RAMALLAH, West Bank – The late Yasser Arafat's powerful moneyman is the target of the highest-profile Palestinian corruption probe to date, facing allegations he syphoned off millions of dollars in public funds, the chief investigator said Wednesday.
Anti-corruption campaigners lauded the case against the shadowy former aide, Mohammed Rashid, as a sign of the maturing of the Palestinian political system, although the probe also appeared to be tinged with political intrigue.
Rashid, who has in the past denied wrongdoing, made veiled threats on a website to disclose purported secrets about the rise to power of Arafat's successor, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. And Palestinian watchdogs, while praising growing government vigilance about corruption, expressed concern that such investigations are at times being used selectively to settle personal scores.
The tall, dark-haired Rashid left the Palestinian territories after Arafat's death in November 2004, and his current whereabouts were not immediately known. Rafik Natche, head of the Palestinian Anti-Corruption Commission, said Rashid holds business interests in Jordan, Egypt, Montenegro, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, and that the Palestinian Authority has asked all five countries to freeze his assets and extradite him.
An Iraqi citizen of Kurdish ancestry, Rashid befriended top PLO officials in the 1980s.
From the 1994 establishment of the Palestinian Authority, a self-rule government in parts of the West Bank and Gaza, to Arafat's death a decade later, Rashid was in charge of many of the Palestinian leader's financial dealings. The iconic Arafat was known for a frugal lifestyle, but needed large sums to buy loyalty and allowed corrupt practices by those in his inner circle.
It is not known why Arafat put Rashid, a former journalist without formal business training, in charge of most of his business affairs.
Rashid "came to the Palestinian revolution without a penny in his pocket and became a multimillionaire," Natche told The Associated Press. "Where did he bring his money from? Of course, this is the money of the Palestinian people."
Natche said Rashid is suspected of having taken millions of dollars out of the Palestinian Investment Fund and the PLO's treasury, as well as setting up fake companies in his name and in the names of relatives. "The money and the companies disappeared," Natche said, citing documents.
In comments posted Tuesday on the website Inlightpress, Rashid said he would not respond to the allegations now, but warned that Abbas "made a huge mistake and must suffer the consequences." He did not elaborate. The website, which is believed to be linked to Rashid, announced in a separate section that it would soon run a series of articles by Rashid about the circumstances of Abbas' rise to power.
After keeping a low profile for years, Rashid started drawing attention to himself with a series of interviews that the Arab satellite TV station al-Arabiya began broadcasting last week. Rashid told the station he was asked by Palestinian officials in 2008 to provide documents about the investment fund, and that he told them the documents were at the fund's office. He said he has not been contacted since then.
The first decade of the Palestinian Authority was marked by rampant corruption and official mismanagement. During those years, Rashid "ran a network of financial transactions outside the law and outside the budget," said Azmi Shuaibi, a leading anti-corruption campaigner in the West Bank.
In 2003, the international community, concerned about millions in foreign aid going to waste, asked Palestinian economist Salam Fayyad to supervise Palestinian Authority spending. Fayyad, now the West Bank-based prime minister, is credited with providing greater transparency. However, for years, little was done to go after those suspected of stealing public funds.
Two years ago, Abbas set up the Anti-Corruption Commission and a special court. So far, the commission has handled 85 cases, including those of two Cabinet ministers who were forced to resign, but the court has not yet handed down any verdicts, Natche said.
The commission filed charges of fraud, embezzlement and money-laundering against Rashid on April 30. On May 8, the court urged Rashid through an announcement in a local newspaper to surrender to Palestinian authorities, Natche said. Rashid will be tried in absentia if he cannot be brought to the Palestinian territories, he added.
Shuaibi praised stepped up efforts to go after government corruption, but expressed concern about the way targets for investigation are being chosen. He noted that Rashid is a longtime associate of former Gaza strongman Mohammed Dahlan, who had a falling-out with Abbas last year after seemingly challenging the president's leadership. The connection between Dahlan and Rashid created an impetus "to pursue Rashid as well," Shuaibi said.
"I think the priorities (for investigations) are being set on a personal basis," said Shuaibi. He said he told Abbas that "we have concerns that the issue is being handled in a way of settling personal scores." Shuaibi said Abbas told him all suspicions were being investigated.
Officials in Abbas' office declined comment. Natche said anyone can approach the commission with information about alleged corruption, but acknowledged that most of his leads come from government agencies.
Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian commentator, said Arafat's continued popularity made it difficult for investigators for some years to launch a probe against Rashid. But enough time has passed since Arafat's death, Kuttab said, adding that "there is a strong public sentiment against corruption."