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Congolese citizens bring civil action in Belgium against passport maker

KINSHASA (Reuters) - Congolese citizens and international campaign groups have filed a civil action in Belgium against passport manufacturer Semlex, which is being investigated by prosecutors for possible money laundering and corruption, the petitioners said on Wednesday.

“We want the Belgian judiciary to lift the veil on this case and punish any individual or company who may be found guilty of corruption,” Fred Bauma, a Congolese pro-democracy activist and one of the petitioners, said in a statement.

Luc Stalars, a lawyer for Semlex, whose headquarters are in Belgium, said in an email that he was not aware of the civil action.

He referred Reuters to a company statement from 2017 that denied allegations of impropriety, calling them part of a “defamatory smear campaign”.

The company statement said Semlex’s “economic success, in particular on the African continent, has apparently given rise to increasing jealousy or even strategic frustration.”

The Belgian federal prosecutor’s office declined to comment on the action.

In a 2017 special report here, Reuters detailed how Semlex, which supplies passports to various African countries, won a contract to produce biometric passports in Democratic Republic of Congo.

The deal greatly increased the price citizens have to pay for passports, and documents showed a Gulf company owned by a relative of Congo’s then-president received almost a third of the revenues.

A lawyer representing Semlex, Francois Koning, said at the time that the company’s chief executive would not comment for the Reuters special report, saying that unidentified third parties were manipulating Reuters with the aim of damaging him and Semlex.

Belgian prosecutors launched an investigation into possible money laundering and corruption soon after Reuters’ report and raided the company’s headquarters in 2018, but they have not made any further comment on the investigation since then.

Stalars, the lawyer for Semlex, said the company’s passport contract “has been performed, to our knowledge, to the satisfaction of the Congolese authorities and citizens”.

By becoming a civil party to the Belgian prosecutors’ investigation, the petitioners can ask for case records and request further investigative measures.

The civil party petition was filed with the investigative judge in the case last Friday by 51 Congolese citizens, according to a statement by Congo Is Not For Sale, an anti-corruption campaign which brought the petitioners together.

Three international anti-corruption and human rights organisations, including the International Federation for Human Rights and Belgium’s League for Human Rights, also joined the case.

At $185, Congo’s passport is among the world’s most expensive, even though its people are on average among the world’s poorest.

Reporting by Hereward Holland; Editing by Aaron Ross and Timothy Heritage