Arafat's former aide faces embezzlement charges
RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) -- The shadowy financial adviser of the late Yasser Arafat is being sought on suspicion he stole millions of dollars in public funds, the top Palestinian anti-corruption campaigner said Wednesday.
It is the most high-profile case since the Palestinian Authority established its Anti-Corruption Commission and a special court two years ago to deal with such cases, the panel's chief, Rafik Natche, told The Associated Press.
The former financial adviser, Mohammed Rashid, is suspected of transferring millions of dollars out of the Palestinian Investment Fund and setting up fake companies, Natche said. Rashid has in the past denied wrongdoing.
Rashid left the Palestinian territories after Arafat's death in 2004 and is moving between countries, Natche said. The Palestinian foreign and justice ministries have asked several countries to extradite Rashid and freeze his assets, Natche added but declined to say which countries are involved.
Earlier, he told the Palestinian news agency Wafa that Interpol is also being asked for help.
Rashid's current whereabouts are unclear, though the Arab satellite TV station al-Arabiya has been broadcasting a series of interviews with him since last week.
In a segment last week, Rashid denied he was formally asked to appear before a Palestinian court. Rashid said he was asked in 2008 to provide documents about the investment fund, and that he told Palestinian officials that the documents were at the fund's office. He said he was not contacted since then.
Rashid, a Kurd who also went by the name Khaled Salam, befriended top PLO officials in the 1980s. He became Arafat's top financial adviser when the Palestinian Authority was established in 1994, following interim peace deals with Israel.
The first decade of the Palestinian self-rule government in parts of the West Bank and Gaza was tainted by rampant corruption and mismanagement. Arafat himself was known for a relatively frugal lifestyle, but spent money without supervision and permitted corruption around him as a way of ensuring loyalty.
In 2003, the international community, concerned about millions in foreign aid going to waste, asked respected Palestinian economist Salam Fayyad to supervise Palestinian Authority spending. Fayyad, now the West Bank-based prime minister, is credited with providing greater transparency.
However, little was done over the past decade to go after those suspected of stealing public funds, despite anger among ordinary Palestinians over alleged embezzlers not being held accountable.
Two years ago, Arafat's successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, set up the Anti-Corruption Commission and the special court to deal with corruption cases. So far, two Cabinet ministers have been forced to resign amid corruption allegations.
Natche told the Voice of Palestine radio on Wednesday that the charges against Rashid were filed 10 days ago.
"This man came to the Palestinian revolution without anything (money)," Natche said. "We want to ask where did he get all his money from? This is Palestinian money and should be returned to the Palestinian people."
"We asked him to come to face these charges, but he did not come," Natche said, adding that in terms of money, the Rashid case is the biggest currently before the court. "There are bigger ones ahead," he added.
Natche said 85 cases are currently pending before the corruption court.