Westminster politicians call for investigation into possible UK links to Beirut port explosion

A member of the House of Commons and another from the House of Lords have called for an investigation into a UK-registered company that could be linked to the August 2020 explosion in Beirut

MP Margaret Hodge, a former cabinet minister, called the apparent failure to list the ultimate beneficiary of Savaro Ltd at Companies House as “outrageous”.

She said that “the UK authorities should investigate this, given inaccurate information appears to have been filed. We need to challenge formation agents where it appears they may have acted improperly.”

House of Lords member John Mann said that the case showed the need for stronger enforcement of Britain’s company disclosure rules.

Reuters had reported that Savaro Ltd was registered at a London address. All UK firms are required to list the beneficial owner(s) at Companies House.

Reuters said that last week it had received an email from Marina Psyllou, the woman listed as Savaro’s owner and sole director at Companies House, stating that she was not the beneficial owner, but was acting as an agent on behalf of another beneficial owner, whose identity she could not disclose.

“The person who was and has always been the UBO (ultimate beneficial owner) of the company was always the same. As you should be aware, we cannot disclose his name,” she said, without elaborating as to why this was the case.

Global corporate governance rules define a UBO as someone who receives the benefits of an entity’s transactions, typically owning a minimum of 25% of its capital.

Psyllou provides corporate registrations for clients through her own Cyprus company, Interstatus. She said in a follow-up e-mail to Reuters on Thursday that her company “strictly complies with legislations and reports to relevant Regulators”.

She also denied that Savaro could have been linked to the Lebanon explosion, saying she believed it was a dormant operation and that it always had been.

“As far as we know the company in question, ever since its registration it remained dormant without any trading or other activity or keeping any bank accounts as the project for which it was incorporated was never realized”, Psyllou said.

A Reuters investigation last year into the Beirut blast found that the huge shipment of ammonium nitrate fertiliser that exploded in a port warehouse had been held in Beirut while en route to Mozambique. The Mozambican buyer, FEM, identified the company it bought it from as Savaro.

A Lebanese source said a sales contract for the fertilizer identified Savaro Ltd and listed it at the London address where the company was then registered with the UK authorities.

Ben Cowdock, who investigates international corruption for Transparency International in London, told Reuters that tracing the shipment could ultimately depend on unravelling exactly who stands behind Savaro.

Psyllou’s firm Interstatus has been listed since 2006 as the company secretary for Savaro, responsible for fulfilling its reporting requirements. Another Interstatus company was initially listed as Savaro’s owner.

In July 2016, three months after a rule change in the UK which required companies to list their beneficial owners, Savaro updated its records to claim that Psyllou herself was the owner.

Hodge and Mann have both called on the UK business ministry to investigate what they said appeared to be a breach of the disclosure rules.

Meanwhile, a Lebanese journalist noted that Savaro had possible links to two Syrian businessmen who are under US sanctions for ties to President Bashar al-Assad. Savaro Ltd shared a London address with companies linked to George Haswani and Imad Khoury, according to the report by documentary film-maker Firas Hatoum. The film was broadcast on Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV station last week.

Haswani, Khoury and his brother Mudalal Khoury have all been sanctioned by the US. All three are joint Syrian-Russian nationals, according to the US sanctions list and a database that gathers data from official Russian institutions.

In 2015 the US Treasury accused Mudalal Khoury of “an attempted procurement of ammonium nitrate in late 2013”. It sanctioned his brother Imad a year later for engaging in business activities with Mudalal. Haswani was sanctioned in 2015 on charges of helping Assad’s government to buy oil from Islamic State militants, which he has denied.

Savaro and Hesco Engineering and Construction Company Ltd, the latter being a firm subject to US sanctions for its links to Haswani, both moved their corporate registers to the same London address on June 25th 2011. That address was also the registered office for IK Petroleum Industrial Company Ltd, in which Imad Khoury was a director, the filings show.

While it was not uncommon for dozens of companies to share listed addresses, and was in no way proof that company owners were connected, Reuters noted that it was rare for firms to move their registers and even rarer for two companies to move them to the same address on the same day. Reuters said that it could not determine if Haswani controlled Savaro. Imad Khoury in turn denied any link to Savaro. “There is a registrar in London, many companies are registered by it, not just mine. I don’t know this Savaro”, he said.

Mudalal Khoury said there was “no logic” behind laying blame for the Beirut explosion on a company registered at a London address where many others were also registered.

Reuters said that the findings about the possible links between Savaro and the Syrian businessmen had raised questions among some in Beirut over whether the ammonium nitrate might have been destined for Syria.

The ammonium nitrate was loaded onto the Rhosus in Georgia before making an unscheduled stop in Lebanon in late 2013. It never left. The cargo was unloaded to a warehouse in the port, where it remained for seven years until it exploded. The vessel itself sank elsewhere in the port a few years later.