists and politicians were published by Open and Outlook magazines in 2010. The transcripts were allegedly part of taped conversations by the Income Tax department and the government recorded between May and July 2009 as surveillance, according to The Hindu.
In 2014, former telecom minister A Raja — an accused in the 2G spectrum scam — denied having a telephonic talk with Radia, although reports said a transcript included their conversation. Prominent journalists Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi featured in the tapes as well.
Submarine data leak
Documents detailing the secret combat capabilities of Scorpene-class submarines that French shipbuilder DCNS has designed for the Indian Navy were leaked, The Australian reported last year. The paper, which exposed the leak, had uploaded documents from a cache of 22,400 classified papers of DCNS, which was helping India build six Scorpene submarines under a Rs 23,562-crore ($3.5 billion) deal.
The French government had claimed the documents were stolen, and not leaked, while The Australian said the data was “removed from DCNS by a former sub-contractor in 2011 and taken to a private company in Southeast Asia before being passed to a branch of that company in a second Southeast Asian nation”.
Former CIA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details of confidential National Surveillance Agency (NSA) programmes to news organisations in 2013. The Guardian, which broke the story on June 6, revealed that US telecom providers were authorised by a top-secret court to collect and give over communication records of millions of Americans.
Snowden’s supporters say he was a whistleblower who acted to unmask government overreach that was trampling citizens’ rights to privacy and free speech. The leaks also caused diplomatic embarrassment to the US after it was found that the NSA had spied on world leaders and foreign governments, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the French foreign ministry.
Snowden has been living in Russia since 2013, when he got stuck in the transit area at a Moscow airport after the United States cancelled his passport.
US military documents by Chelsea Manning
In July 2010, transgender army private Chelsea Manning — then a male soldier known as Bradley — was arrested over the release of a huge trove of more than 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents via WikiLeaks.
Manning told The New York Times in an interview she had not planned to share the documents until she saw how disengaged Americans were from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The documents included a video, Collateral Murder, that showed the US army killing unarmed civilians in an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq.
The 29-year-old walked free from a military prison in January after former president Barack Obama commuted her sentence before leaving office.
US cable on Tunisia — Wikileaks
WikiLeaks’ disclosure of a 2009 secret dispatch written by the then American envoy to Tunisia, Robert Godec, is said to be an instigator of revolt in the country where the Arab Spring was born.
Published by Lebanon-based newspaper al-Akhbar, Godec wrote: “The problem is clear… Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of (predecessor) president Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,” The Guardian reported.
Former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown and forced to flee the country with his family after a month of protests in 2011.
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