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.

Depositions Next in Samherji Case

Director of Samherji Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson

The office of the district public prosecutor has received all documents requested from Namibia related to its investigation into the Samherji scandal, District Prosecutor Ólafur Þór Hauksson has confirmed with Heimildin. The final step will be depositions of Namibia-based individuals, many of whom are held in custody by Namibian authorities on bribery charges.

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.

Nine stand accused in Iceland

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.

Delays criticised

The prolonged investigation, now entering its fifth year, has been criticised, both by the Icelandic public and by the defendants. One of them, former Samherji General Counsel Arna McClure, filed a motion earlier this year, arguing that the case had been excessively delayed. The court did not grant the motion and she remains under investigation. In Namibia, court proceedings formally began last week, when a number of defendants were asked to enter their pleas regarding one aspect of the case. One after the other they refused to enter pleas, while their attorneys either didn’t show up or recused themselves.

Journalists’ Case Dismissed from Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal has dismissed journalist Aðalsteinn Kjartansson’s case against North Iceland Police, RÚV reports. The court’s ruling says there is nothing in the case that suggests that police did not follow correct procedure in the investigation against Aðalsteinn. The Northeast Iceland District Court had ruled in Aðalsteinn’s favour, but the journalist had requested to appeal the case.

The Court of Appeal ruling states that the media play an important role in a democratic society for free and informed debate. It stresses that care must be taken to avoid imposing restrictions on their work that would impair their ability to discuss issues. However, this does not guarantee journalists protection against a police investigation into alleged violations of criminal law.

Aðalsteinn was one of four journalists who received the legal status of defendant in connection with a police investigation into a violation of privacy. He decided to challenge the legality of the police’s actions and appealed to the Northeast Iceland District Court. While it was originally believed the case concerned the journalists’ coverage of a scandal connected to seafood company Samherji, the Chief of Police later announced that it concerned other, sensitive data found on a Samherji employee’s phone.

The journalists’ source has not been confirmed, nor whether they accessed the employee’s phone. Neither was there any mention of the sensitive data in question in any of the journalists’ reporting on the scandal.

The ruling means that the police may call the four journalists in for questioning in relation to their investigation.

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.

Sky-High Fines for Norwegian Bank that Serviced Samherji

Boat with Samherji Logo

Norwegian bank DNB has been reprimanded by Norway’s Financial Supervisory Authority, which criticised it for failing to regulate the transactions of six companies related to Icelandic seafood magnate Samherji. The bank was fined NOK 400 million ($48.2 million/€40 million) this morning for insufficient surveillance of money laundering. Kjarninn reports that the bank will not appeal the fine.

One of Iceland’s largest seafood companies, Samherji was the centre of an international scandal in late 2019 when an investigation alleged the company’s officials had bribed the Namibian government to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds. Leaked documents suggested the company had also taken advantage of international loopholes to avoid paying taxes.

DNB Terminated Services for Samherji Following Investigation

Most of Samherji’s financial transactions were mediated by DNB, Norway’s largest bank and one-third owned by the country’s Ministry of Trade and Industry. After the Samherji investigation became public, DNB asked the fishing company for documents to clarify their business with the bank and counter allegations of money laundering and tax evasion. The documents provided by Samherji were deemed insufficient to “clear up the issues brought up by the bank,” and DNB subsequently terminated deposit and payment services for several Samherji accounts at the bank.

In December 2020, the bank announced it was facing a fine equivalent to ISK 5.7 billion for poor money laundering protection. DNB was also investigated by the Norwegian Economic Crimes Police after the Samherji documents were made public.

Icelandic Directors of Samherji-related Companies To Be Charged In Namibia’s Fishrot Scandal

Boat with Samherji Logo

Three Icelandic Samherji employees, Ingvar Júlíusson, Egill Helgi Árnason and Aðalsteinn Helgason are among the 26 parties to be charged with money laundering and tax evasion in the Fishrot investigation in Namibia, RÚV reports. In a press release, Samherji states that the charge is not a surprise in light of the accusations Namibian prosecutors have issued based on the assertions of Jóhannes Stefánsson, whistleblower and manager of Samherji’s operations in Namibia until 2016.

Namibia’s Prosecutor General published the charges this morning, charging 26 parties, individuals and corporations, with 14 charges such as racketeering, money laundering and tax evasion. Ingvar, Egill Helgi and Aðalsteinn managed or co-managed Samherji’s companies in Namibia. Egill Helgi is charged for his work for Esja Holding and Mermaria Seafood Namibia. Ingvar was financial director for Saga Seafood, Esja Investment and Heinaste Investments. Samherji’s release stated that according to Namibian laws, a charge against a company automatically constitutes charges against its executives.

There are 14 charges. Three of them deal with Icelanders, accused of breaking laws on organised crime, money laundering and tax evasion. They will need to appear before the Windhoek High Court in Namibia April 22.

Samherji’s website states that the charges aren’t a surprise in light of former accusations, which they maintain are based on assertions by Jóhannes Stefánsson. However, Rúv reports that the Fishrot investigation in Namibia is also based on an independent investigation by the Namibian Prosecutor General, which also looked into payments made after Jóhannes left the company, data from Samherji, and payments that passed between companies related to Samherji and the so-called Sharks.

Samherji’s statement reads: If a charge will be issued for [Namibian companies connected to Samherji], that will be Samherji’s first chance to defend itself, but such a charge will be fought full force.”

The Fishrot Scandal involved Icelandic Seafood Company Samherji’s dealings in Namibia and its alleged bribes and connections to higher-ups in the Namibian government.

Fishrot Files Investigation Closed in Namibia, Further Arrests Expected

Namibian authorities have officially closed their investigation into the so-called Fishrot Files, leaked documents suggesting Icelandic fishing company Samherji bribed Namibian officials in exchange for lucrative fishing quotas in the country’s waters. Documents presented in the case also shed new light on the company’s business with Norwegian bank DNB. RÚV reported first.

The case, known in Namibia as the Fishcor corruption case, has just been transferred to Namibia’s High Court, where the six men currently charged and additional accused must make a first pretrial appearance on April 22. More arrests are expected to be made in the case.

Read More: The Samherji Scandal

The six men charged in the case have been in prison in Namibia for more than a year since an investigation into the leaked documents went public. They will remain in prison unless they receive permission to be released on bail. The six are former Namibian ministers Bernhard Esau and Sacky Shanghala, businessmen Ricardo Gustavo and James Hatuikulipi and cousins of the latter, Tamson Fitty Hatuikulipi and Pius Taxa Mwatelulo. The men are accused of corruption, accepting bribes, and abuse of power.

Norwegian Bank Fined in Wake of Samherji Scandal

Evidence submitted to judges in Namibia sheds new light on why Norwegian bank DNB terminated transactions with Samherji, its former client. Last week, the bank announced that it was facing a fine equivalent to ISK 5.7 billion for poor money laundering protection. The Norwegian Economic Crimes Police have investigated the bank after the Samherji documents were made public.

According to Kveikur, after the Samherji investigation became public, DNB asked the fishing company for documents to clarify their business with the bank and counter allegations of money laundering and tax evasion. The documents provided by Samherji were deemed insufficient to “clear up the issues brought up by the bank,” and DNB subsequently terminated deposit and payment services for several Samherji accounts at the bank.

Samherji Accuses Reporters of Breaching Ethics Guidelines

Þorsteinn Már Samherji

Seafood company Samherji’s claims RÚV reporters breached the national broadcaster’s code of ethics when they discussed the company on social media. Samherji’s lawyer has filed a complaint with RÚV’s Ethics Committee, claiming that social media posts made by 11 RÚV reporters between November 2019 and August 2020 breached their ethics code, which requires reporters to refrain from taking a public stance on political issues. Samherji made international headlines last year after an investigation by RÚV, Stundin, and Al Jazeera, alleged that the company had bribed Namibian government officials to gain access to lucrative fishing grounds, while also taking advantage of international loopholes to avoid taxes.

Read More: Samherji Scandal

According to a notice on Samherji’s website, the complaint is based on a rule in RÚV’s code of ethics that states “Staff, who cover news, news-related material, and programming do not take a public stance in discussions on political issues or controversial issues in the public debate, incl. on social media.” Therefore, the complaint itself asserts, the RÚV employees “cannot, in light of their behaviour on social media, be considered objective when it comes to coverage of [Samherji].”

Eleven reporters and programmers are named in the complaint: Aðalsteinn Kjartansson, Freyr Gígja Gunnarsson, Helgi Seljan, Lára Ómarsdóttir, Rakel Þorbergsdóttir, Sigmar Guðmundsson, Snærós Sindradóttir, Stígur Helgason, Sunna Valgerðardóttir, Þóra Arnórsdóttir, and Tryggvi Aðalbjörnsson. Two of the reporters named were awarded for their investigative reporting on Samherji by the Union of Icelandic Journalists last year.

Shared Satire of Samherji

The social media posts that Samherji has compiled in their complaint mostly reference the company’s activities in Namibia, although they extend to other cases directly and indirectly involving Samherji, including ownership of companies in the fisheries sector and shareholding in freight company Eimskip. One post the complaint lists as unacceptable involves an oil painting, pictured below.

The painting, by artist Þrándur Þórarinsson, shows Samherji CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson and Iceland’s Minister of Fisheries Kristján Þór Júlíusson on board a ship with Samherji’s logo, toasting with champagne while four fishermen, sporting skulls instead of faces, toil away in the background. Reporter Aðalsteinn Kjartansson shared the post without comment. “By sharing the post, Aðalsteinn agrees with the artist’s message, which is negative toward [Samherji],” the complaint asserts.

Samherji is demanding that RÚV’s ethics committee rule the posts as a violation of the national broadcater’s code of ethics, as well as determine whether some involve repeated violations.

Read more on the Samherji investigation and the challenges facing Icelandic media today.