Pandora Papers | Mohamed Allani - A mysterious disappearance and the deep, dark hole of tax havens

Among the Tunisian names that appear in the 11.9 million Pandora Papers’ documents, one in particular stands out, due to the mysterious circumstances. Mohamed Allani, who has been missing since 2004, and his recreational boat, the 'Kilani'.
Written by | 14 November 2021 | reading-duration 5 minutes

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Mohamed Ben Mustapha Allani's recreational boat the "Kilani" is docked in a Tunisian port. However, this man does not appear as the owner of the vessel in any official documents: instead, the shell company "A. Yachting Limited" (which is registered in the British Virgin Islands) appears on the Kilani's registration papers.

This information was obtained from an email exchange between Sylvie B., the self-described "mother of his son", and the Trident Trust Company, which was exposed in the Pandora Papers as being responsible for incorporating numerous companies in tax havens. On the surface, there is little to distinguish Mohamed Allani from the many other individuals who use this type of arrangement to hide boats, planes and other assets in tax havens.

Missing Person

The story could have been that of an ordinary individual in a tax haven, if he had not disappeared almost 17 years ago. The man in question is a French-Tunisian binational, born in Kairouan in 1965. For reasons unknown, he was in Geneva, Switzerland, in June 2004, and on the 21st of that same month, he disappeared.

Since then, he has not been heard from again. In the words of Sylvie B., "a criminal suspect is implicated in this disappearance", according to one of the emails exchanged with Trident, dated December 2011. A case that is seemingly very similar to many forced disappearances that took place during the Ben Ali dictatorship.

His name appears on the "List of issues in relation to the report submitted by Tunisia" in the framework of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. "The Commission [Truth and Dignity - IVD] has also received two cases in which Tunisian nationals have disappeared abroad, including the case of Mohamed Ben Mustapha Allani, who disappeared in Switzerland on 22 July 2004", the document describes, referring to the work of the IVD in Tunisian judicial proceedings, during the tenth session of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in March 2016.

The IVD did indeed receive a report from Mohamed Allani's sister, Leïla, but inkyfada has not been able to reach her for further information. According to a source who worked at the IVD at the time, it was Leïla's lawyer, Raouf Ayadi, who filed the complaint. However, he did not wish to answer any questions when contacted by phone.

According to this source, this disappearance is linked to the relatives of former President Ben Ali. "One thing is certain in this case, it is that he was associated with the Trabelsi family", she said, having worked directly on the subject. At the time, the regime's authoritarianism benefited the members of the Ben Ali-Trabelsi clan, which controlled part of the Tunisian economy, several banks, car dealerships, supermarket franchises, various private media outlets and numerous hotels. This economic and financial network is such that, at its peak, 21% of the Tunisian private sector's profits were managed by 220 companies owned by the Ben-Ali-Trabelsi family.

To conceal profits, members of the presidential clan "used a lot of figureheads", recalls the source, who worked directly on human rights violations during the Ben Ali era. According to her, it is very likely that Mohamed Allani helped the Trabelsi family in their business, tried to steal from them, and then fled. Things subsequently caught up with him, yet his whereabouts are unknown.  

His son, who now lives in France and has had no contact with Mohamed Allani for over 20 years, has no further information. "He must have changed his identity or he is presumed dead, I don't know where he is at the moment", he said on the phone.

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Sylvie B. in charge

Seven years after Mohamed Allani's disappearance, Sylvie B. is reported to have taken over the management of his current affairs, and has been appointed administrator by the French justice system - again according to her own correspondence with Trident. She is therefore seeking to recover the recreational boat "Kilani", which has been docked in Tunisia.  

However, as she began to take the necessary steps to do so, she was faced with a problem. "The lawyer of the Port [...] asked me to prove that the boat 'Kilani', from the company 'A. Yachting Limited', belongs well to the father of my son, Mr. Mohamed ALLANI", she explained to the firm, but "his name doesn’t appear on the boat registration document".

Excerpt from the email sent by Sylvie B. to Trident Trust on December 26, 2011.

Excerpt from the email sent by Sylvie B. to Trident Trust on December 26, 2011.

Indeed, such arrangements are commonly used to conceal the real owners of assets such as boats, planes or properties. In order to avoid the name of the beneficiary of the assets appearing on the title deeds, the beneficiary (or an intermediary) uses a specialised firm to create a company that will appear on the document instead. Director and shareholder appointment services are then used to further obscure the true beneficiary. 

This was for example the case of the young businessman Mohamed Amine Miled, the owner of a recreational boat registered in the Isle of Man, whose official owner is a company based in the British Virgin Islands. According to the documents consulted by inkyfada, the sole purpose of this company was indeed to "own a boat". As part of the Pandora Papers investigation, the ICIJ and various partners (including inkyfada), have uncovered many similar arrangements.

"A tax haven does not necessarily mean not paying taxes, the biggest advantage is that information on the creation of financial arrangements [and the real beneficiaries] is not transmitted to other states", explains Neila Chaâbane, professor of public law. When it comes to boats, the advantage is that the owner can then use them in Tunisia, or elsewhere, without having to pay the customs. The company "A. Yachting Limited" thus allowed Mohamed Allani to conceal his ownership of the "Kilani" boat. 

However, so much so that following Allani's disappearance, it has become complicated for Sylvie B. to prove that he was in fact the owner. "I really need these documents, please. Anything you can get or find regarding the name of the owner or director of the company 'A. Yachting Limited' is welcome to me and to Mr Mohamed ALLANI's son [...] who lives with me in France." 

She stated that it was "very urgent to save the boat" as it was in bad condition and the manager in Tunisia would not let her have access to the boat to repair it. Her son says that he does not know what happened to the boat. "It was left at the quay for a long time, I went to see it with the family", he explains, "it was in a bad state, so even if we recovered it, it is in a bad state, there are port charges, customs charges, it would be a loss to recover it".

Finally, Sylvie B. inquired whether the company A. Yachting Limited had been closed down, and if so by whom and when. The email was then forwarded by Trident employees internally to find out how much it would cost to restore the company, which would be necessary for any further action to be taken. The subsequent quote sent out by Xen M. to Joel O. reads "5100" without any currency being specified (but which most probably refers to euros or dollars).

The documents consulted by inkyfada do not indicate whether Sylvie B. paid this sum, or whether she was indeed finally able to recover the boat.