US federal prosecutors have announced charges against two Chicago men who they accuse of illegally lobbying American lawmakers to lift sanctions against long-time Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe and members of his regime in exchange for a promise of US$3.4 million.
Prince Asiel Ben Israel, 72, and Gregory Turner, 71, tried to persuade unnamed US state and federal lawmakers, including four from Illinois, to oppose the sanctions against the leaders of the southern African nation, according to the charges unsealed on Tuesday in the US District Court in Chicago.
The complaint says the men met Mugabe, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe Governor Gideon Gono and other officials "multiple times" in the US and Africa, and allegedly agreed to lobby American federal and state officials on Zimbabwe's behalf in exchange for the promised payments.
It is not illegal for public officials to meet sanctioned Zimbabweans, but individuals cannot provide lobbying services to those subjected to US sanctions, prosecutors said.
Ben Israel appeared in a federal court in Chicago on Tuesday, where the terms of his bond were changed to require him to remain in contact with the court.
The complaint alleges that the defendants violated the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The violation carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a US$1 million fine.
Ben Israel's lawyer, Viviana Ramirez, said it was too early to address the merits of the case. Turner, a Chicago resident, is believed to be living in Israel. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.
According to the complaint, Ben Israel and Turner began talking with Mugabe and other Zimbabwean leaders in early November 2008 regarding the influence they could exert to lift the sanctions originally imposed by President George W. Bush in 2003. The defendants allegedly discussed with Mugabe, Gono and others their ties to several public officials who supposedly had close connections to then president-elect Barack Obama.
The complaint states that Ben Israel and Turner engaged in public relations, political consulting and lobbying efforts and had a November 26, 2008, "consulting agreement" that called for an initial payment of US$90,000 and three subsequent equal instalments of US$1,105,000.
Obama has decided each year of his presidency to keep the Zimbabwean sanctions in place. Mugabe, 89, has been president of Zimbabwe for 33 years. He was re-elected last week.