More than a dozen heads of state and government, from Jordan to Azerbaijan, Kenya and the Czech Republic, have used offshore tax havens to hide assets worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a far-reaching new investigation by the ICIJ media consortium.
The so-called "Pandora Papers" investigation — involving some 600 journalists from media including The Washington Post, the BBC and The Guardian — is based on the leak of some 11.9 million documents from 14 financial services companies around the world.
Some 35 current and former leaders are featured in the latest vast trove of documents analysed by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) — facing allegations ranging from corruption to money laundering and global tax avoidance.
In most countries, the ICIJ stresses, it is not illegal to have assets offshore or to use shell companies to do business across national borders.
But such revelations are no less of an embarrassment for leaders who may have campaigned publicly against tax avoidance and corruption, or advocated austerity measures at home.
The documents notably expose how Jordan's King Abdullah II created a network of offshore companies and tax havens to amass a $100 million property empire from Malibu, California to Washington and London.
The Jordanian embassy in Washington declined to comment, but the BBC cited lawyers for the king saying all the properties were bought with personal wealth, and that it was common practice for high profile individuals to purchase properties via offshore companies for privacy and security reasons.
Family and associates of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev — long accused of corruption in the central Asian nation — are alleged to have been secretly involved in property deals in Britain worth hundreds of millions.
And the documents also show how Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis — who faces an election later this week — failed to declare an offshore investment company used to purchase a chateau worth $22 million in the south of France.
"I have never done anything illegal or wrong," Babis hit back in a tweet, calling the revelations a smear attempt aimed at influencing the election.
Tony Blair and Shakira
In total, the ICIJ found links between almost 1,000 companies in offshore havens and 336 high-level politicians and public officials, including more than a dozen serving heads of state and government, country leaders, cabinet ministers, ambassadors and others.
More than two-thirds of the companies were set up in the British Virgin Islands.
"I guess it mostly demonstrates that the people that could end the secrecy of offshore, could end what's going on, are themselves benefiting from it," the ICIJ's director Gerard Ryle said in a video accompanying the investigation.
"We're looking at trillions of dollars."
For Maira Martini, a policy expert with Transparency International, the latest investigation once more offers "clear evidence of how the offshore industry promotes corruption and financial crime, while obstructing justice."
"This business model cannot go on," she said.
Among the other revelations from the ICIJ investigation:
-The former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has been critical of tax loopholes, is shown to have legally avoided paying stamp duty on a multi-million pound property in London, when he and his wife Cherie bought the offshore company that owned it.
-Members of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan's inner circle, including cabinet ministers and their families, are said to secretly own companies and trusts holding millions of dollars. In a series of tweets, Khan vowed to "take appropriate action" if any wrongdoing by Pakistani citizens is established.
-Vladimir Putin is not directly named in the files, but he is linked via associates to secret assets in Monaco, notably a waterfront home acquired by a Russian woman believed to have had a child with the Russian leader, The Washington Post reports.
-Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta — who has campaigned against corruption and for financial transparency — is alleged, along with several family members, of secretly owning a network of offshore companies.
-As well as politicians, the public figures exposed included the Colombian singer Shakira, the German supermodel Claudia Schiffer and the Indian cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. Representatives for all three told the ICIJ the investments were legitimate and denied tax avoidance.
The "Pandora Papers" are the latest in a series of mass ICIJ leaks of financial documents, from LuxLeaks in 2014, to the 2016 Panama Papers — which triggered the resignation of the prime minister of Iceland and paved the way for the leader of Pakistan to be ousted.
They were followed by the Paradise Papers in 2017 and FinCen files in 2020.
The documents behind the latest investigation are drawn from financial services companies in countries including the British Virgin Islands, Panama, Belize, Cyprus, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Switzerland.