Special to WorldTribune.com
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit has pushed back strongly against attempts to remove him from office over allegations of corruption connected with the sale of Dominican citizenship through the Citizenship by Investment Programme (CBI), which resulted in the arrest internationally of a number of non-Dominicans traveling on Dominican diplomatic passports.
His response, however, may have opened up even more questions, even though he told opposition leader Lennox Linton on Feb. 2, that he had “absolutely no intention of resigning”.
The protests, which began after the broadcasting of a U.S. television show, NBC’s 60 Minutes, on Jan. 1, 2017, escalated to street protests in Roseau, the capital, and in Washington, D.C., by Feb. 7-8. Further protests were known to have been planned.
By Feb. 10, the protests had moved out of the capital and into the countryside, and the program of protests was set to continue with a national day of boycotts scheduled for Feb. 15, being labeled by the opposition as “DDay2” (the protests on Feb. 7, were “DDay1”).
Related: Unrest roils Dominica after reports reveal government’s collusion with China, Iran, Feb. 8, 2017
Prime Minister Skerrit’s lawyer, Anthony W. Astaphan, contacted GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs several times following the Service’s reports on the matter, after those reports were leaked to the consumer media. He said that the use of Dominica-flagged tankers to transport Iranian oil to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) did not violate U.S.-led sanctions against Iran because of the exemption given to the PRC and other countries (including India and Singapore) as a result of executive action by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 5, 2013.
He also said: “No ship or vessel flying the Dominica flag has ever been registered or administered in Greece since at least 2000. There is a simple explanation. In 1999, the UWP Government granted a 20-year exclusive contract to an American. This agreement requires that all ships flying the Dominican flag must be registered and administered in the United States of America. It therefore prohibits the registration or administration of ships with Dominica’s flag anywhere other than in the United States.”
In fact, the “exclusive contract to an American” meant that the Commonwealth of Dominica International Maritime Registry was sub-contracted to a U.S. firm, and was run out of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, by Eric R. Dawicki. The Registry also maintained offices in Singapore and Shanghai (PRC). This, in fact, raises the question as to whether a U.S. firm was then violating the U.S. Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act (CISADA) of 2010.
But the Clinton exemption would have removed Skerrit from direct liability in the U.S. on the Iran sanctions issue.
Astaphan also said that allegations that the Skerrit Government had overseen the decline in Dominica’s economy since 2014 ignored the fact that Tropical Storm Erika of Aug. 24-28, 2015, had destroyed the island’s economy. He noted: “The real reason why the GDP was nearly wiped out ‘after 2014′ was because of TS Erika. The post TS Erika assessment by the Government and World Bank indicated that in one night Dominica lost over 90 percent of its GDP. However, as the Prime Minister disclosed in the Parliament, the government was able to use revenues from the CBI program to expedite the recovery of our destroyed country. As a result, the net loss in the following financial year was three to five percent of GDP.”
Astaphan went on to note that for the past 10 years or more, revenues collected from the “Dominica Economic Citizenship Program” were line-itemed and disclosed in the Estimates of Revenues and Expenditure of the Government; and that the names of all persons granted citizens were published in the Official Gazette. The Dominican opposition movements had alleged that neither all the revenues nor all the names were, in fact, publicly released by the government.
Prime Minister Skerrit and Astaphan noted that the protests were solely the product of political activity by the opposition United Workers Party (UWP), a centrist, pro-U.S. party led by Lennox Linton, but neither the prime minister nor his lawyer addressed key issues raised in the GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs reports, nor the fact that the prime minister’s assets — including his New York apartment — seem to be out of line with his stated income.
As well, the prime minister has given no explanation for his time in Athens during the height of the crisis in early February 2017, with Dominica’s non-resident Ambassador to Greece, a trip which followed within days of the arrest of the prime minister’s earlier confidant, Dominican diplomatic passport holder Alireza Monfared, an Iranian-born Malaysian, by Iranian authorities.
Astaphan also did not discuss another of Prime Minister Skerrit’s close confidantes, Macau billionaire Ng Lap Seng, another Dominican diplomatic passport holder, currently on bail in New York, awaiting trial for attempted bribery of UN officials.
U.S. law enforcement sources also indicate that Mr Ng had attempted to suborn U.S. politicians, and that he allegedly had links to the PRC’s Ministry of State Security (MSS), the PRC intelligence body. Nor was the granting of a diplomatic passport to former Nigerian Petroleum Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke, who has admitted stealing substantial sums from the Nigerian Government (and has returned some of those funds).
The prime minister’s stonewalling through the crisis seemed to have fueled speculation and protest. His links with key criminals in possession of diplomatic passports was not addressed, nor were questions about his international travels — which have been substantially higher than for most heads-of-government of larger trading countries — which have included meetings which do not appear to have benefited Dominica. Nor were the prime minister’s asset levels addressed.
Skerrit noted that the GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs reference to “PRC linkages and apparently intelligence-linked activities to Dominican diplomatic passport holders” were — in a message passed on by Astaphan — “utter nonsense, and [he] repudiates it in the strongest possible terms”. Astaphan continued: “The Prime Minster also indicated that he has had, and continues to have, close and cooperative ties with the U.S. Embassy, and he and his government have at all times fully co-operated with the various enforcement and other agencies of the USA. This fact was recently disclosed publicly by the former U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the OECS His Excellency Ambassador Palmer. The audio of Ambassador Palmer is enclosed for your information.”
The audio tape was of a speech by U.S. Amb. Palmer in 2012 at the transfer of two U.S. small patrol craft to the Dominica Coast Guard, and did not address specific areas regarding Skerrit; nor, indeed, was it a current endorsement by the U.S. government, particularly in the post-Obama Administration. Moreover, while the Skerrit government could not have failed to note the uptick in the diplomatic tempo of PRC activities in the Caribbean (which has been noteworthy but unsurprising), it clearly was not in a position to understand or comment on the PRC’s MSS activity out of the Dominica PRC Embassy.
GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs responded to Astaphan, noting: “Without getting into all of the details of your message, let me state that it is clear that the governments of both Iran and the People’s Republic of China are absolutely not bound by U.S. laws or obliged to follow the application of sanctions regimes to which they did not agree. They, like the Commonwealth of Dominica, have sovereign rights and their governments’ only obligation are to their citizens and to the international agreements to which they are signatory.”
However, it was clear that Dominica was now entering a new strategic framework, in which the U.S. Trump Administration was taking a very different approach to PRC strategic expansion than the previous Barack Obama Administration took, and Dominica was now facing decisions as to where to place its allegiances.
The opposition groups were protesting partly in the cause of reviving U.S.-Dominica relations and abandoning the strong dependence on the revenues which the Iran-PRC oil trade appeared to have given Dominica, through the use of Dominica-flagged tankers.