Switzerland launches probe into refiner Argor for alleged Congo gold laundering

Swiss authorities have opened a criminal investigation into Argor-Heraeus, one of the country’s main refiners, to investigate whether it knew the gold it handled in 2004 and 2005 came from a militia group in eastern Congo.

The accusations, brought by non-governmental organization Track Impunity Always (TRIAL), were swiftly and strongly refuted by the company, which said it had already been cleared under investigations by the United Nations, the Swiss economics ministry (SECO) and financial markets regulator FINMA.

“Eight years after the conclusion of the case, the allegation arrives like a bolt from the blue for Argor-Heraeus,” the company said.

But the fact the Swiss government launched a probe says something, as under the country’s legal system, authorities are obliged to examine a criminal complaint but don’t have to open an investigation if they think it is not needed.

For decades, rebel armed groups have terrorized parts of eastern Congo, financing their activities through smuggling conflict minerals. From them, gold is the most valuable and hardest to track.

According to TRIAL that is the reason why Argor-Heraeus should at least guessed that the gold in question, coming via Uganda, had been obtained from a Congo-based illegal group —the National Integrationist Front (FNI).

The FNI was created with Ugandan support and in 2003 took control of a mineral-rich area in the conflict-ravaged north-eastern Ituri region of the DR Congo.

The precious metal refined by Argor “was mined in appalling conditions” before being sold in Uganda, TRIAL said.

The refiner, previously recommended for sanctions in 2006 by UN investigators, was not prosecuted at the time and its name was subsequently deleted from the UN’s main report, published in 2005.

An estimated six million people are believed to have died in DR Congo since 1997.