Late October 2016 a strange gathering took place at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, hosted by its ‘Observatory on Security” (OUS), part of the university’s Global Studies Institute.
Delegates had been invited to attend a “private seminar on Corruption and Governance Challenge in Malaysia”. Keynote attendees were listed as: “Clare Rewcastle Brown, Editor of Sarawak Report (confirmed); Muhyddin bin Yassin, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia (confirmed) and Nurul Izza Anwar – Member of the Malaysian Parilament for Lembah Pantai (confirmed)”.
“The invited attendance will be mostly officials from the Swiss Dept. of Foreign Affairs, the Public Ministry and Federal Dept. of Justice”, continued the official invitation, which bore the University of Geneva logo and stamp at its heading:
However, when eventually some six delegates arrived from Malaysia to attend the event on 26/27th October they encountered a major no show. Not only did the two political leaders Nurul Izzar and Muhyiddin Yassin not turn up (having clearly thought the better of it) there were no Swiss officials at the seminar either.
The delegates who did arrive were all senior figures from Malaysian civil society groups and opposition parties, who have been active over the 1MDB scandal. Their plane tickets and expenses were being paid for by the University of Geneva itself, they had been told, and they had been enticed to make the long journey by the organiser of the event, the Vice-President of OUS, Nicolas Giannakopoulos, on the basis that the Swiss officials who had been due to attend would bring updates on the foreign investigations into 1MDB.
Giannakopoulos had personally approached the all these guests on the understanding that he represented the University of Geneva and an NGO linked to the University, namely the “Organised Crime Observatory”, which was part of the OUS. The Director of OUS, Frederic Esposito, was also named on the invitation and attended the event.
Yet, as the small group of people who had made the trek from Malaysia looked round the half empty table of their allotted room in a concrete seminar block belonging to the University, they collectively wondered why they had come?
Apart from Giannakopoulos and Esposito, the only Swiss in the room were three campaigners already known to be openly engaged on Malaysian corruption issues, namely the Director of the Swiss Bruno Manser Fund, Pascal Najadi (son of the murdered AmBank founder) and Laura Justo, wife of the then still imprisoned whistle-blower on 1MDB, Xavier Justo.
Salt Lick Films
There were three further attendees at this seminar, who in spite of the promise there would be no media at the event, were all linked to a UK production company called Salt Lick Films, which has spent the last two years filming a documentary about the 1MDB investigation (the project was later extended into a co-production with another UK company, Roast Beef Productions).
These included one of the two producers at Salt Lick, Andy Stewart, who started up the company in 2015 after a previous career as a private detective. Before he turned film producer Stewart had specialised in ‘sting operations’ and secret filming for clients that had included TV companies and NGOs.
Also, attending the event was the freelance journalist, Mark Hollingsworth, who has acknowledged that he has been linked to Salt Lick’s two year production in an investigative role into 1MDB. Hollingsworth also has a dual profile as a private detective and was exposed earlier last year by a major article in the Irish Times for using his role as a journalist as a front for secretly obtaining information about target individuals and organisations on behalf of private investigations agencies:
Finally, the Malaysian John Pang also attended the event. Pang, who has close links with civil society organisations, such as the Open Society Foundation (he is on the Global Board) has explained that he initially assisted Salt Lick in obtaining seed funding for its 1MDB filming, via individuals linked to Open Society – the amount provided was not made clear.
Faced with this unexpected line-up the Editor of this report, Clare Rewcastle Brown, refused to deliver her planned keynote address, although she remained to monitor the seminar.
Brown had been introduced to Giannakopoulos earlier in the summer through Hollingsworth, about whom she already held reservations.
She had openly expressed her concerns to Giannakopoulos about the Salt Lick documentary and the fact that it was launched by a former private detective and an inexperienced former NGO worker, rather than established film makers and had already explained she would not share information with that production.
Given that Giannakopoulos had promised there would be no media invited and had specifically assured Rewcastle Brown that Salt Lick would not attend the event, she therefore refused to speak about 1MDB in front of Stewart and Hollingsworth.
What was going on?
This editor was also concerned that whilst the initial request by the University had been for her to speak generally in front of students, the event had clearly been altered into this private seminar, which appeared to hold no academic or any other discernible useful purpose.
There were no students nor Swiss official attendees nor visible organised note-taking – so, what was going on?
In the event the Malaysian delegates, who included a senior legal voice from a civil society organisation, a senior member of Amanah, a senior member of DAP, a senior member of Bersatu Melayu and a senior member of PKR, found themselves encouraged to discuss amongst themselves the political situation in Malaysia, the progress of the opposition and what they knew about the latest developments in the investigation into 1MDB – all in front of the two University/NGO organisers of the seminar and the representatives of Salt Lick.
one delegate told Sarawak Report.
As for the Swiss no show, Giannakopoulos expressed his apologies that unfortunately none of his contacts at the Swiss Foreign Ministry or Attorney General’s Office had turned up as promised, but assured the guests that he had close ties to key bigwigs, such as the Swiss Attorney General, whom he suggested was willing to impart useful updates to him about the 1MDB investigation privately. He would be very happy to pass on such information if all the delegates could continue to keep in touch.
In fact, Giannakopoulos turned out to have nothing of note to say about the investigation into 1MDB and he soon steered the discussions onto matters such as how the frozen assets seized by Switzerland could be diverted into good causes in Malaysia, perhaps through an NGO that people in the room could get involved in.
“I decided to leave early, because frankly there was nothing useful being brought to this seminar on the Swiss side and it was an embarrassing waste of everybody’s time”, Pascal Najadi later told Sarawak Report. Laura Justo also made her excuses and a hasty exit.
The rest of the foreign visitors were forced to endure a further night at a hotel (as guests of the University of Geneva they were told) and then a second day of similar probing discussions about their own affairs and Malaysian opposition politics, before they could make their escape.
Despite what might be considered to have been a debacle of an event, Giannakopoulos continued over the ensuing weeks to energetically pursue his ties with his new ‘friends’ from Malaysia’s civil society organisations and opposition parties.
Rewcastle Brown, Pascal Najadi and Lukas Straumann were all relentlessly contacted for follow-up meetings by Giannakopoulos and by Mark Hollingsworth as well – as were the contacts from Malaysia.
Before the seminar Giannakopoulos had even attempted to engage Dr Mahathir and his team in the event, arriving coincidentally in London at the same time as the former premier was visiting and encouraging meetings with Rewcastle Brown and Mahathir’s aides at the same time.
Giannakopoulos was also pursuing further meetings with contacts of Nurul Izzar and Muhyiddin Yassin, flying to Bangkok in February in order to seek a meeting with the Bersatu leader and also to speak once more to representatives of PKR.
explained one PKR leader, who paid to fly to Bangkok to meet the Swiss ‘academic’.
Sarawak Report considers such proposals to be highly suspect. Even the most reputable of Swiss NGOs would hardly expect a role interfering in such matters or acting as a conduit to the Swiss Attorney General.
There were also growing questions about who was paying for Giannakopoulos’s relentless probing into the Malaysian opposition and 1MDB, to the extent of flying to Bangkok and then London and elsewhere. Why was he doing this and what was going on?
Film making with an ulterior motive?
Sarawak Report had also started to obtain further information indicating that at least one member of Salt Lick’s production team has been in regular contact with Prime Minister Najib Razak’s private circle and communications team over the previous many months of extensive filming in KL.
It had started to appear as though the production’s apparently well-funded coverage of 1MDB, which had involved two full years of filming and several repeat interviews of many of Malaysia’s opposition figures and NGOs, might have adopted an ulterior dual purpose of intelligence gathering for BN.
If so, it would not be the first time private intelligence operations have used films as a front to penetrate groups of activists.
In consequence, Sarawak Report has requested a full break-down of the funding of the movie in keeping with the spirit of the initial support from Open Society related sources. Giannakopoulos himself and another producer on the film have separately implied that the budget for the film was at least a million dollars.
Who paid for the Geneva University Seminar?
On top of all his other expenses Nicolas Giannakopoulos was back in London again last week, asking to meet with the Editor of this blog on the basis that he had just received ‘more information’ following a meeting with the Swiss AG’.
So, on Wednesday she agreed to meet him in order to address mounting concerns about his own unexplained interest in 1MDB, Malaysia and its opposition parties.
During that interview Giannakopoulos at first professed friendly comradeship with Malaysian civil society and political opposition groups, providing ideas for how they could divert 1MDB’s frozen funds into ‘good causes’. He even suggested that he personally should start a Swiss NGO to channel the money!
But, when challenged that he had no business with such matters and questioned over Salt Lick, the Vice-President of OUS appeared to become agitated and inconsistent. Changing from his pro-opposition, pro-NGO stance, Giannakopoulos started to attack Open Society and what he described as “destabilising” forces:
Sarawak Report then questioned Giannakopoulos about who funded the seminar at the Univeristy of Geneva:
However, this claim that the University of Geneva paid for the seminar has now been ‘rectified’ by Giannakopoulos’s boss at the Global Studies Institute, Dr Esposito.
Although both the University of Geneva and Dr Esposito have so far declined to respond to a series of questions from Sarawak Repoer about the Department’s 1MDB initiatives, Esposito did reply to Swiss national Pacal Najadi on Monday.
Najadi, whose father was the former AmBank Chairman assassinated in KL in 2013, asked Esposito if the seminar was genuinely paid for by the university, as claimed, or whether there was a hidden third party behind the event?
Najadi told Sarawak Report that Esposito at first replied that the event had been funded by ‘The Swiss Confederation’ and then corrected his statement:
Dr Esposito further told Mr Najadi that he did not know the sources of funding for OCO, even though it merged with his OUS Department in 2013:
This means that although the event took place at the University of Geneva and was presented in the name of the University, it in fact had nothing officially to do with the University.
OCO is an NGO set up by Nicolas Giannakopoulos and public documents show that he has total financial control over OCO. Yet when Sarawak Report questioned him about his spending on further 1MDB related travel and expenses he claimed he had financed them partially out of his “own pocket” and partially through “Swiss Government Institutions through the University”. This contradicts Esposito’s later claim that the money came from OCO.
My “duty as a citizen” to pay for 1MDB investigations
The picture became even more confusing when Sarawak Report questioned Giannakopolis over who paid for him to fly to Bangkok, London and elsewhere after the seminar to further meet with opposition and civil society folk to discuss 1MDB:
Giannakopoulos went on to explain that on the other hand he was not in a position to fund all his activities and relied on “Swiss Government” and “Institutions” for funding. His explainations were inconsistent:
BMF Director, Lukas Strauman received a different story again, he says, when he also questioned Giannakopoulos last week:
Sarawak Report suggests that the most likely source of the money would in fact appear to be one of Mr Giannakopoulos’s private clients, since alongside his academic/NGO role he owns two private investigations companies. We suggest the most likely client to be interested in such intelligence is the Government of Malaysia, which has also been identified as receiving information from Salt Lick Films, which so clearly has ties to Mr Giannakopoulos.
Private and public roles
Giannakopoulos has acknowledged he operates two private companies, namely Global Risks Profile and another called Inside.Co which both carry out investigations. These companies are associated with private detective work and have also been linked to ‘Black PR’ operations on behalf of foreign governments, including Kazakhstan.
The co-founder of his NGO ‘OCO’, Joël Pastre (see above) is also his co-founder and business partner in the company Global Risk Profile SARL, set up in 2010.
Interestingly, the manager of Global Risk Profile’s Zurich office, Monica Fahmy, a former journalist, rang the Bruno Manser Fund in 2015 (shortly after the 1MDB scandal was broken by Sarawak Report) asking questions about Sarawak Report, supposedly for a newspaper article that never appeared.
Monica Fahmy then rang Rewcastle Brown and aggressively questioned her about her role in Sarawak Report. This suggests that Giannakopoulos, in his private company capacity through Global Risk Profile, has been interested in 1MDB/Sarawak Report for the past two years, presumably at the behest of a private client.
This matches the period when Salt Lick began filming on 1MDB and the team has visited Malaysia several times since, repeatedly interviewing a number of opposition figures as events have unfolded.
Speaking to Sarawak Report last week Giannakopoulos claimed that it was indeed Mark Hollingsworth and Salt Lick Films producer Andy Stewart who first awoke his allegedly charitable interest in 1MDB:
Sarawak Report suggests that if Salt Lick Films introduced Giannakopoulos to 1MDB, thereby provoking him into tens of thousands of francs of unexplained expenditure from his “own pocket” to research the matter further, it leaves several unexplained questions about the nature of this documentary film and the nature of the University of Geneva’s involvement with 1MDB.
Sarawak Report suggests that the joint Salt Lick/Roast Beef production should actively investigate the evidence that their project may have been infiltrated by BN for intelligence gathering. Giannakopuolos himself informed Sarawak Report when challenged that this kind of activity “happens all the time”.
We also suggest that Geneva University’s OUS unit has allowed itself to be employed by Giannakopoulos to lend respectability to his NGO, which appears to be acting as a front for his private companies, which are in turn employed by clients to gather intelligence on targets such as Malaysia’s oppositon groups and the investigations into 1MDB abroad.
After all, Giannakopoulos told Sarawak Report and others that the seminar was funded by the University and that his other researches into 1MDB were funded by Swiss Government institutions, which turned out not to be the case.
Delegates who attended the Geneva seminar have said that they did so only because they believed it was being held officially by the University. They would not have attended if they had understood that Giannakopoulos was claiming to have funded the event out of his “own pocket”.
Pascal Najadi told Sarawak Report:
Sarawak Report therefore requests that for its own credibility the University of Geneva should offer an immediate public statement on this matter to explain how it has allowed a private intelligence gatherer to use its academic profile to mislead vulnerable third parties connected to sensitive and dangerous investigations and political situations and what it plans to do about it?
The University should also address the continuous and gratuitous references by Mr Giannakopoulos to alleged “inside information” from the Attorney General’s Office, which he has frequently offered to pass to third parties in a highly inappropriate fashion, in return for information about matters he wants to investigate.
We have offered full transcripts to the University and Dr Esposito of Mr Giannakopoulos’s remarks to Sarawak Report and are disappointed at the failure of both so far to formally acknowledge or reply to our concerns, not only as a researcher into 1MDB but also as an officially invited keynote speaker, allegedly to an event held by the University, albeit under false pretences.