Standard Chartered accused of over $250bn of illegal transactions to Iran

"You fucking Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?"

Standard Chartered, the British bank, stands accused of having run a major operation to facilitate money transfers in and out of Iran, in violation of American sanctions against the company. The amount of money it is thought moved totals $250bn, and would have earned Standard Chartered millions in fees.

The New York department of financial services said in a statement that:

Motivated by greed, [Standard Chartered] acted for at least ten years without any regard for the legal, reputational, and national security consequences of its flagrantly deceptive actions.

The full complaint claims jaw-dropping levels of arrogance on the part of the bank. When London was informed of concerns by the head of American operations that US law was being systematically broken, the group director replied:

You f---ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?

In order to facilitate the trades without being found out, the banks employees had to strip the information that the trades were coming from Iran out of the wire transfer. And when volume grew too high to manage, they automated the systems:

When SCB anticipated that its business with Iranian Clients would grow too large for SCB employees to “repair” manually the instructions for New York bound wire transfers, SCB automated the process by building an electronic repair system with “specific repair queues,” for each Iranian Client.

Once the bank realised that the heat was on, it started getting even more tricksy. It asked its auditor, Deloitte, to delete any mention of the activities from its report:

Having improperly gleaned insights into the regulators’ concerns and strategies for investigating U-Turn-related misconduct, SCB asked D&T to delete from its draft “independent” report any reference to certain types of payments that could ultimately reveal SCB’s Iranian U-Turn practices. In an email discussing D&T’s draft, a D&T partner admitted that “we agreed” to SCB’s request because “this is too much and too politically sensitive for both SCB and Deloitte. That is why I drafted the watered-down version.”

And eventually even moved their compliance department to India to forestall the regulators:

Outsourcing of the entire OFAC compliance process for the New York branch to Chennai, India, with no evidence of any oversight or communication between the Chennai and the New York offices.

What's really scary is that even the "good guys" - the people at Standard Chartered who were raising questions - reveal breathtaking attitudes towards breach of law. The head of American operations, who first told London of his concerns, is quoted as writing:

Firstly, we believe [the Iranian business] needs urgent reviewing at the Group level to evaluate if its returns and strategic benefits are . . . still commensurate with the potential to cause very serious or even catastrophic reputational damage to the Group. Secondly, there is equally importantly potential of risk of subjecting management in US and London (e.g. you and I) and elsewhere to personal reputational damages and/or serious criminal liability.

Reread that first point. He is not saying "we have broken the law, and need to stop", but instead "we have broken the law, and need to review its returns and strategic benefits to make sure it's worth doing". That is evidence of internalised corruption to a worrying degree.

The bank itself rejects "the position and portrayal of facts made by the New York State Department of Financial Services", according to its statement. Its major position is that the vast majority of its transactions to Iran were legal, and the the DFS has misinterpreted a point of law. It claims just $14m worth of transactions broke the regulations, and that it brought those to the regulator's attention as soon as it knew.

Standard Chartered had been one of the banks which made it through the crisis relatively unchanged. That looks set to change now.

Standard Chartered faces severe allegations. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot