An international organization that bills itself as a human rights advocacy group based in Stavanger now faces money laundering charges filed by Norway’s state economic crime unit Økokrim. The leader of the group was arrested and questioned over a four-day period in late May but was released and reportedly is now in the United Arab Emirates.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported that questions continue to swirl around the organization Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD) and its leader, Loai Deeb. Prosecutors are looking into the large amounts of money that have flown into GNRD’s Norwegian operation from abroad just since last fall.
Deeb otherwise portrays GNRD as a large global organization, telling DN it has 123 employees in offices located in “Geneva, Brussels, Vienna, Dubai, Amman, the whole world.” Its website promotes its efforts regarding such issues as child labour, child marriages and freedom of expression. It ranks as having among the largest numbers of “likes” and followers in social media in the world, unusual since it’s largely unknown within established human rights circles. Deeb wouldn’t answer DN’s question as to whether the organization had bought such hig numbers. Deeb told DN in an interview at GNRD’s Stavanger office in April, however, that the organization “is growing,” adding that “we have partners and money.”
Norwegian authorities are now questioning who the partners are and where the money is coming from. “I can confirm that there is an investigation into Loai Deeb and Global Network for Rights and Development,” state prosecutor Håvard Kampen told DN, which published a 10-page story with photos about Deeb and GNRD in its Saturday magazine (external link, in Norwegian). Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) had also reported on Økokrim’s investigation Friday night on its national newscast Dagsrevyen (external link, in Norwegian), during which Kampen described the amounts of money in question as “considerable.” He said the investigation would now proceed based on material gathered during Økokrim’s raid on GNRD’s offices.
DN and NRK reported that Deeb and GNRD are charged with both money laundering and heleri (receiving stolen property) but Kampen would not reveal further details as to why the charges were filed. Deeb, meanwhile, was released after his arrest but apparently was allowed to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
That’s where three companies, described by Deeb himself in an email to DN earlier this spring as “sponsors” of GNRD, are based and likely to draw the attention of investigators. Norwegian police are also looking into a network of companies that Deeb has set up in Norway, along with a new foundation said to be backing GNRD and additional organizations under the banner of human rights. Asked why GNRD’s main office was set up in Stavanger, since the vast majority of its funding comes from abroad, Middle East researcher Lars Gule told NRK that it could simply be because its leader lives in Norway or because Norway has a reputation as a champion of human rights and an address in Norway could enhance a group’s credibility. Gule questioned the group’s credibility, however, not least because of an index it created that boosted the Emirates’ own human rights track record up to the level of European nations in a “completely unreasonable” manner.
‘Never heard of him’
Neither Norway’s own foreign ministry, which is highly active in human rights work and issues around the world, nor the state agency charged with overseeing Norwegian foreign aid, Norad, have had any contact with GNRD or know anything about the organization. “We don’t know anything about them,” Norad’s director of communications Eva Bratholm told DN. “They have never taken contact or applied for support from us. It’s not easy to understand what kind of organization this is.”
Nicholas McGeehan, an expert on the Middle East for Human Rights Watch in London, said he had never heard of GNRD either, until two British citizens working for GNRD were arrested in Qatar last year, charged among other things with spying on Qatar as they investigated conditions for foreign labourers. “And I had never heard of Loai Deeb,” McGeehan told DN. The arrests hit the international news at a time when attention had turned to the slave-like conditions for those working on projects tied to the next World Cup football tournament in Qatar.
McGeehan told DN that both Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have very poor human rights track records, but that the Emirates are also “very PR-conscious.” There’s also a so-called “propaganda war” going on between Qatar and the Emirates, according to James Dorsey, a long-time Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times who now is a researcher at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and writing a book on the subject. He told DN that the Emirates uses large sums of money to boost its image. “Perhaps the Emirates had use for an international human rights organization that was sympathetic to it,” McGeehan told DN. Gule told NRK that the group may have “several agendas,” doing some work that’s “very good” but also “letting itself be used as a propaganda instrument” for other players in the Middle East.
Deeb’s defense attorney, Kjell Brygfjeld, declined comment on the charges against his client and his client’s organization. Investigators at Økokrim remained mum Monday on their investigation into GNRD’s funding and Deeb himself, who said he came to Norway as a Palestinian refugee when he was 18. He’s now 39, has lived in Norway continuously but was reluctant to talk about himself. He claims to have a doctorate in “international law” but wouldn’t tell DN where he studied.
In addition to being involved in the arrests in Qatar, his group held an anti-terrorism conference in Geneva last winter and won limited accreditation at the UN over the objections of the US, Israel and all other members of NATO, DN reported. Belgium’s representatives expressed concerns that GNRD had a hidden agenda, while others questioned the group’s credibility. After strong support from Sudan’s representative, GNRD won a slim majority of support for its application to lobby at the UN from countries including China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Burundi and Venezuela.