Geopolitics

Italy's Abu Ghraib? Taking Action After Lampedusa Scandal

A member of the Italian Parliament goes undercover to protest for the rights of undocumented immigrants after images emerged of mistreatment at the rescue center in Lampedusa.

Stripped naked and hosed down in Lampedusa
Stripped naked and hosed down in Lampedusa
Khalid Chaouki*

LAMPEDUSA — Although I'd visited the Center for Identification and Expulsion (CIE) center several times over the past few years, I could have never imagined I'd spend the night with the refugees housed on this tiny island. The decision I made to get locked up inside this facility was taken after seeing the faces of the survivors of the Oct. 3 tragedy that left more than 350 dead when a boat sank off the Lampedusa coast.

Seven young people — all Eritreans — who miraculously were saved that day, are still detained here.

But after having met some of the survivors of that tragic day, I also came here because I wanted to talk to Khalid, the young Syrian who last week documented with his cellphone the shameful scenes that took place at the Immigration Center, that were later broadcast by the RAI public television station. When I arrived, Khalid (not his real name) was pale, sitting in the corner of a small room.

"Thanks for your visit,” he said, as he asked me to sit beside him.

Khalid and I are almost the same age and we both speak Arabic. He was pale because he has been on a hunger strike. "I am not mad at the operators of this center. We have always been treated in the best way possible. I just want to get out of here because we cannot stand it anymore."

Lawlessness

Khalid, together with a group of fellow Syrians, has been held here since Nov. 3. Officially, they are all detained in order to testify against the trafficker who is now under investigation.

Unfortunately, when I asked to see the case file, officials were not able to answer. There are no formal acts here in Lampedusa. Action is taken only after receiving directives from Rome. The law actually states that people can only remain in this center for a maximum of 96 hours: not three months. It is a situation completely outside the law, and these refugees should technically not be detained at all.

This is not a bona fide identification facility, but a rescue and first reception center — a place of primary care, not of detention. This utter lack of clarity is also why I decided to stay here. If the police don't even have a clear answer for us, how can we properly care for the refugees, who after months of exhausting journeys find themselves in a place where their rights are put on hold?

Now it is 9 p.m. For my first night, some Syrian refugees offered me a place in their dormitory. Among them there is also Ahmed: a man in his 50s who told me about his wife and his newborn daughter who are still in Syria, as the bombs fall around them. In tears, he confessed that he wants to go back to his country.

He decided to flee hoping he could better help his family from Europe, and then maybe go back to his homeland. But he is now trapped, and hopeless.

The sense of abandonment has also reached the volunteers. They want to talk about their years of sacrifice and hard work, which they do not want to see dismissed because of the bad pictures of a few days ago.

At the end of this first day, I can only pray for all these brothers and sisters. Yet, it would be so easy to help these people. Young people like me, who just had the misfortune of being born “elsewhere.” Our Italy cannot remain silent.

*Khalid Chaouki, 30, was born in Casablanca Morocco, and is a member of the Italian Parliament from the Democratic Party.

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Economy

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.


Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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