Bribery Investigators Head to Namibia

Þorsteinn Már Samherji

Officials from Iceland travelled to Namibia last week to participate in the questioning of witnesses in the Samherji bribery case. District public prosecutor Ólafur Þór Hauksson and investigators also met with the Namibian Anti Corruption Commission, RÚV reports.

Nine Icelanders investigated

In the fall of 2019, the story broke that one of Iceland’s largest seafood companies, Samherji, had allegedly bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes. The story was reported collaboratively by Kveikur, Stundin (now Heimildin), and Al Jazeera Investigates, after months of investigations sparked by the confessions of whistleblower Jóhannes Stefánsson, a former project manager for Samherji in Namibia.

The district public prosecutor’s office began its investigation in November of 2019. Nine Icelandic individuals are being investigated, including Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, CEO of Samherji. He briefly stepped aside when the news broke, but returned as CEO shortly after. In Namibia, ten people have been charged with receiving bribes from Samherji in exchange for fishing quotas. Among them are two former ministers from the Namibian cabinet, the chairman of Fishcor, the National Fishing Corporation of Namibia, and its CEO.

Prolonged investigation

Ólafur Þór said that the trip was mutually beneficial for both Icelandic and Namibian authorities and that the next step would be to work through the information collected during the trip. “The case is becoming clearer, the longer we get into the investigation,” he said, but did not comment on when his office will close the investigation, which is now entering its fifth year. The duration has been criticised by both the Icelandic public and the defendants themselves.

Paulus Noa, manager of the Anti Corruption Commission, said that the Icelandic delegation would help Namibian authorities with the investigation of their side of the scandal, which has been dubbed the Fishrot case. He added that the goal is to secure the prosecution of the individuals involved, regardless of their nationality.

Minister’s Assistant Silent on Purpose of Meeting with Namibian Officials

Brynjar Níelsson, assistant to the Minister of Justice, has refused to disclose the purpose of a meeting he had with Namibian officials at Iceland’s Ministry of Justice last June 7. He has stated that the meeting was not an official meeting and is therefore not subject to the Information Act. Namibian authorities would not confirm to Fréttablaðið that the meeting concerned private affairs.

Namibia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Attorney General, and Deputy Director General of the Namibian Anti-Corruption Commission visited Iceland last June. The purpose of their trip was to meet with investigators of the so-called Fishrot Files scandal, involving the operations of one of Iceland’s largest seafood companies in Namibia. The company, Samherji, allegedly bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes.

Met with other ministers that day

While in the country last June, Namibian officials met with Brynjar at the Ministry of Justice. Brynjar sat in as Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson’s representative, as the Minister was absent at the time. The Namibian officials had met with Foreign Minister Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir earlier that same day.

Opposition MP Helga Vala Helgadóttir, of the Social-Democratic Alliance, has criticised Brynjar for staying silent on the substance of the meeting. “The Assistant to the Minister of Justice does not meet with the Deputy Prime Minister of Namibia, the Attorney General of Namibia, and the Deputy Director General of the Namibian Anti-Corruption Commission on behalf of the Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson to discuss private matters. No more than the Prime Minister who met with them first or the Foreign Minister,” Helga stated.

Namibian Officials Visit Iceland And Discuss Fishrot Files

Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah and Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir

Namibian officials, including the country’s Deputy Prime Minister, visited Iceland this week and discussed the case of Icelandic seafood company Samherji’s allegedly questionable business practices in Namibia, Stundin reports. The District Public Prosecutor confirmed to Vísir that he has met twice with those in charge of investigation and prosecution and states that the investigation is progressing nicely.

Read more: The Fishrot Files

Two and a half years have passed since Kveikur, Stundin, and Al Jazeera Investigates cooperated with Wikileaks to shed light on what’s known as the Fishrot Files. In that media coverage, whistleblower Jóhannes Stefánsson alleged that Samherji committed bribery and tax fraud in relation to their fishing operations in Namibia.

“We’ve acquired a considerable amount of data, and we’re working our way through that data and conducting interviews, although COVID-19 has hindered us in getting meetings, mostly abroad. We’ve been working on fixing that over the past few days,” District Public Prosecutor Ólafur Þór Hauksson told Vísir, confirming Stundin’s report that Icelandic investigators had met with their Namibian counterparts in the Hague last week to coordinate their efforts. Meetings have continued in Iceland over the past few days.

“Most recently, there have been meetings with the parties investigating and prosecuting these cases n Namibia, and we needed to go over the situation of the case there. I can’t disclose the content of the meetings but will confirm that the meetings have taken place and been very productive.”

Icelandic citizens cannot be extradited to Namibia

Deputy Prime Minister of Namibia Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah is in Iceland along with Namibia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) Deputy Director-General Erna van der Merwe and Prosecutor General Martha Imalwa. The reason for their visit is to meet with the Icelandic investigators on the case as well as Icelandic ministers. After their meeting with the Minister of Justice’s assistant Brynjar Níelsson, he confirmed to Stundin that Namibian authorities had extended no official extradition request. Namibian investigators have asked that Namibian judicial authorities issue such a request, as extradition is a prerequisite for prosecution. No extradition treaties are in place between Namibia and Iceland, and according to legislation, Icelandic citizens can not be extradited.

When asked if it was normal for an investigation to take such a long time, Ólafur stated that it’s possible when the case is extensive. “In that case, this can take a long time in Iceland and abroad. I will point out, in this context, that Namibian investigators started looking into the issue long before 2019. I believe it was in 2015 that they started looking into it.”

Ólafur would not issue a timeframe for prosecution but repeated that the investigation was progressing satisfactorily.

Samherji Journalist Wins Appeal Against Northeast Iceland Police

The Northeast Iceland District Court has ruled on Stundin journalist Aðalsteinn Kjartansson’s appeal to determine the legality of a police investigation into his and other journalists’ alleged distribution of sexual material from the stolen phone of a Samherji ship captain. The judge concluded that Northeast Iceland Police chief Páley Borgþórsdóttir was wrong to give official defendant status to Aðalsteinn on those grounds, Vísir reports.

As previously reported, four journalists are under investigation by Northeast Iceland Police. While it initially appeared the investigation was into the journalists’ reporting on leaked communications between several Samherji employees calling themselves the company’s “guerrilla division.” However, they were instead accused of violating Articles 228 and 229 of the Penal Code — legislation implemented to protect victims of digital sexual violence. They were given the legal status of defendants in the case.

A law isn’t broken by a journalist receiving data

As per news site Stundin, the Northeast Iceland District Court determined the journalists were not considered to have breached the law simply for receiving and viewing sensitive personal data since it is part of a journalist’s job to receive data and tips and determine if it is in the public interest to pursue them.

The ruling notes that, in general, the mere act of receiving and opening data sent without the recipient’s consent is not a criminal offence.

A case built on sand?

The district court’s verdict also states that it cannot be concluded from police documents that ship captain Páll Steingrímsson contacted the police because of the personal videos on his phone, which the police claimed to be the reason for Aðalsteinn being named as a defendant.

Gunnar Ingi Jóhannsson, Aðalsteinn’s lawyer, told Stundin the ruling confirms his argument that “the police’s case against the journalists is built on sand.”

Further Twists in Police Investigation of Samherji Journalists

Þórður Snær Júlíusson

A court case is revealing more twists in the high-profile police investigation of four journalists in Iceland, Vísir reports. The prosecutor argues the journalists are guilty of distributing sexual material from a stolen phone, while the journalists’ lawyer says he has not seen the material and the police theory most resembles a conspiracy theory. Northeast Iceland Police called in the journalists for questioning earlier this month in relation to their reporting on seafood company Samherji, the centre of a bribery and tax evasion scandal that first broke in 2019. The questioning was later postponed when one of the four journalists appealed to the Northeast Iceland District Court to determine its legality.

Read More: Police Investigate Journalists for Samherji Scandal Reporting

At first, it appeared the police investigation was centred on the journalists’ reporting from May 2021 into leaked communications between several Samherji employees who referred to themselves as the company’s “guerrilla division.” A report from Northeast Iceland Police, however, states that police are investigating sexual offences against Páll Steingrímsson, the owner of the phone that was the source of the leaked communications. The journalist’s lawyer argued that police had no evidence the sexual material on Páll’s phone had been distributed among the journalists and that the entire case was an attempt to silence media and “teach the journalists a lesson.”

The case against the four journalists is built on legislation implemented last year to protect victims of digital sexual violence.

Namibia Requests Interpol’s Aid in Extraditing Former Samherji Executives

Namibia’s State Prosecutor has asked Interpol for assistance in the extradition of Aðalsteinn Helgason, Egill Helgi Árnason, and Ingvar Júlíusson in connection with the investigation of the so-called Samherji scandal, RÚV reports. The three men were all executives in companies owned by Icelandic seafood company Samherji in Namibia. They are all asking to be permitted to testify in the case from abroad, but the prosecutor intents to file charges against the men, for which they must appear before a judge in Namibia.

Samherji was the centre of a media investigation made public in 2019, which alleged that the fishing company had bribed Namibian officials to obtain lucrative quotas, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes. Aðalsteinn and Egill Helgi were Samherji’s managing directors in Namibia. The charges against Egill Helgi are in connection with his work for Esja Holding and Mermaria Seafood Namibia. Ingvar was a CFO for Samherji and the charges against him are in connection with his work for Saga Seafood, Esja Investment and Heinaste Investments.

Read More: The Samherji Scandal

Last year, the State Prosecutor requested that the three men be extradited from Iceland, but the request was rejected, as the Icelandic government does not extradite Icelandic citizens. The State Prosecutor says Namibian authorities have more than enough evidence in hand to justify Interpol’s involvement and that the three men have not provided any evidence to the contrary. She says the trio is attempting to destroy all evidence of their involvement in the case.

Police Investigates Journalists for Samherji Scandal Reporting

Þórður Snær - ritsjóri Kjarnans - fjölmiðlar

The Northeast Iceland Police Department has launched an investigation of four journalists in relation to their reporting on seafood company Samherji, the centre of an international scandal that first erupted in late 2019. The journalists are being investigated for alleged violations of privacy and have the legal status of defendants in the case. The Journalists’ Association of Iceland has condemned the investigation.

The four journalists are Aðalsteinn Kjartansson of Stundin, Arnar Þór Ingólfsson of Kjarninn, Þórður Snær Júlíusson, Kjarninn’s editor, and Þóra Arnórsdóttir, editor of investigative journalism programme Kveikur at Icelandic National Broadcaster RÚV. The police investigation is centred on reporting from May 2021 into leaked communications between several Samherji employees who referred to themselves as the company’s “guerrilla division.” The employees worked to gather information on journalists who had published negative press on Samherji as well as trying to discredit them and disqualify them from writing about the company in the future.

Several government ministers, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, condemned Samherji’s targeting of the media after the “guerilla division” investigation came to light. Samherji issued a statement and later printed a letter of apology in Fréttablaðið and Morgunblaðið newspapers in response to the case.

Public interest versus privacy

Sigríður Dögg Auðunsdóttir, chairperson of The Journalists’ Association of Iceland, described the police investigation as “incomprehensible” and “indefensible” in a written statement published on the Association’s website. She expressed consternation that the journalists were being investigated for simply reporting on data they had obtained. “Whenever data is of such a nature that it could be considered a violation of privacy, a journalist must evaluate them with regard to public interest and assess which weighs more heavily: privacy or public interest,” Sigríður wrote. “When public interest prevails, there is never a question whether such data should be used as a basis for news, no matter how the data is obtained.”

The journalists’ reporting was based on leaked messages, reportedly from a stolen phone, but how the journalists obtained the data is unknown. Þórður Snær Júlíusson, one of the defendants, says police told him he was not suspected of stealing the phone, rather the police investigation was based on suspected violations of privacy as outlined in articles 228 and 229 of the Penal Code. “It entails that we have written news stories based on the data, there’s really nothing else that falls under [these articles].”

Samherji Prints Apology in Icelandic Papers

Director of Samherji Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson

An apology letter signed by Samherji CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson was published in today’s issues of Fréttablaðið and Morgunblaðið, Iceland’s most widely distributed print newspapers. In the letter Þorsteinn Már references the company’s “reprehensible business practices” in Namibia, apologising “personally and on behalf of the company.” A more extensive apology was posted on the company’s website. Vísir reported first.

One of Iceland’s largest seafood companies, in 2019 Samherji was the subject of a media investigation that revealed documents suggesting the company had bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes. The award-winning investigation led to arrests and resignations in Namibia, and Þorsteinn Már stepped down as the company’s CEO, only to be reinstated in the position five months later.

Read More: The Samherji Scandal

The published apology letter makes no reference to a media-targeting scandal the company was implicated in earlier this year, on which a previous statement was issued. It expresses the company’s will to “learn from these mistakes” and states they have taken “extensive measures” to ensure they will not happen again.

Samherji Issues Partial Apology Amid Media-Targeting Scandal

Director of Samherji Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson

Fishing company Samherji issued a statement yesterday in which the company apologises for the behaviour of its management, which “went too far” in its “harsh” response to negative media coverage, according to the company. Leaked documents show the company’s lawyer, PR consultant, and a ship captain in their employ co-ordinated a campaign targeting journalists who had published investigations into the company’s alleged bribery and tax fraud. While Samherji has set a new tone with the statement, it has left journalists and the public unconvinced.

In 2019, a joint investigation by Icelandic media and Al Jazeera into leaked documents from Samherji alleged the company had bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds off the country’s coast, as well as avoiding taxes by leveraging international loopholes. The investigation made international headlines and led to the resignation and arrest of high-ranking government officials in Namibia.

In Focus: The Samherji Scandal

Icelandic media outlet Kjarninn published an investigation earlier this month into leaked communications between several Samherji employees who referred to themselves as the company’s “guerrilla division.” The employees worked to gather information on journalists who had published negative press on Samherji as well as trying to discredit them and disqualify them from writing about the company in the future. Several government ministers, including Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, condemned Samherji’s actions after the investigation came to light.

Samherji released a short statement yesterday in response to the investigation. It begins by asserting the coverage of the company’s operations over the years to have been “one-sided, unfair, and not always based on facts,” stating that in such situations, it can be “difficult not to react.” It labelled the leaked communications between its “guerrilla division” members as “unfortunate.” The statement concludes with an apology of sorts, stating: “Samherji’s management has also reacted harshly to negative coverage of the company and it is clear that those reactions went too far. For that reason, Samherji would like to apologise for that conduct.”

RÚV journalists expressed their hope that the statement signalled a change of direction for Samherji, whose owners have refused to grant journalists an interview since the Fishrot Files scandal broke in 2019. They were, however, critical of its vague wording and lack of reference to specific company executives, actions, or even who the apology is directed towards. “Maybe this apology would have been better if it had been clearer who was apologising to whom and for what,” Heiðar Örn Sigurfinsson, Deputy News Editor of Iceland’s National Broadcaster RÚV wrote in a Facebook post.

Þorsteinn Már Resumes As Samherji’s Sole Director

Director of Samherji Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson

Björgólfur Jóhannsson has left his position as Director of Samherji, a position he has held since November 2019. He is now Chairman of Samherji’s compliance committee, which deals with regulation and management within the Samherji corporation. Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson, who stepped down as director following the Namibian Fishrot scandal, returned as co-director last March and has now resumed his role as the sole Director of Samherji.

Björgólfur replaced Þorsteinn Már as Director following the revelation of the Fishrot files, which indicate that Samherji was involved in money laundering, tax evasion and bribery in its operations in Namibia. Two days after Kveikur and Stundin uncovered the payments Samherji made to powerful people in Namibia and their relatives, Þorstenn Már stepped down. He returned to his post last March, working as Director alongside Björgólfur for almost a year.

A post on the Samherji website states that Björgólfur is leaving his position as Director, thanking him for his important role and contribution in unusual times. The post also reveals that he has been voted chairman of the company’s compliance committee.

Rúv also reports that yesterday morning, it was announced that a prosecutor in Norway had dropped an investigation into DNB’s affairs with Samherji and suspicion of money laundering. A prosecutor found that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge the Norwegian bank’s staff. A judge with the Reykjavík district court agreed earlier that the district prosecutor could receive KPMG’s data connected to the firm’s accounting work for Samherji. Samherji representatives have made official complaints about the judge and the prosecutor’s conduct. Earlier this month, it was revealed that three men who managed or helped manage Samherji’s companies in Namibia would be charged over the Samherji Fishrot scandal.