Legal action by Congolese against foreign passport provider

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Congolese citizens and international campaign groups filed a civil action in Belgium against passport manufacturer Semlex, investigated by prosecutors for possible money laundering and corruption, the petitioners said.

“We want the Belgian judiciary to lift the veil on this case and punish any individual or company who may be found guilty of corruption,” Fred Bauma, a Congolese pro-democracy activist and petitioner, said in a statement.

Luc Stalars, a lawyer for Semlex, headquartered in Belgium, said in an email he was not aware of the civil action.

He referred Reuters to a company statement from 2017 denying allegations of impropriety, calling them part of a “defamatory smear campaign”.

The company statement said Semlex’s “economic success, in particular on the African continent, has apparently given rise to increasing jealousy or even strategic frustration.”

The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the action.

In a 2017 special report, Reuters detailed how Semlex, which supplies passports to African countries, won a contract to produce biometric passports for Democratic Republic of Congo.

The deal increased the price citizens have to pay for passports and documents showed a Gulf company owned by a relative of Congo’s then-president received a third of the revenue.

A lawyer representing Semlex, Francois Koning, said at the time the company’s chief executive would not comment on the Reuters special report, saying unidentified third parties were manipulating the news agency with the aim of damaging him and Semlex.

Belgian prosecutors launched an investigation into possible money laundering and corruption soon after Reuters’ report and raided the company’s headquarters in 2018, but have not made any further comment on the investigation since.

Stalars said the company’s passport contract “was performed, to our knowledge, to the satisfaction of Congolese authorities and citizens”.

By becoming a civil party to the Belgian prosecutors’ investigation, the petitioners can ask for case records and request further investigative measures.

The civil party petition was filed with the investigative judge in the case last Friday by 51 Congolese citizens, according to a statement by Congo Is Not For Sale, an anti-corruption campaign which brought petitioners together.

Three international anti-corruption and human rights organisations, including the International Federation for Human Rights and Belgium’s League for Human Rights, joined the case.

At $185, Congo’s passport is among the most expensive in the world, even though its people are on average among the world’s poorest.