THE GOLD RUSH: AN INVESTIGATION INTO ATTEMPTED GOLD SMUGGLING AND TAX EVASION IN SOLOMON ISLANDS
AUD5.2 MILLION DOLLARS WORTH OF GOLD ILLEGAL DEAL
Nearly 80 Kilograms of gold worth around AUD 5.2 million (SBD30 million) dollars has been exported out from the Solomon Islands by Asians through local gold dealers license, Primo Kenny and Jeremy Rex of Guadalcanal.
More than 20 kg of this, worth around AUD1.3 million (SBD 8.8m) was exported directly to Hong Kong by Winwin Mining Investment Company officers via the same dealer.
Win Win Mining Investment Ltd is an Asian alluvial mining firm operating in Tururana, Central Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
Former Director of the Ministry of Mines Energy and Rural Electrification Nicholas Biliki exposes the export document details this week.
The documents revealed, this tax-evading gold deal occurred during a period from August 2019 to January 2020.
Section 55(1)(b)(ii) of the Mines and Minerals Act 1990 states Gold Dealing is a reserved business for local citizens only.
Mr. Biliki says the gold dealer’s license has since expired and his office refused to renew the license this year when he discovered the issue.
“Primo’s Licence has expired, and since we realized this illegal deal, we have since declined to renew it.”
Mr. Primo could not be reached immediately as he is living at his remote Village in Turarana, Central Guadalcanal where there’s no network coverage.
But when contacted, Customs Comptroller Mr. Jim Sutton referred the matter to the Ministry of Finance and Treasury Permanent Secretary or the Minister of Mines to comment on it.
“Heads of the Ministry of Finance and Treasury Departments are not permitted to talk to the media – I have forwarded your email to the Minister and Permanent Secretary for comment/response.”
Permanent Secretary of Finance, McKinnie Dentana says the issue has been settled between the government and the miners.
“This is no longer an issue. It’s been settled.”
Win Win mining Investment Director Charlie Meke also confirmed the issue had been settled last year.
“This issue was settled last year with the government, especially the Ministry of Mines and The Ministry of Finance’s Customs Excise Division. Everything is now running smoothly here, we are currently exporting gold every week.”
He says the mining officers are only helping Primo to export gold to Hongkong.
“The officers are only helping Primo to export gold to Singapore.”
Export documents obtained from Customs and Excise Division contain a list of individuals who used Primo’s license to export gold.
However, while the Win Win Mining Director and the government says the issue has been ironed out, it raises yet another question of how the government settled the illegal exports.
FAILED GOLD SMUGGLING ATTEMPT
In 2019, 1.7 kilograms worth SBD700, 000 dollars of pure gold was attempted to be smuggled out from the country by a Win Win mining officer.
Solomon Islands Customs intercepted and confiscated the gold samples at the Henderson International Airport.
Mr. Biliki says the gold samples were intentionally spray-painted to look like ground samples for test analyses abroad.
Mr. Meke confirmed that the incident happened.
“We used to send mineral samples abroad for analyses. And after the incident happened, we are now using the Ministry’s lab for examination.”
Asked why they keep sending samples abroad instead of using the Ministry’s Geochemical lab, he says the company was not aware of the lab.
The samples were returned to the miners, and later allegedly stolen by robbers wearing Police Uniforms who raided the Win Win Mining premises in late 2020.
Mr. Biliki says the smuggling officer has never been prosecuted under the country’s laws.
The leaked documents as well as Mr. Meke confirmed the gold has been returned to Win-win mining.
Following the confiscation, the two samples were analyzed at the Ministry of Mines Geochemical Laboratory which turned out to be 1.7Kg pure gold.
The leaked analysis documents dated January 6, 2020, revealed two samples were analyzed weighing up to 836.39g and 873.69grams respectively.
The samples contained around 97and 98% of pure gold.
Leader of the Opposition Hon. Mathew Wale says this is a serious breach of the Solomon Islands Mines and Mineral Act.
He calls on the Customs Comptroller Jimm Sutton to explain why they returned the confiscated gold to Win Win Mining.
Leader Wale also questions responsible authorities why there are no arrests made following this serious smuggling attempt and gold export deals.
Permanent Secretary Mr. Dentana reiterated the issues have been settled between the government and the miners.
“These are no longer issues”.
Meanwhile, Mr. Biliki says following continuous serious breaches of the Mines and Minerals Act, by the company, the Mines and Mineral Board proposed to suspend or cancel the operation in early 2020.
But this never happens.
“This is a very serious offense to commit under the Mines and Minerals Act and other relevant SIG legislations. Win Win must prepare to face the consequences if further actions are taken. This incident has tarnished the confidence SIG has in this project and those who manage it.”
The explanation provided here clearly reveals the intent the company has to defraud the Government system, Biliki stated in his recommendation letter last year as a Director.
The Board prepared a ‘Show Cause Notice’ to cancel the operation. However, he says, political pressure and involvement on the issue, has been a major setback to pursue canceling their Mining Lease during his time.
The leaked documents revealed, a ‘Show Cause Notice’ has been issued by the Mines and Mineral Board outlining many serious breaches by Win Win Mining.
“The Notice never reached the miners, instead, it was left to collect dust at the Attorney General’s Office, for the whole of last year”, Mr. Biliki says.
He says, after waiting for a year, his office took an initiative to revisit the ‘Show Cause Notice’, but from top-level political pressure, the notice again never reached the miners.
“Instead of submitting the notice to the company, my office was directed from the top to only give a chance for the miners, with an understanding they have to improve on their failures and allow them to continue with the operations. I am not happy with this decision.”
Attorney General John Muria Junior says the issue is a serious criminal offense.
“This is a serious criminal matter and the Director of Public Prosecution DPP office should give you information on judgment should there be any arrests and prosecution made.”
He is yet to formally reply and answer questions raised.
Minister of Mines, Bradley Tovosia reiterated similar sentiments that the issues have been ironed out between the government and the company.
“These are long-time issues that we have settled.”
Meanwhile, a response from Win Win Mining in a leaked document dated April 23, 2021, confirmed it will comply with the decision by the government as their gold samples have returned.
“The samples retained by Customs had since been returned to us after almost 1 year of custody. The returned samples are intended for resending but were unfortunately stolen during the Camp robbery of 9th December 2020.”
Police reports claimed late last year, December 9, 2020, a group of men entered the Win-Win Gold Mining Company premises in Central Guadalcanal and removed two gold bars each weighing 3 kilograms and 1.7 kilograms respectively.
Police Commissioner Mostyn Mangau confirmed three of the 11 suspects have been arrested, now on bail awaiting court.
“I won’t talk much about this matter as it’s before the courts.”
Transparency Solomon Islands denounces the allegations saying this is a serious criminal act the government must explain on its side.
“This is serious and the government needs to explain why the issue is only settled between themselves despite serious breaches of the country’s laws and the perpetrators remain free.”
Mr. Biliki has now been removed as Director of mines under conditions that he has reached his retirement age as of last month.
The government’s side postponed its comments on the issue since last week when SIBC attempted to get their side of the story.
Emails were sent again for comments from responsible authorities after SIBC has been informed that they will respond to the issue next week.
by Charley Piringi