Biometric Bribery: Inside Semlex’s Global Playbook

Credit: Svetlana Tiourina
Published: September 9, 2020

Semlex is an unassuming Brussels-based company that supplies biometric documents such as passports and driving licenses to governments and international bodies.

But it has an outsized reach beyond Belgium’s borders. OCCRP investigations have found that it has used bribes, kickbacks and insider dealing to secure contracts around the world, inflating the cost of vital documents for ordinary citizens while lining the pockets of wealthy elites.

In many of these countries, Semlex followed a similar playbook to forge a path into new markets. Executives would befriend high-level government officials or politically connected middlemen, promising to pay them for made-up services. Then the company would win lucrative contracts to supply the new biometric documents, structuring kickbacks as payments from the publicly funded contracts. Throughout, Semlex sought to cloak its actions in a veil of legal and financial secrecy.

Now, OCCRP and Belgian magazine Médor are piercing that veil using inside information taken from a leak of more than 160,000 internal documents. The stories below are based on these emails, invoices, and contracts, showing how the company made millions from winning dubious tenders and selling high-level political access to foreign companies. In more than one case, reporters found, the company even served as a conduit for payments related to corrupt oil deals.

Despite being mired in corruption scandals in Africa, Semlex is still active in many countries on the continent. And while Belgian authorities have investigated the company and raided its offices, no one at Semlex has ever been charged. In one case from 2019, however, Swiss prosecutors ordered Gunvor Group, a Geneva-based oil trader, to pay a record $95-million fine for failing to prevent at least one employee from bribing Congo and Ivory Coast officials to win government contracts — bribes that an OCCRP investigation shows were paid through Semlex.

Semlex did not respond to OCCRP’s requests for comment. However, the company has previously denied wrongdoing, saying it is "the victim of a defamatory smear campaign." It has also said its "economic success, in particular on the African continent, has apparently given rise to increasing jealousy or even strategic frustration."

This map shows the various African countries where Semlex claims to have contracts, as well as some of the corruption scandals it has faced. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP.

New Investigations

The Optimist Without Borders: Inside the Semlex CEO's Empire of Influence

Albert Karaziwan's charm, political savvy, and high-level contacts helped him build a business spanning five continents and a property portfolio worth tens of millions of euros.

15 December 2020 Read the article

How Semlex and Gunvor Armed the Ivorian Civil War

As Ivory Coast descended into a violent political crisis, Semlex and Gunvor tried to help its pariah regime buy weapons in violation of a U.N. arms embargo.

22 October 2020 Read the article

Belgian Passport-Maker Paid Bribes to Win Madagascar Contract

Semlex paid one ex-government official thousands of dollars in unexplained fees — and he’s still on their payroll today.

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Previous Investigations

Multimillion Passport Deal Under Investigation in Kyrgyzstan

Kyrgyzstan’s security services are investigating current and former government officials for accepting bribes from a Lithuanian company that won a tender to supply biometric passport booklets. Reporters for Kloop and OCCRP found what was wrong with the tender procedure.

18 April 2019Read the article

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