In St. Kitts, passport 'sales' lead to escalating political drama

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.

Canada is play­ing a periph­er­al role in an esca­lat­ing polit­i­cal dra­ma in St. Kitts and Nevis, two lush trop­i­cal islands with a total pop­u­la­tion of about 50,000 (DREAMSTIME)

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.

Rustem Tursunbayev

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

In St. Kitts, pass­port ‘sales’ lead to esca­lat­ing polit­i­cal drama