As Iranian claims to have bought passport for $1 million, critics say controversy provides another reason why PM Denzil Douglas should be voted out.
Canadian immigration officials were perplexed — to say the least — when an Iranian businessman arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport brandishing a diplomatic passport from the tiny Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis.
They quickly started asking questions about how he had obtained the passport and the purpose of his trip to Canada. And they couldn’t have been more surprised by his response.
The Iranian, Alizera Moghadam, told them he had bought the passport from the St. Kitts and Nevis government for $1 million (U.S.), that he was on official diplomatic business and that he was to meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. According to a subsequent St. Kitts and Nevis cabinet submission from the country’s minister of foreign affairs, Moghadam was then “asked to provide additional details or supporting documentation” and was “either unable or unwilling to do so.”
Moghadam was allowed into Canada. But the fallout from that curious incident last year has resulted in Canada playing a peripheral role in a long-running and escalating political drama in the smallest independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, two lush tropical islands with a total population of about 50,000, a combined land mass of just over 250 square kilometres, a seat in the United Nations and not a single traffic light.
Ottawa promptly dispatched a senior immigration official to the St. Kitts capital of Basseterre to grill authorities about exactly what was going on with its highly lucrative but already suspect policy of selling citizenship and passports, while leaders of an unprecedented multi-party political coalition that came together a few months ago to oppose Prime Minister Denzil Douglas are claiming the passport controversy is just one more reason it’s time the Caribbean’s longest-serving head of state should be voted out of power.
Douglas, who for more than a year has been avoiding a vote on a parliamentary motion of no-confidence, is expected to call general elections early this year. And, for the first time since his populist Labour Party was voted into office in 1995, observers believe the combative political veteran faces an uphill struggle to cling to power in the Eastern Caribbean twin-island federation.
The fallout from the Moghadam affair hasn’t enhanced the popularity of a tough-talking leader who once notoriously proclaimed “I can incite” and who told a radio talk-show host he would like to “chop off the heads” of political foes. Kittitians and Nevisians are concerned that Ottawa’s prickly response to the Pearson incident could be a sign that their cherished right to enter Canada on a passport alone, without the hassle and expense of obtaining a visa, might be in jeopardy.
Those fears are not unrealistic, and the St. Kitts and Nevis government, after the June 2013 visit of immigration official Paul Jamieson from the Canadian High Commission in Trinidad, declared that its Citizenship by Investment program would no longer be open to nationals of Iran or Afghanistan, two of the countries Canada had expressed concern about.
Under the program, St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship — along with passports — can be bought for $250,000 (U.S.) cash or with the purchase of property for at least $400,000. The program is popular with well-heeled citizens of countries whose passports are not widely accepted, and St. Kitts and Nevis passports can be bought by people who have never set foot in either island.
Since Jamieson’s visit, during which he reportedly insisted that official documents be handed over to him, the government has conceded publicly that Moghadam was, indeed, the holder of a St. Kitts and Nevis diplomatic passport, and said it was granted to him as a special trade envoy to Turkey and Azerbaijan after he had bought his citizenship. There are no known economic ties between St. Kitts and Nevis and either of those countries.
The government has since stated that its diplomatic passports are not for sale, but has declined to answer specific questions from local reporters about Moghadam’s reported claim that he bought his for $1 million.
Timothy Harris, the long-serving Labour minister who now heads the Unity coalition striving to unseat the prime minister, has hammered home his concerns about the passport controversy since the Moghadam story first made headlines in the Eastern Caribbean a few weeks ago.
Last month, just after returning to St. Kitts from a week in Toronto drumming up support for Unity, Harris said “Moghadam’s appointment as special envoy to Turkey raises serious questions in light of the fact that St. Kitts and Nevis already has three representatives on whom it can rely to further its relationship with Turkey. Two of them, Gonul Eken and Aykut Eken, are resident in Turkey and assigned to Turkey and Belgium as honorary consuls of St. Kitts and Nevis. Further, a prominent local businessman, Michael Morton, has been appointed honorary consul for St. Kitts and Nevis by Turkey.”
The Moghadam incident was not the first time Canada had encountered problems with people carrying passports issued under the St. Kitts and Nevis Citizenship by Investment program, and Jamieson, during his fact-finding mission to Basseterre in early June, spelled out Ottawa’s various concerns. Among the most serious of them, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Patrice Nisbett’s submission to the St. Kitts and Nevis cabinet, were that people who normally would not have been allowed into Canada were entering on St. Kitts and Nevis passports, and that some holders of Citizenship by Investment passports might be applying for refugee status.
Two high-profile affairs involving St. Kitts and Nevis passports and Canada are the cases of Rustem Tursunbayev, a businessman wanted for massive embezzlement in his native Kazakhstan, and the notorious Dr. Arthur Porter, the one-time chair of Canada’s Security Intelligence Review Commission, the country’s spy watchdog, who is in jail in Panama fighting extradition to Canada, where he’s wanted on a number of charges, including fraud and laundering crime proceeds.
Canadian border authorities told an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing that Tursunbayev is the holder of a purchased St. Kitts and Nevis passport, while it has been reported by Caribbean media that Porter, who had business dealings in St. Kitts in 2011, also carries one.
The passport controversy is the latest political upheaval in this otherwise idyllic Caribbean paradise, an off-the-beaten-track haunt of the rich and famous.
Political tension started to mount in 2012 when Harris and then-Deputy Prime Minister Sam Condor, another Labour veteran, took strong stances against two contentious Douglas initiatives: the so-called land-for-debt swap, which involved giving the country’s National Bank 485 hectares of government land in exchange for writing off a loan of $250 million (Canadian.), and legislation to increase the number of senators (one of the federation’s legislative quirks is that senators, appointed by the government, can vote in parliament on everything other than no-confidence motions).
Harris was fired from the cabinet in January 2013, and a few days later Condor resigned in support of his dismissed colleague. Both crossed the floor of parliament to sit on the opposition benches — and both stated publicly that they would vote in favour of a no-confidence motion tabled in December 2012 by the opposition leader in parliament, Nevis MP Mark Brantley. The defection of Harris and Condor meant the combined opposition voices in the 11-seat parliament would amount to six votes, defeating the government and precipitating an election.
Douglas, renowned as one of the Caribbean’s wiliest politicians, kept the motion on hold for so long that its supporters took the matter to court — after which parliamentary speaker Curtis Martin, a government appointee, declared that as the issue was before the courts it was sub judice and could not be voted on in parliament.
Condor and Harris announced last June that they would be launching a new political party, called the People’s Labour Party. A few weeks later, they officially joined forces with St. Kitts’s People’s Action Movement and Nevis’s Concerned Citizens’ Movement under the Unity umbrella. The group has attracted substantial backing from across the political spectrum and the Caribbean’s most respected pollster, Jamaican Don Anderson, said recently that it had a lead over Douglas in public support.
Whether they can hold on to that lead remains to be seen; what is certain is that the apparently imminent election campaign will be a lively one and that Douglas will not be handing over the keys to the prime minister’s office without a ferocious fight.
Harris, in fact, is already calling for outside election monitors.
“We’re very optimistic that we can win an election if the elections are free and fair,” he said.
Last month, around the one-year anniversary of his filing the no-confidence motion, a frustrated Brantley — now co-deputy leader of the Unity coalition as well as opposition leader in parliament—fired off three angry broadsides, culminating in a radio address to the nation in which he described the government as a “rogue administration” that had made St. Kitts and Nevis “the poster child for dysfunctional democracy” in the Caribbean.
“It must be a point of shame for us as citizens that an Iranian national could have been so bold to have told Canadian authorities that he paid $1 million (U.S.) for a diplomatic passport of our country and to have lied that he was entering Canada to meet with the Canadian prime minister, but yet continues to hold diplomatic status of our country to this day,” he said.
And with political tension continuing to mount, Harris has already been given a clear message. It came when he presented his own diplomatic passport to immigration officials at Basseterre’s Robert Llewellyn Bradshaw International Airport as he was setting off on his recent trip to Toronto.
The government had revoked it.
BY SPECIAL TO THE STARS