On 1 November 2013, TRIAL (Track Impunity Always) filed a criminal complaint to the Swiss Federal Prosecutor against the Swiss precious metals refinery Argor-Heraeus SA for allegedly laundering gold pillaged from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
With the evidence in its possession, the Swiss anti-impunity NGO suspects that the refinery may have committed 'aggravated laundering' (under article 305bis of the Swiss Penal Code) between 2004-2005 when it may have refined almost 3 tons of gold from the DRC, the sale of which contributed to financing the operations of an unlawful armed group - the Front des Nationalistes et Intégrationnistes (FNI) - in a brutal conflict.
According to TRIAL, the refinery knew - or should have assumed - that the gold resulted from pillage, which is a war crime.
Therefore, TRIAL requests law enforcement authorities to open an investigation and to establish whether an offense has been committed, and if so, to sanction the company.
"It is unacceptable that pillaged raw materials that are feeding violence in a brutal and horrific war should be refined and prepared for marketing in Switzerland, with total impunity," said Philip Grant, Director of TRIAL.
"These practices run contrary to law, but without a clear signal from law enforcement authorities, they will continue. This complaint should serve as a reminder that corporations are subject to the law and must also be held accountable."
The complaint follows investigations into the DRC-sourced gold supply chain that were conducted in the years 2004-2005 by the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, pursuant to its mandate to monitor the arms embargo on the country.
All of the African businesses and businessmen implicated in this affair were severely sanctioned by the UN Security Council, while Western businesses and businessmen were not, notwithstanding recommendations from the Group of Experts that all participants in the illegal supply chain be sanctioned.
In light of the evidence obtained up to 2012 by Kathi Lynn Austin - a former investigator in the UN Group of Experts - TRIAL believes that Argor-Heraeus SA could not have been unaware of the criminal origin of the gold.
"Even if Argor-Heraeus SA was able at the time to escape UN sanctions under the embargo, that does not mean that it did not violate Swiss law," said Bénédict De Moerloose, the TRIAL lawyer in charge of the case.
"For a long time we have been investigating the activities of Argor-Heraeus SA during the years 2004-2005, with regard to Swiss law, in particular regarding money laundering," he added.
"Today, thanks to newly obtained evidence, our suspicions are sufficiently well grounded for us to refer the matter to the international criminal law department of the Federal Prosecutor's office. It is now for them to determine if Argor-Heraeus SA should be criminally prosecuted for the alleged conduct."
The FNI is an unlawful armed group that began operating in 2002 in northeastern DRC, seizing control of the city of Mongbwalu in Ituri district and of a gold concession named 'Concession 40'. In violation of the embargo imposed by the UN Security Council in 2003, the FNI exploited this concession to finance its operations and buy arms.
The FNI is widely accused of massacres, systematic violence against the civilian population of Ituri, sexual violence, pillage, and recruiting child soldiers.
With the collaboration and air transport provided by a local businessman, Dr Kisoni Kambale, a large portion of the gold was sold in Uganda to a company called Ugandan Commercial Impex Ltd. (UCI).
This company resold the gold to a buyer named Hussar Limited, a Jersey, Channel Islands company, and its London affiliate, Hussar Services Limited, which asked the Swiss company Argor-Heraeus SA to refine the gold, in the period between July 2004 and June 2005. The refined gold ingots were then sold to banking institutions.
In addition to the specific complaint against Argor-Heraeus SA, TRIAL has also launched a parallel Stop-Pillage Campaign in partnership with the Conflict Awareness Project (an NGO started by Kathi Lynn Austin), and the Open Society Justice Initiative.
The Stop-Pillage Campaign seeks to raise public awareness in Switzerland and abroad regarding the impact of the pillaging of raw materials, its link to armed conflict, and the responsibility of all actors in the supply chain.
The NGOs call for a judicial response to this problem targeting every link in the chain, no matter in which country.