The Madagascan president’s chief of staff has been arrested in London on suspicion of seeking a bribe from a British precious stone miner Gemfields to secure licences to operate in Madagascar.
Romy Andrianarisoa, 46, the top aide to Madagascan President Andry Rajoelina, and her French associate Philippe Tabuteau, 54, have been charged with bribery offences in Britain following a “fast-paced” police investigation, the United Kingdom’s National Crime Agency (NCA) said on Monday.
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The pair were remanded in custody on Saturday, two days after being arrested in central London “at a meeting where they are suspected of having attempted to solicit a bribe”, the NCA said.
Andrianarisoa and Tabuteau were seeking about £225,000 ($286,000) in “upfront charges”, as well as a five-percent equity stake in a proposed licence deal on the island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa, it said.
According to the Financial Times newspaper, which broke the story on Sunday evening, the latter request was for a stake in all the Madagascan projects of Gemfields.
The NCA, which targets serious and organised crime in Britain and internationally, said its probe began after Gemfields “raised concerns” with the agency.
“Following a fast-paced investigation into suspected bribery in action, Andrianarisoa and Tabuteau were arrested in the Victoria area of London on Thursday afternoon,” it added.
If convicted, they could each face up to 10 years in prison.
No further details about the alleged offences were provided.
A lawyer for Andrianarisoa did not respond to Reuters news agency’s request for comment, while another who represented Tabuteau in court over the weekend declined to comment.
Andy Kelly, head of the NCA’s international corruption unit, praised Gemfields for “bringing this matter to our attention and for their ongoing cooperation with the investigation”.
“Their quick reactions to engage the NCA have been critical to our ability to pursue this case,” he added.
Gemfields did not respond immediately to a request for comment by the AFP news agency.
The Madagascan presidency announced in a Monday statement that Andrianarisoa, “in view of the situation”, had been “relieved of her duties with immediate effect”.
The chief of staff had officially been on leave since last week, the presidency said, adding that “the Malagasy authorities do not know the reasons for her trip to the United Kingdom”.
The event comes as Madagascar gears up to go to the polls to re-elect Rajoelina or pick a successor on November 9, the first round of the presidential election.
Rajoelina has not yet officially announced his candidacy, and is facing questions over his dual French nationality.
Under local law, if a person acquires foreign citizenship, he or she automatically loses the Madagascan nationality, and cannot stand for public office in any election.
Siteny Randrianasoloniaiko, one of the Madagascan leader’s rivals in the presidential election, seized on the arrests.
“This case is just one example of the extreme corruption that plagues our country to the detriment of all,” he said, adding that Rajoelina “must go, for the good of my country”.
Andrianarisoa and Tabuteau were each charged with one count of requesting, agreeing to receive or accepting a bribe, under Britain’s 2010 Bribery Act.
Last month, NGO Transparency International published recommendations for the candidates in the presidential election, cautioning “the sprawling nature of the ramifications of corruption in Madagascar, and the intensity of the political and judicial protection that surrounds them, favouring impunity”.
In 2018, a few months before the previous presidential election, Madagascar experienced a political crisis triggered by the adoption of controversial electoral laws, which led to the prosecution for corruption of 79 MPs suspected of taking bribes.
Last year, authorities announced a probe into the lychee trade after a report from the NGO alleging evidence of corruption, tax fraud and other offences.
The watchdog ranked Madagascar 142nd of 180 countries in its 2022 corruption perceptions index.
Gemfields, which mines and markets coloured gemstones, specialises in emeralds mined from Zambia and rubies from Mozambique, according to its website.
It does not currently operate any mines in Madagascar but owns Madagascar-based Oriental Mining, which reportedly holds licences to mine there.
The pair, who appeared before a British court on Saturday, will be in detention until a further hearing at Southwark Crown Court on September 8.