Pandora Papers | Belhassen Trabelsi's former associate, Lazhar Sta - from tax havens to prison

Lazhar Sta is one of the Tunisians who were identified by inkyfada as part of the Pandora Papers. In 2018, while he was being prosecuted in Tunisia and placed under a travel ban, he managed to recover one of his companies set up in the British Virgin Islands, and his "dormant account".
Written by | 28 October 2021 | 5 minutes | Available in ArabicFrench
 Zulia Distribution S.A. appears in the internal emails from Trident Trust, a leading offshore services firm. In a form attached to these exchanges, Lazhar Sta declared that he was the beneficial owner, in accordance with legal requirements in the British Virgin Islands.

The businessman, in prison since 2019, was the managing director of Carthage Cement, which he founded in 1985. Listed on the Tunis stock exchange in 2010, Carthage Cement is described as "one of the biggest projects of the last decade in Tunisia, with a total investment of around 800 MDT" according to the presentation on its website. In this project, he was partnered with Belhassen Trabelsi, the brother-in-law of former president Ben Ali. Lazhar Sta is also the owner of the El Ksar hotel in Sousse. 

Among the documents reviewed in the Pandora Papers is a handwritten and signed form in which Lazhar Sta declares himself the beneficial owner of Zulia Distribution S.A., a company registered in the British Virgin Islands. Sta presents himself as an 'entrepreneur' in the hotel and restaurant business, and indicates the activities of the company to be: a dormant account, only formerly used for a 'hotel business', which would be credited with '72,000' (currency unspecified). He also provides an address in Tunisia, in the governorate of Ben Arous, as his permanent residence, and several personal details such as his passport number, a copy of which is also attached to the emails. 

One of Trident's employees expressed concern about this travel document, as it had expired. "We have noticed that the copy of the passport has expired and that the new passport has been requested", writes Lisa D.S., a Trident Trust employee. But according to the documents consulted, no copy of a more recent passport was ever sent. At the time, Lazhar Sta was facing legal action and was in fact banned from travelling. 

In an extract from the British Virgin Islands register, the director of Zulia Distribution S.A. is stated to be a Panamanian national, acting as a figurehead. In the exchanges, Yavuz S, a Trident employee, asked his colleague to reinstate the company. "Please reinstate the above company and confirm by return email that the company is now in good standing", he wrote. He also attached a transfer order for 5,395 dollars, made by "Fidinam (Geneva) SA", to an account in Trident Trust's name, "to restore" Zulia Distribution S.A.

Just as with Belhassen Trabelsi, the documents reveal that this company is also linked to Fidinam, a Swiss financial consultancy firm, providing "tax, business, real estate and digital consulting to companies, entrepreneurs and individuals". Identified through an ICIJ investigation, the firm is accused of acting as an intermediary and facilitator for more or less reputable clients.

The above mentioned transfer, paired with the fact that Fidinam is named as the 'main client' shows that Lazhar Sta went through this firm to open his company in the British Virgin Islands, with Trident Trust acting only as the registrar in the local jurisdiction. According to Sta's handwritten document attached to the emails, the official documents of Zulia Distribution S.A. are held by HSBC in Geneva, indicating a relationship between the bank and the businessman, although inkyfada was unable to ascertain the exact nature of this relationship. 

Charged with corruption and misuse of public assets in a case involving suspected over-billing, Lazhar Sta was convicted and jailed in November 2019. He and his co-defendants (including Belhassen Trabelsi) were also ordered to reimburse Carthage Cement the sum of 30 million euros in relation to this case.