Last Sunday, the world witnessed the biggest data leak in history. The Panama Papers, as the 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca have now been dubbed, were released by a massive global reporting partnership of over 100 publications led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The 2.6 terabytes of data detailing the firm’s financial dealings — leaked a year ago to German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which then shared them with the ICIJ — cover a myriad offshore accounts and shell companies in tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, the Seychelles and, of course, Panama.
Among those caught up in the leak are dozens of current and former world leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and British Prime Minister David Cameron, mostly through their family members or close associates. Several celebrities, including movie stars like Jackie Chan and Amitabh Bachchan and soccer icon Lionel Messi, have also been named. Being named in the papers, or connected to the offshore entities listed, does not constitute a suggestion of wrongdoing and Mossack Fonseca has vigorously denied any impropriety.
With revelations from the leak and their subsequent repercussions still unfolding, here’s what has happened in the past week.
1. Political fallout
An early scalp was claimed in Iceland, where Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson stepped down on Tuesday after the documents revealed the existence of an offshore company owned by his wife. Gunnlaugsson himself reportedly had close to $4 million in Icelandic bank bonds through a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, which he sold to his wife for $1 before becoming Prime Minister in 2009, when his country was in the middle of a financial crisis.
Gunnlaugsson later insisted that his resignation was only temporary, releasing a statement that said Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson — who replaced him on Wednesday — is only an “interim” leader.
U.K. leader David Cameron is also under fire, after admitting he benefited from an offshore trust fund based in the Bahamas that was set up by his late father. According to the Guardian, he said he sold his shares in the company shortly before becoming Prime Minister in 2010.
Meanwhile, at soccer’s global governing body FIFA, ethics committee member Juan Pedro Damiani relinquished his position on Wednesday. The leak, according to the ICIJ, linked Damiani to three men convicted in a massive corruption investigation into FIFA. Swiss police also raided European football association UEFA, where the Panama Papers reveal current FIFA president Gianni Infantino had co-signed a 2006 broadcast deal with two men accused of offering bribes.
Another casualty of the leak came from global corruption watchdog Transparency International, with the president of the foundation’s Chile branch, Gonzalo Delaveau, resigning after being linked to at least five offshore accounts.
Two places where the revelations are unlikely to engender wide-ranging fallout, however, are Russia and China.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied any involvement in offshore financial activities after the leak linked one of his closest friends, musician Sergei Roldugin, to a company behind $2 billion in tax-free funds. Putin slammed the Panama Papers as a conspiracy by the West aimed at weakening Russia’s global standing.
In China, where eight members of the Politburo Standing Committee — the top tier of the country’s communist government — have been implicated in the Panama Papers, all mentions of the leak have been censored from the Internet and social-media sites. Other prominent names in the list of offshore beneficiaries include the brother-in-law of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has made anticorruption efforts one of the cornerstones of his tenure, and Gu Kailai, the ex-wife of one of the Politburo’s former rising stars, now in jail with her husband for a murder conviction.
2. Mossack Fonseca’s response
Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the center of the scandal, has denied any complicity in illegal activities and said in a statement to the ICIJ and other publications that it has “not once in nearly 40 years of operation been charged with criminal wrongdoing.”
The Panamanian firm has also provided a detailed response to the leak, saying among other things that “the parties in many of the circumstances [cited] are not and have never been clients of Mossack Fonseca.” It also defended its compliance protocols and adherence to international laws, but added that its ability to actually regulate the companies registered by its clients is “legally and practically limited.”
Mossack Fonseca has also created a separate website to address emerging allegations against it from the Panama Papers and issue real-time responses, which can be accessed here.
3. Question marks remain
There are several other prominent leaders under the scanner, including Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif and Argentinian President Mauricio Macri. Both have denied the resulting allegations of malfeasance. Sharif — whose family reportedly owns several flats in London through offshore accounts — released a statement saying all the properties were “legal and financially sound.” Macri, named as the director of a firm in the Bahamas, said in a TV address cited by the BBC, that he would defend his financial affairs during an upcoming investigation.
At least 33 companies that were blacklisted by the U.S. treasury — for being linked to states facing international sanctions such as North Korea, Syria and Iran — have been revealed by the leak to be Mossack Fonseca clients. Among them are multiple entities linked to Rami Makhlouf, the cousin of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. The leak shows that not only did the Panamanian law firm continue to represent Makhlouf till 2011, three years after he was hit with U.S. sanctions, but also that the Swiss branch of global banking giant HSBC endorsed his companies and said they were of “good standing.”
Mossack Fonseca has denied knowledge of Makhlouf’s identity and says that if it represented him it did so unwittingly.
“We did not know this individual until his name and association were reported in the media,” a statement on the case said. “Due to the banking secrecy laws in Switzerland, we did not have access to information regarding the final beneficiary of the company in question. Immediately upon learning that he was related to nefarious persons and activities we resigned as a registered agent.”
There have also been several questions about the American presence in the leaks. While it was revealed that 200 U.S. passports were among the documents obtained by the investigative teams, investigative partner McClatchy reported that many of them were simply retirees purchasing property abroad. Besides, as the New York Times and other publications have pointed out, establishing shell companies in the U.S. is also a straightforward procedure.
Owning offshore companies is also not illegal, and many reasons for doing so exist, but the exact implications for those named in the Panama Papers will only be ascertained as more details from the documents are uncovered.
As ICIJ senior editor Michael Hudson told TIME on Tuesday: “This is the start, not the end.”
4. Who leaked the documents?
Very little is known about the individual who provided the treasure trove of financial records to Süddeutsche Zeitung. The newspaper, in an article detailing how the leak came about, said an anonymous source reached out to its investigative reporter Bastian Obermayer.
“Hello. This is John Doe,” the initial message began. “Interested in data?”
When Obermayer replied that he was, the source reportedly laid down some ground rules — he said his life was in danger, the German journalist told Wired, and that they would only chat over encrypted channels without ever meeting.
When asked about his motivations, the whistle-blower said he wanted to “make these crimes public.”
Obermayer and his colleague Frederik Obermaier, who initially received all the data in batches before seeking assistance in processing it from the ICIJ, still do not know who their source is.
“We can’t disclose any numbers or times … or if we are still in contact,” Obermayer told the Washington Post via email on Wednesday, adding that there was “a lot” of back and forth through various encrypted mediums. “On some days, I chatted more with the source than with my wife,” he said.
Obermayer also said he destroyed the phone and laptop he had used to communicate with the leaker before reaching out to any of the names mentioned in the documents for comment, including Mossack Fonseca.
“I don’t know the name of the person or the identity of the person,” he added.
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