In Cahoots With Ben Ali? Tunisia Corruption Probe Eyes French Firms

Anti-corruption officials in Tunisia are looking into French companies linked, willingly or not, with the clan of ousted President Ben Ali.

Carrefour megastore in Tunis
Carrefour megastore in Tunis
Nathalie Funès

TUNIS - On the Bizerte road in the outskirts of Tunis, the burnt-out skeleton of the Géant Casino supermarket smolders in the sun. After the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, it was one of scores of shops, banks, factories and businesses that were attacked, burned, trashed and plundered.

The vandals vented their anger mostly on properties belonging to the dictator's hated family. But investigations have also been digging up dirt on French-owned companies. The money they earned in Tunisia smells of institutionalized corruption. Nearly every day the Tunisian press uncovers a new case, with stories of rigged bidding, shareholders fired by the family, backroom privatizations and unsecured bank loans (the Tunisian central bank now says 1.2 billion euros were accorded to businesses held by the family in this way).

The new government has launched a clean-up, beginning at the end of February when a first decree listed 110 family members, including children, cousins and nephews, whose assets were to be confiscated and administered by a public entity. In mid March, a second decree set up a commission tasked with managing these frozen assets and sealing their fate: nationalization, sale or flotation on the stock exchange.

Under scrutiny are about 20 French companies linked with the families of Ben Ali and his wife Leïla Trabelsi. The firms may wind up having to face their day in court, depending on the outcome of inquiries by the commission charged with rooting out corruption and financial malfeasance.

Orange Tunisie, the Tunisian affiliate of France Telecom, had as majority stakeholder Marwan Mabrouk, husband of one of Mr Ben Ali's five daughters. Carrefour megastores in Tunisia were linked with the autocrat's son-in-law Slim Chiboub, while the advertising agency Harras has ties with Slim Zarrouk, another son-in-law.

The list goes on: Peugeot has links to Mehdi ben Gaïed, boyfriend of Mr Ben Ali's fourth daughter; and the French home improvement specialists Bricorama had dealings with Imed Trabelsi, Leïla's nephew. Faouzi Mahbouli, Bricorama's initial partner, later kicked out by the family, has filed several complaints, some against the French firm. "All the family's assets taken over by the state will remain so at least until elections in July," predicts a French diplomat posted in Tunis.

The case of Orange Tunisie is undoubtedly the one most cited in the local press. In June 2009, the company of Marwan Mabrouk and his wife Cyrine Ben Ali (Investec), in association with Orange, won the bid for the third mobile phone network in Tunisia. The two finalists in the tailor-made call for tenders were both son-in-laws of the ousted leader.

"Everyone knew, these past years, that calls for tender in Tunisia were rigged, that it was impossible to do business without having links with the clan," said a French businessman in North Africa. "We were candidates in the privatization of an importing company, our application was flawless. But in the end, the government added an extra procedure to eliminate our dossier."

As soon as he had won the bid for the telephone network, Marwan Mabrouk was named president of the board of directors of Orange Tunisie. But since Mr Ben Ali's fall, Mr Mabrouk has stepped back from company dealings. His wife, from whom he is seeking a divorce, is under house arrest in Carthage. And the anti-corruption commission has twice called on him for explanations, notably on interest-free bank loans obtained from institutions controlled by the regime. According to the Tunisian central bank, Orange Tunisie is one of the top four companies in the country to have benefited from this type of funding. The Tunisian state now holds 51% of the affiliate.

As far as the French mother company is concerned, all is well. "We've had an audit of the tendering procedures carried out by our in-house financial and legal advisers," stated Stéphane Richard, CEO of France Télécom-Orange. "We found nothing abnormal at any point. We are serene about this issue."

Photo - D@LY3D

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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