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Global Economy

"Letterbox companies are Putin's best friends"

The Panama Papers were revealed by a whistleblower who called himself John Doe and who contacted the "Süddeutsche Zeitung" (SZ) in 2015. "John Doe" gave the then SZ reporters Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier more than 2.6 terabytes of secret data from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca.

Hardly anything has been heard from him since then. Only once did he speak out with a manifesto in which he called on politicians to take action to combat global inequality. Otherwise the world could fall into "serious instability". Letterbox companies and tax havens are a key tool used to cement inequality around the world.

Now "John Doe" has spoken at length, in an exclusive interview that he gave to the two reporters from back then who now work for "Spiegel": He fears the instability that he had warned about years ago , has now arrived. To this day, he keeps his identity top secret for fear that states or criminals could take revenge on him.

"The Russian government wants me dead"

"Fascism and authoritarianism are on the rise worldwide," said "John Doe" in the "Spiegel" interview. Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the greatest threats to the United States, "and shell companies are his best friends."

The Panama Papers had revealed, among other things, how millions of euros had been shifted through shell companies via Sergei Roldugin, a Putin confidante who has since been sanctioned – one of many financial flows that could be attributed to the Russian President's closest friends and family.

"John Doe" says that as long as there are letterbox companies that allow owners to cover up their activities and avoid responsibility for them, hardly anything has been achieved. "Without accountability, societies cannot function." Letterbox companies are involved everywhere, for example when they help finance the Russian military.

According to the whistleblower, he was pleased that Vladimir Putin's friend Roldugin was sanctioned. At the same time, he fears Russia's revenge: "The Russian government wants me dead." Russian media had published a docu-drama about the Panama Papers, in which there was a fictitious whistleblower who was tortured. "It wasn't subtle," says John Doe.

Disappointment with western states

Large international corporations could also hide behind letterbox companies: “For example, Chinese conglomerates that are partly responsible for the deaths of underage cobalt prospectors in the Congo. Letterbox companies make this possible because they disguise their owners and thus free them from accountability,” says “John doe".

He was severely disappointed by Western countries: "I was willing to work with the government authorities from the start because I knew that the crimes described in the Panama Papers must be prosecuted." According to media reports, the German Federal Criminal Police Office paid five million euros for the data and passed on country-specific data to other countries.

"Offshore companies and trusts are important"

But all in all, far too little has happened, according to the whistleblower: "Unfortunately, neither the governments of Germany nor the United States have expressed any great interest in the Panama Papers."

In the current situation, with numerous recently issued sanctions to be enforced, governments have preferred to focus on wealthy Russian yachts. "Frankly, yachts are not very important apart from the symbolic value. Offshore companies and trusts are important."

Criticism of the BKA

The whistleblower raises a number of allegations against the German Federal Criminal Police Office: The authority did not keep to the financial agreements with him. This has led to problems that have endangered his safety. He was also not adequately protected by the authorities. In addition, the BKA has repeatedly rejected the possibility of evaluating further data on the offshore world beyond the Panama Papers.

When asked, the BKA did not want to provide any information on the circumstances of the data acquisition. The Office also said that in addition to the Panama Papers, it had obtained what became known to the public as the Offshore Leaks, Paradise Papers, Swiss Leaks and Bahamas Leaks. In total, there are several million documents that are also being checked for criminal and tax law facts in the special commission "BAO Olet".

Even after 2018, the BKA came into possession of further financial data leaks and conducted corresponding investigations, which were known to the press. Since 2017, the BKA has had one of the most extensive database collections of financial data leaks and evaluates them in close cooperation with the tax authorities in particular.

Make business registers accessible worldwide

Nevertheless, he was amazed at the consequences of the publication of the Panama Papers, says "John Doe": "What the ICIJ has achieved is unprecedented, and I am very pleased and also proud that significant reforms have taken place because of the Panama Papers. Sadly, none of that is enough."

Publicly accessible company registers are needed worldwide, from the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean to Delaware in the United States, so that nobody can hide behind anonymous letterbox companies – there can no longer be any doubt about that after the leak: "And if you hear resistance to it, then you hear the sound of a politician who should be fired."

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