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Posted: March 31, 2002

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Perspective

 
Business and hostages: The Safa dossier

by Hichem Karoui

They are called the brothers Safa.

During almost eighteen months, in the period between 1987 and 1988, their name remained well bound in the shade to Mr. Jean-Charles Marchiani, alias Alexandre Stefani [1]. Iskandar and Akram Safa are said though to have played a key-role in the liberation of the French hostages, held by an extremist Islamic faction in Lebanon during the civil war. Was it Islamic Jihad, or Hizbullah proper? Considering the circumstances then prevailing to the hijacking and to the release, the exact name of the group is of little consequence [2]. For very quickly, it became clear that this affair was to be negotiated between Paris and Teheran. Beirut – and beyond it Lebanon- has only been the struggle field wherein the two capitals played of influence and confronted each other.

About fourteen years after these events, it sounds as if nothing had been completely settled. France is gripped by a new political scandal, involving allegations of kickbacks from ransom ostensibly paid to free the five hostages: Marcel Fontaine and Marcel Carton, kidnapped on March 22, 1985; Jean-Paul Kauffmann, kidnapped on Mai 22, 1985 – (They were released on May 4, 1988); Jean-Louis Normandin and Roger Auque, kidnapped respectively on March 8, 1986 and January 13, 1987 –(They were released on November 27, 1987). [3]

A rash of recent press reports once again implicate President Jacques Chirac, who has been dogged by allegations of political impropriety for months. Chirac- Prime Minister at the time- and his former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua have consistently denied ransom was ever paid for the hostages. But questions have lingered for years about almost $3 million in government funds allegedly earmarked for the operation. Now, French investigators have launched a new inquiry into the affair, at the center of which we find two Lebanese businessmen: The Safa brothers.

Who are the Safa brothers?

Born in Beirut on April 3, 1955, into a wealthy Christian-Maronite family originating from Ghadir, in the Northern Lebanon, Iskandar – the elder- is so far the most concerned by this affair. His father used to be employed as a civil servant of some importance in the hierarchy of the French administration, during its mandate over the country.

Educated in France, and trained in civil engineering at INSEAD [4] of Fontainebleau (Seine-et-Marne) from which he graduated, Iskandar has made fortune, among other businesses, it is said, in meddling and speculating on the profits of the state-to-state market, thanks to the holding company – TriaCorp- he had developed with his brother Akram, of three years younger than him.

The family, it is said also, has grown wealthier out of building roads in Saudi Arabia kingdom [5] . If Akram has somewhat withdrawn from the business, living today between Beirut and Monaco, his elder brother is presently the head of a company of some reputation: the CMN (Construction Mécanique de Normandie), based in Cherbourg and notably specialized in radars and patrol ship’s building. Concerned with civil and military interests, he has worked with companies as different as Thomson and Sofremi. [6]

Iskandar is sometimes pictured as a " discreet play-boy gifted with a redoubtable intelligence"[7]. Married and father of a child, he was said to be in Qatar, when news about the judiciary inquiry leaked to the press. His recent sojourn in the Gulf has for declared goal the negotiation of a contract implying to sell the Qataris a number of French patrol ships.

A note from the D.S.T.

According to Le Monde, on January 19, 2001, Mr. Jean-Jacques Martini – actually one of the five deputy-directors of the French "Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire"(D.S.T.)- issued a note headlined " relations between the French businessman Iskandar Safa and the member of the European parliament Jean-Charles Marchiani" addressing it to the head of the Parisian Judiciary police [8]. The text published by the French newspaper mentions that money transfers were being effectuated in checks and cash, from accounts belonging to Mr. Safa. The apparent beneficiaries were people close to the ex-minister C. Pasqua and his trustful friend J.C. Marchiani. What were these payments made for? What was the origin of the money? By which coincidence the three men who, some years ago collaborated closely for the liberation of the hostages, are again gathered over that mysterious money circulation? The Judiciary police transmitted the document it had received to Paris prosecutor, Mr. Jean-Pierre Dintilhac, on January 22, along with the introductory letter of Mr. Martini and the 11 banking statements that the D.S.T. had produced.

Habitually, the Judiciary police should conduce its own inquiry prior to sending the file to the prosecutor. But the general context still impregnated with the remains of the Falcone affair [9] , as well as the quality of Mr. Marchiani – he is a member of the European Parliament-, convinced the J.P. to forward the dossier to justice right away.

On January 23, the prosecutor started a preliminary inquiry about funds’ movements mentioned by the DST. Five months later, on June 25, he launches a judiciary investigation against X [10], for "aggravated money laundering", which he confided to Judge Isabelle Prévost-Desprez. In October and December, the men Mr. Safa used to distributing money (one of them was actually his chauffeur) are put under investigation. They were forbidden from contacting Mr. Safa, who will be summoned on December 17 to the judge’s office, along with Mr. Marchiani and his wife Christiane, Mr. Charles Pasqua [11] – presently running for President - and his aide Mrs. Marie-Danièle Faure.

On December 12, the public prosecutor’s department submitted to Mrs. Prévost-Desprez an additional request extending the prosecution to

"Aggravated influence traffic" purporting the conditions wherein Mr. Iskandar Safa has obtained in 1999 the French nationality. And since the word "laundering" suggests that the concerned funds are possibly the fruit of an infraction, the link was to be underlined between eventual ransom embezzlement and the remitted payments in cash [12].

How the money was funneled

Between 1993 and 1995, a peculiar traffic was going on in the French Interior Ministry. A man, of Middle-East origin, used to bring often two envelopes full of money to the Secretary of Mr. Pasqua as well as to his adviser Mr. Marchiani. It was Mr. Mohamed Al Sayes, the chauffeur of Iskandar Safa, who thus confessed to the investigators his visits to the Place Beauvau [13] . He used to pick up these sums in cash at the Champs-Elysées’s branch of the CCF (i.e. Crédit Commercial de France). The money was transferred from a particular account of I. Safa in the CCF of Geneva. Some of these withdrawals amounted to 400 000 francs. Once he got the money, the chauffeur gave it to an accomplice – probably Isam Abbas- whose task was to slip it into the envelopes. Thus, it is said that between 1995 and 2000, no less than 30 million francs had to be withdrawn this way and to go to varied addressees, Safa included [14].

According to other estimations close to the financial brigade [15], in the period between December 1995 and January 2001, Al Sayes and Abbas – both employed by Safa and arrested in October and December 2001- withdrew 13,9 million francs in cash from the aforementioned accounts. Other sums have been withdrawn in checks from another account of Safa in the Crédit Lyonnais. The DST charges that since more than ten years, Mr. Marchiani was receiving from Mr. Safa, two or three weekly payments, each one amounting to about 300 000 francs [16].

For the DST, the money from the Swiss account is part of the ransom the French state paid for the hostages in Lebanon, but was retained by the negotiators. It has been noticed also that Mrs. Marie-Danièle Faure, Marchiani’s secretary at the association France-Orient [17], used to receive the envelopes from the chauffeur’s hands [18] . Some of the checks destined to Mr. Marchiani were withdrawn from a Credit Lyonnais’ account. But in December 2000, Mr. Iskandar Safa hastened to close this account, in the wake of the Falcone affair that had apparently struck both men with panic [19] .

Crossing points

What seems the most amazing in this affair concerns the coincidence that gathers almost the same protagonists and the same networks close to Mr. Charles Pasqua. Otherwise, nearly the same questions that puzzled the investigators and the observers during the Falcone affair are to be found here as well. Nearly, but not all- that has to be underlined.

Like in the investigation about the arms deals with Angola, the former prefect J.C. Marchiani, his wife, and Mr. Pasqua happen to be directly threatened by this new affair. No wonder, beyond the long friendship between the two men, a number of associations usually put into orbit by Pasqua’s associates and partners in the RPF (i.e. Rassemblement pour la France), have been at varied times the object of judiciary investigations. The idea that some bridges link them to each other may sound plausible to the prosecution, so that it will not be astounding if the judge is tempted to transfer some pieces from a file to another, in order to fill the gaps in his inquiry or to find some explanation to unanswered questions.

Thus, judge Prévost-Desprez may be much interested in inquiring about some associations she had already encountered when she was investigating about arms smuggling. The association France-Orient, where according to the DST, Mr. Marchiani or his secretary Marie-Danièle Faure, used to receive the money envelopes, is close to another called AFAO (i.e. France Afrique Orient). Mr. Pasqua was the latter’s deputy-president. And when it has been dissolved at the end of 2000, the greatest part of its funds went to France-Orient. Now, one must keep in mind that the inquiry about arms smuggling with Angola made evidence of a sum of 1.5 million francs that had been remitted to the AFAO in 1996. And it was the weapons company Brenco, headed by Pierre Falcone, which funneled the money. Moreover, the same association used to share its offices with "Demain la France"- a movement that Mr. Pasqua has created in an attempt to unify the opponents to Amsterdam treaty.

Here, two remarks are noteworthy: first, the diplomatic adviser of Mr. Pasqua, Bernard Guillet, also member of the administration board in both associations, has been put under judiciary investigation in the current affair related to Safa. And second, it seems that some of the offices occupied by Mr. Pasqua and Marchiani political partners and collaborators, boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg in Paris, belong actually to Iskandar Safa.

The Lebanese adventure

In the book entitled " la décennie Mitterand", Iskandar Safa confessed to Pierre Favier and Michel-Martin Rolland: "We have done a team work. I was well acquainted with Pasqua and Chirac (the prime minister) as well as with their entourage. I have just put at their service my numerous contacts in Lebanon, in Syria and most of all in Iran" [20]. According to the same source, Iskandar was then using a little private plane [21] for shuttling between Paris and some Middle-East capitals. The two authors describe these missions this way: " Iskandar Safa does 80% of Jean-Charles Marchiani’s work, who achieves 80% of Charles Pasqua’s job, who accomplishes 80% of Jacques Chirac’s."

Marchiani himself acknowledges to the AFP that he has " a lot of esteem for Iskandar Safa", and he adds: " I have known him since about twenty years, when I was managing the Meridien chain of hotels". Apparently, their relationship never faltered since then, for when in 1986 Mr. Pasqua appointed the former SDECE-agent (Marchiani) [22] as head of the operations aiming at liberating the French hostages in Lebanon, it was towards Safa that the latter turned.

" I accepted out of patriotism, as a Lebanese, and because it was a human problem also. I was horrified that some French citizens could thus be hijacked. Anyway, it was not for money", said Iskandar Safa in an interview with Le Monde [23] . However, many varied versions about what happened then make it hard to reach a conclusive truth. One witness confessed to a French newspaper that Iskandar Safa was " indubitably the key-man, who had his ways into all the communities, Israel and the Mossad included"[24] . According to this witness who required anonymity, the means of the Marchiani team were then unlimited and the backing with Matignon’s special funds [25]  was granted. " We were a dozen of men, and everything was being planned from Triacorp, Safa’s company. For reasons of discretion and flexibility, it was Triacorp that funded the whole logistic. It will thus serve as a screen-company for the French government. Safa himself has funneled several dozens of million francs." The same witness expressed his doubts over the fact that France would ever have paid its Eurodif debt to Iran [26] , without the apparition of the hostages’ affair. He suggested that it was actually the first condition for their release. " What is sure", he says, " is that towards the end of 1986, a first portion amounting to $300 million was being released"[27].

Was there any ransom?

On January 4, the former office chief of Mr. Chirac at Matignon (1986-1988), Maurice Ulrich, presently an Elysée adviser [28], declares that the liberation of the hostages" has never been subjected to any ransom paid by the French state". He labels "nonsense" the declaration of Christian Prouteau, ex-chief of the Elysée anti-terrorist cell [29], to Le Parisien about Mitterand being aware of a ransom paid for the hostages [30]. Prouteau emphasized that he informed the former President of the affair himself, adding that he was not shocked that such a thing might happen.

Moreover, in 1987 the Lebanese magazine Ash-Shiraa has mentioned that $3 million were being paid to the hijackers. Several French papers have echoed the same information, albeit the government has always denied it.

For Mr. Marchiani, what some people call "ransom" was nothing but the settlement of the Eurodif affair. He confirmed that at the end of April 1988, he accompanied Mr. Jean-Claude Trichet, then treasury director, to Geneva. They met the envoys of the Iranian Finance Ministry with whom they had to negotiate the settlement of the debt. "These commitments that actually allowed the liberation of the hostages, have been honored by two successive governments", says Mr. Marchiani [31].

Let’s keep in mind that prior to the Islamic revolution of 1979, Iran has lent $ 1 billion to France, in order to be equipped with a nuclear program. But the new regime put an end to that cooperation, and the French companies involved with Eurodif refused to pay back the debt. According to Christian Prouteau, it was the government Chirac, during the first cohabitation that accepted to pay back the Iranians.

Some questions remain however unanswered:

Was it a coincidence that the first payments made by Safa to Mr. Pasqua’s collaborators started in 1989, the year following the liberation of the hostages?

Why should Safa ever make such payments? Why were they made to the same persons? What would he get in return?

What was the role of the Iranian Manucher Ghorbanifar, the ex-informer of the " Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure"(DGSE) and the DST in this affair? Some people say that he was actually the source of the DST’s note. It is also believed that he accompanied Marchiani during his meetings with the Iranian deputy-Minister of Foreign Affairs. What about his complaining that he has not been fairly paid for his efforts in the hostages’ crisis? Had he really threatened to have his revenge against Mr. Jacques Chirac, as suggests Le Canard Enchainé [32] in one of its recent issues? Has he gone to the extent of arranging his "confession" to the DST so that it suits his desire for revenge? [33]

Notes:

[1] Born in Bastia, - August 6, 1943- Jean-Charles Marchiani was hired by the French Secret Service at the age of 19. Friend and close collaborator of Mr. Charles Pasqua, the important figure of the Gaullist movement, he was hoping to be appointed as Director of the French Counter-espionage (DGSE), but Pasqua did not obtain the Defense Ministry during the first cohabitation between the Socialist President François Mitterand and a rightist government (1986-1988). Instead of that, as Pasqua became Interior minister, he appointed Marchiani as his main adviser responsible for the "exterior security" in relation with terrorist questions. It is at that post that Marchiani, helped by his friend Safa, led the negotiations for the liberation of the hostages, under the pseudonym of Alexandre Stefani. Mr. Marchiani has occupied also important posts, such as prefect. He is currently a member of the European parliament.

[2] It is generally admitted that the group was close to Hizbullah.

[3] Dates provided by Le Monde: January 3, 2002. Une collaboratrice de M. Pasqua et M. Marchiani mise en examen dans une affaire de blanchiment.

[4] INSEAD: a private school for preparing a MBA in: applied statistics, business policy, corporate financial management, economic analysis, financial accounting, industrial policy and international competitiveness, etc…

[5] Le Figaro : Les étonnantes relations des frères Safa. January 3, 2002. It seems that in dealing with the Saudis that the family first made a name. The brothers likely inherited some of that business, although it is not clear whether they continued it or not.

[6] It is in an interview with Le Monde (January 7) that Iskandar Safa acknowledged he had worked for the Sofremi, an export company of the Interior Ministry, which has been at the heart of Judge Philippe Courroye’s investigation about the Angola-gate: a huge weapons smuggling that was going on between Paris and Luanda. Pasqua and Marchiani have been then put under investigation.

  • Sofremi: Société française d’exportation de matériel et de systèmes du ministère de l’intérieur.

  • Thomson: Great Company specialized in electronics, high-tech, and defense systems.

Iskandar Safa was probably working for these important companies as a meddler. His Middle East connections were one of his greatest assets. He is said to have relations with people as different as Israelis and Iranians among others. As the Middle East is an important market for the electronics, the security and defense systems, produced by these companies, it is not hard to imagine how he made his way up to the top. His acquaintance with Marchiani could have been enhanced by their mutual concern with these matters. That’s how he probably introduced him to the high spheres of French politics.

[7] Le Figaro. Jan.3. Op. Cit.

[8] Le Monde. January 7, 2002. Ce que révèle l’enquête financière.

[9] The Falcone affair (or the Angola-gate) has shaken the French political scene when it has been unearthed (2000-2001) by the media. It involved Pierre-Joseph Falcone, chairman of Brenco (a company specialized in weapons’ sales), along with important people like Jean-Christophe Mitterand (son of the former President), the writer Paul-Loup Sulitzer, the Israeli millionaire Arcadi Gaydamac, the ex-director of Sofremi Bernard Poussier, and J.C.Marchiani and C.Pasqua. It was about illegitimate sales of weapons to Angola.

[10] Against x: a formula in the judiciary system indicating that the person who committed the offence or the crime is still not identified.

[11] Since he is a candidate for the top post in the French Republic, Mr. Pasqua was utterly embarrassed by this affair. While trying to wash his hands from it, he reiterated that there was no ransom for the hostages, and that he has nothing to worry about concerning the transparence of his accounts, he charged Mr. Lionel Jospin’s Cabinet of fomenting a plot against him, to reduce his chances of success in the presidential elections of 2002. Mr. Jospin is also running for President.

[12] Le Monde. Jan.7. Op. Cit.

[13] L’express. January 10,2002. Le porteur de valises place Beauvau.

[14] Ibid. The most important question that seems inevitable to the investigators here is why Mr. Safa should ever have to pay Mr. Pasqua and Mr. Marchiani, if he really did? What is the agreement between them? Why such a generosity? Now, one must notice that the justice has not answered these questions, and we cannot precede it.

[15] The Financial Brigade is a very important branch of the French police specialized in investigations about high finances’ affairs.

[16] Le Nouvel Observateur. January 8,2002. Mitterand savait.

[17] An association for economic cooperation and cultural exchanges – as many of the kind exist – once presided by Mr. Pasqua.

[18] Le Nouvel Observateur. January 7,2002. Les riches comptes de M. Marchiani.

[19] Ibid. A remark is necessary however: the role of Safa in the Falcone affair has not been proved. Either he had nothing to do with it, or he managed cleverly to protect himself. Anyway, since Marchiani and Pasqua were involved, he might have felt targeted as well.

[20] La Décennie Mitterand. Quoted by Guillaume Bonnet. AFP. February 7, 2001.

[21] Whether it was a plane the French government allowed him to use for this mission, or his own is not clear.

[22] SDECE: service de documentation extérieure et de contre-espionnage. It is the former name of the French intelligence (probably the twin of the CIA or MI6), which has been changed under Mitterand into: Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (: DGSE).

[23] Le Monde. Jan. 7,2002.

[24] Le Parisien. Quoted in: Le Monde, Jan.9, 2002. La rançon pour les otages du Liban fait question.

[25] Hotel Matignon is the Prime Minister’s place. And the secret funds are specially allowed by the National Budget makers to the entire discretion of the Prime Minister. The way they are spent is protected by the top-secret.

[26] In 1974 the former Shah of Iran, Mohamed Ridha, ordered two central nuclear to Framatome-Alsthom and Spie-Batignolles. He lent $ 1 billion to the French Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (C.E.A.) for the construction by the Consortium Eurodif of the Tricastin uranium enrichment plant, seeking to benefit from it. But in 1979, the government that took over in Tehran after the revolution canceled the project and asked for the reimbursement of the loan.

Eurodif : Société européenne d’enrichissement de l’uranium. Among its shareholders, we find:

  • France’s COGEMA with 51,55 %.

  • Italia’s Agip nucleare, Enea with 16,25 %.

  • Belgium’s Soben with 11%.

  • Spain’s Enusa with 11%.

[27] Le Parisien. Op. Cit.

[28] The Elysée is the Presidential palace.

[29] It was the ex-President Mitterand who charged Christian Prouteau of updating him directly with whatever occur concerning terrorist questions, through a cell in the Elysée palace specialized in this matter.

[30] Le Parisien. Jan.8, quoted in: Le Monde, Jan. 8, 2002. Marchiani presse le chef de l’Etat de demander des explications au government.

[31] Ibidem.

[32] Le Canard Enchaîné. Quoted in : Le Nouvel Observateur. Jan.8, 2002. Mitterand savait. Op. Cit.

[33] It is clear that beyond the person of Mr. Pasqua, it is Mr. Chirac, at the time Prime-Minister, who would assume responsibility for any ransom payment, if it has ever been done.

Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.

Source:

by courtesy & © 2002 Hichem Karoui
 
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