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Suspects To Appear Before Court In Fertilizer “Mafia Network” After Three Months Behind Bars

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A tough legal battle is expected to ensue between prosecutors and lawyers at the Gasabo Intermediate Court this Friday, October 16, 2020, where the prosecution will be presenting a case involving some of the suspects charged with conniving with officials in a syndicated fertilizer mafia network that has made government lose billions of Rwandan francs.

Others will be presented on October 22, 2020.

The suspects, who were arrested on June 29, 2020, under legally challengeable circumstances, will be appearing before the court for a substantive hearing.

On July 6, 2020, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Animal Resources (MINAGRI), Jean Claude Musabyimana, after being squeezed at a high-level RPF meeting (NEC) by President Paul Kagame for cases of alleged corruption, misuse, and misappropriation of state-funded distribution of fertilizers, submitted a dossier to Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) for investigation and subsequent prosecution.

Meanwhile, legal experts challenge that it is technically impossible for MINAGRI to have been able to produce a credible material against a dozen suspects in just one week.

The dossier contained 19 distributors of fertilizers and the amount of money they allegedly owe the government. Taarifa has the files submitted by MINAGRI and some of the interrogation files conducted by RIB.

After interrogations and investigations, some of the charges laid include forgery under Article 276 of the Penal code act and tampering with exhibits subject to provisions of article 245 of the penal code act. Notably, almost all suspects are charged with the same crimes.

However, in the dossier submitted by MINAGRI, the Permanent Secretary (PS) made four grave allegations against distributors. First, MINAGRI alleged that distributors never produced lists of beneficiaries, yet the list is made by local authorities together with MINAGRI, RAB, contracted experts by RAB, and other agencies.

Secondly, MINAGRI alleges that distributors cannot prove that fertilizers were delivered to the intended beneficiaries, yet MINAGRI has worked with these suppliers since 2008. Alleging that suppliers never delivered fertilizers to intended beneficiaries and accusing them of making ghost lists, does not only leave MINAGRI in a difficult position to prove beyond doubt but raises serious questions about the motive of such a blatant allegation.

Taarifa’s investigations, and after thorough digging into files from MINAGRI and suppliers, we discovered indisputable evidence that farmers received fertilizers, and instead, there was actually excessive supply and in other cases according to documents signed by MINAGRI and RAB staff, fertilizers were swindled and sold off as far as Burundi and Uganda by some distributors. The third allegation made by MINAGRI is that distributors do not possess original lists of beneficiaries, yet MINAGRI collects all original lists as a basis for processing payments.

The fourth allegation is financial. MINAGRI says these suppliers owe it over Rwf9 billion in arrears that were supposed to be from funds collected from farmers. Indeed some suppliers did not disburse the funds collected, but some suppliers actually are owed. Taarifa has seen some of the documents where MINAGRI, district, and sector authorities excuse themselves for not paying the suppliers as per contractual terms. However, these suppliers are among the suspects to be assembled before the court where the prosecution accuses them of swindling the said funds.

RIB received the above submissions by MINAGRI and interrogated all suspects. The prosecution also conducted further investigations. Some of MINAGRI’s allegations were dismissed, and others upheld.

However, some of the prosecution’s preferred charges against suspects, such as forgery and tampering with exhibits, defendant’s lawyers say, will be challenged before the court. For example, defense teams say that they want the prosecution to explain how they accuse their clients of forging vouchers with a QR code yet only MINAGRI has the ability to produce the vouchers.

On the other hand, the prosecution is ready to present evidence that some suppliers had indeed submitted vouchers beyond what would match with the list of beneficiaries approved by MINAGRI. How they obtained the vouchers and from which people will remain the burden of the prosecutors, even though it does not exonerate the suppliers who used them to illegally demand for money from MINAGRI.

Taarifa has seen letters singed by MINAGRI’s Head of Fertilizer Task Force, Dr. Charles Murekezi, to some suppliers informing them that they would not receive payment for extra vouchers submitted. During interrogations and investigations, Dr. Murekezi was squeezed by interrogators to explain why he never reported cases of submitted extra vouchers to investigators and prosecution. In his defense, he said that he believed that not paying them was enough punishment, yet sources indicate that MINAGRI continued contracting and paying them for over three years. Further interrogations made Dr. Murekezi implicate his bosses. He told interrogators that he reported the case to his bosses and that he believed that it is the responsibility of the Ministry to take legal action against any suspect after he had submitted a report.

However, neither the Minister nor the PS was interrogated both on how suppliers were able to access vouchers and generating a list of ghost beneficiaries to justify the vouchers and why there was no action taken. In our previous article, when asked to respond to these allegations, the Minister said that she cannot comment on a case that is under legal due process.

Taarifa understands that the Auditor General, Obadia Biraro, who has repeatedly exposed the fertilizer scandal in his annual reports for over a decade, was consulted and indeed submitted his technical opinion.

Meanwhile, a source has told Taarifa that some suspects were released by buying their freedom upon depositing all or some money they allegedly owe the government collected from the disbursed funds by farmers. Other suspects declined to do so because they were advised by their lawyers that it was a trap to implicate themselves and instead wait to tussle their way out before the court.

Meanwhile, the former head of the Task Force, Francois Nsengiyunva, was interrogated as a witness in the case. He told the prosecution that in the contracts with suppliers, it was the duty of authorities to follow up with farmers regarding payments. However, he added that there were cases in some seasons where farmers made losses due to poor yields. Their debts would be written off after consultations with MINAGRI experts. Suppliers would only be paid distribution fees.

In this whole fertilizer scandal, some suspects will face charges of illegally obtaining vouchers that facilitated them to secure stocks or redeeming them to obtain money. Other suspects will challenge the prosecution to be pronounced innocent and released and instead be paid arrears owed to them. Those who are accused of tampering with exhibits are ready to challenge the prosecution to explain the relevancy of the allegation yet it has copies of the said exhibits. No official from MINAGRI or local authorities is yet to be arraigned before the court to answer charges of possible involvement.

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Kagame Calls For Global Digital Cooperation

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President Paul Kagame has called for digital cooperation to allow efforts of closing the gap in the adoption and use of affordable devices and services in accessible content and in digital literacy.

And the cooperation “needs to go beyond access to broadband,” he said.

The President, who also doubles as the Broadband Commission Chair, was speaking at the 2021 Annual Fall Meeting of the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.

Kagame also acknowledged the value in in multi-stakeholder platforms that complement the work of the Broadband Commission, such as the Edison Alliance.

“Harmonizing these initiatives would create useful synergies,” the President said, adding that, “the strength of the Broadband Commission lies in the diversity of the perspectives that our Commissioners bring to the table.”

During the meeting, new Commissioners participating for the first time were recognized. They include;

Hon. Mia Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados, Her Excellency Mercedes Araoz, former Vice President and Prime Minister of Peru, Ambassador Courtnay Rattray, UN High Representative for Least Developed Countries, Landlocked Countries and Small Island Developing States, Majed Sultan Al-Mesmar, Director General of the Telecommunications and Digital Government Regulatory Authority, United Arab Emirates and Rumman Chowdry, CEO of Parity .io.

Some special guests are also attending the meeting. There is  Prof.  Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, and, by video, Abdulla Shahid, President of the United Nations General Assembly.

Working Groups presented reports that are one of the tools for debating various ideas and options to fulfill the Commission’s mandate.

In attendance also is Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, Houlin Zhao, the Secretary General of the International Telecommunication Union as well as the Broadband Commission’s Co-Chair Carlos Slim who also highlighted the ongoing need for digital cooperation.

“To achieve our universal connectivity goal, we need to work together. We need to build a digital future that is inclusive, affordable, safe, sustainable, and meaningful and people centered. We need to support infrastructure and to deal with affordability and relevant content to ensure usage,” Carlos Slim said. “For that to happen, it requires concerted efforts.”

Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO and Broadband Commission Co-Vice Chair echoed the same, saying, ‘’A major finding from the data collected by our Commission is that the absence of digital skills remains the largest barrier to internet use.’’

‘’Digital education must therefore be as much about gaining skills as about developing the ability to think critically in order to master the technical aspects and be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood,’’ she concluded.

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Olympus Attacked By BlackMatter Ransomware

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Olympus said in a brief statement Sunday that it is “currently investigating a potential cybersecurity incident” affecting its European, Middle East and Africa computer network.

“Upon detection of suspicious activity, we immediately mobilized a specialized response team including forensics experts, and we are currently working with the highest priority to resolve this issue. As part of the investigation, we have suspended data transfers in the affected systems and have informed the relevant external partners,” the statement said.

But according to a person with knowledge of the incident, Olympus is recovering from a ransomware attack that began in the early morning of September 8. The person shared details of the incident prior to Olympus acknowledging the incident on Sunday.

A ransom note left behind on infected computers claimed to be from the BlackMatter ransomware group. “Your network is encrypted, and not currently operational,” it reads.

“If you pay, we will provide you the programs for decryption.” The ransom note also included a web address to a site accessible only through the Tor Browser that’s known to be used by BlackMatter to communicate with its victims.

Brett Callow, a ransomware expert and threat analyst at Emsisoft, told TechCrunch that the site in the ransom note is associated with the BlackMatter group.

BlackMatter is a ransomware-as-a-service group that was founded as a successor to several ransomware groups, including DarkSide, which recently bounced from the criminal world after the high-profile ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline, and REvil, which went silent for months after the Kaseya attack flooded hundreds of companies with ransomware. Both attacks caught the attention of the U.S. government, which promised to take action if critical infrastructure was hit again.

Groups like BlackMatter rent access to their infrastructure, which affiliates use to launch attacks, while BlackMatter takes a cut of whatever ransoms are paid. Emsisoft has also found technical links and code overlaps between Darkside and BlackMatter.

Since the group emerged in June, Emsisoft has recorded more than 40 ransomware attacks attributed to BlackMatter, but that the total number of victims is likely to be significantly higher.

Ransomware groups like BlackMatter typically steal data from a company’s network before encrypting it, and later threaten to publish the files online if the ransom to decrypt the files is not paid. Another site associated with BlackMatter, which the group uses to publicize its victims and touts stolen data, did not have an entry for Olympus at the time of publication.

Japan-headquartered Olympus manufactures optical and digital reprography technology for the medical and life sciences industries. Until recently, the company built digital cameras and other electronics until it sold its struggling camera division in January.

Olympus said it was “currently working to determine the extent of the issue and will continue to provide updates as new information becomes available.”

Christian Pott, a spokesperson for Olympus, did not respond to emails and text messages requesting comment.

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WhatsApp Fined US$267M For Breaching EU Privacy Law

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Facebook-owned WhatsApp has been fined €225 million (US$267 million) for breaking the European Union’s data privacy rules.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) announced the decision in an 89-page summary (PDF), noting that WhatsApp did not properly inform EU citizens how it handles their personal data, including how it shares that information with its parent company.

WhatsApp has been ordered to make updates to its already lengthy privacy policy and change how it notifies users about sharing their data.

This will bring it into compliance with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) which governs how tech companies gather and use data in the EU.

GDPR came into effect in May of 2018, and WhatsApp was one of the first companies to be hit with privacy lawsuits under the regulation.

A WhatsApp spokesperson said in an email to The Verge that the company will appeal the decision.

“WhatsApp is committed to providing a secure and private service. We have worked to ensure the information we provide is transparent and comprehensive and will continue to do so,” the spokesperson said. “We disagree with the decision today regarding the transparency we provided to people in 2018 and the penalties are entirely disproportionate.”

The decision by the DPC began with an investigation in 2018 and is the second-largest fine levied under GDPR regulations. In July this year, Amazon was fined a record US$887 million for breaching the EU privacy laws.

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