They’re wanted by the FBI in the U.S., accused of helping to disguise hundreds of millions of dollars on Iran’s behalf to evade American sanctions.

In Canada, they’re active businessmen advertising themselves as flourishing leaders in the world of real estate.

Salim Henareh promotes himself on his personal website as the CEO of a private mortgage corporation in Toronto and a “top name in his industry.”

Khalil Henareh (the FBI believes he’s related to Salim) presents himself on social media as an award-winning real estate broker based in Thornhill, Ont.

Saeed (Sam) Torab Abtahi is listed as VP of a private lending company tied to Salim Henareh, according to the company’s website.

They are not accused of violating sanctions in Canada or of any illegal acts here. But all three men face felony charges in the U.S. and up to 20 years in prison if they’re convicted.

Their criminal defence lawyer Barry Fox says the American allegations are “baseless.”

But Garry Clement, a former RCMP superintendent who managed the national police force’s financial crime program, reviewed the U.S. indictment and said it appears to be a “classic example” of Canada acting as a “safe haven.”

“It appears they’re operating with virtual impunity right now,” said Clement. “There doesn’t seem to be a concentrated enforcement action of any kind in this country.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has vowed that Canada will no longer act as a safe haven for people benefiting from “the corrupt and horrific regime in Iran.”

An indictment allows charges to proceed; it is not a conviction.

A grand jury in California concluded there was enough evidence in April, 2021 to indict Salim Henareh, Khalil Henareh and Saeed Torab Abtahi for conspiring with at least seven other people to evade U.S. sanctions and disguise transactions on the Iranian regime’s behalf worth more than $750 million US.

The U.S. indictment alleges the sanctions evasion scheme lasted at least from 2002 to 2018 and involved Canadian money service businesses and front companies abroad.

Among other things, the indictment alleges those companies helped to disguise the purchase of two oil tankers worth more than $51 million US on Tehran’s behalf.

ifmat - The Canadian businessmen accused of helping Iran regime

Court documents tied to the case claim Iran uses front and shell companies to exploit financial systems around the world and transfer money to support terrorist groups, human rights abuses and ballistic missile development.

Clement said he hopes Canadian authorities are aware of the men’s operations in Canada and that they are looking into them.

“[The U.S. indictment] says to me, look, they’re directly linked to the Iranian regime,” Clement said. “It says to me that they’re prepared to go a great distance to support the regime. And that, in my mind … creates a lot of red flags, and should for Canada.”

Fox said the three men in Canada are not affiliated with Iran’s regime in any way.

“My clients categorically deny having any relationship, personal or corporate, with the Iranian government … the allegations contained in the complaint are without merit,” said Fox in an email.

Fox declined CBC News’ requests for interviews, saying they would have to wait until the U.S. criminal case “is resolved.”

“Since the matter is still pending (although dormant) in the American courts, my clients have no choice but to refuse any form of interview at this time,” Fox wrote.

It’s been almost two years since the indictment was issued.

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So why are the men still in Canada?

Assistant U.S. attorneys told a court in March 2022 that the men “remain fugitives.”

The U.S. considers the case a matter of national security, court records show.

Court documents also show U.S. attorneys have submitted two requests in California court requesting that Abtahi, Salim and Khalil Henareh be detained and citing a “serious risk the defendants will flee” before the criminal trial.

But a “bail decision in California does not create a basis to detain persons in Canada,” said Canada’s federal Department of Justice.

For that to happen, the department said, the U.S. would have to ask Canada to arrest the men through an extradition request.

The U.S. and Canadian governments won’t say if an extradition request has been made.

Such nation-to-nation requests only become public in Canada if the matter goes to court, where a judge would decide whether the alleged conduct is also against the law in Canada.

There are no extradition proceedings tied to the two men in Canadian courts, said the federal Department of Justice.

Michael Nesbitt, a professor at the University of Calgary faculty of law who specializes in sanctions and national security law, said Canada is not going to extradite a Canadian unless “there’s been a request for extradition from the foreign country.”

“As far as we know, that hasn’t happened in this case and that is one of the reasons at least you’re not seeing any action on the Canadian side,” he said.

Extradition of an accused living abroad “can take many months or even years to complete,” says the U.S. Department of Justice website.

Trudeau promised Canada would not be a safe haven

After the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in Iran, Trudeau told Iranian-Canadian demonstrators massed in front of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa on Oct. 29, 2022 that the government would “continue to do everything we can to stand against the Iranian regime.”

“We know there are people in Canada now who have benefited from the corrupt, from the horrific regime in Iran and who are hiding amongst this beautiful community, taking advantage of Canada’s freedoms, Canada’s opportunities and using the riches they stole from the Iranian people to live a good life in Canada,” Trudeau told the crowd.

“Well, we say no more,” he added as protesters chanted “kick them out, kick them out.”

“We will,” Trudeau responded.

Kaveh Shahrooz, a lawyer, human rights activist and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the U.S. indictment confirms “the fears that a lot of us have had.”

“The feeling generally is that, regrettably, Canada has just become all too accommodating to people that have either financial or political ties with the regime that’s governing Iran at the moment,” said Shahrooz.

He said he has been raising concerns with the federal government about the Iranian regime’s activities in Canada for at least five years.

Shahrooz said he has been passing on tips from members of the Iranian diaspora to police and intelligence officials about people in Canada they suspect are affiliated with Iran’s regime.

“Regrettably, these threats have not been taken as seriously as I’d like them to be,” he said.

The government has announced sanctions against 86 Iranian individuals and 26 entities since the fall, and has set aside $76 million to enforce the sanctions. The RCMP said the funds include adding an additional 30 staff it expects by next year.

But those sanctions do not target Canadian citizens or people who ordinarily reside in Canada, like the three men named in the U.S. indictment.

Abtahi is a “national” of Canada and Iran and Salim Henareh moved to Canada from California after a VP at his company was convicted in 2003 of violating the California Financial Code by transmitting money to Iran, according to court documents. Property records show Khalil Henareh has lived in Canada since at least 2013.

‘Our clients are proud Canadians’

“Our clients are proud Canadians. They have worked hard to build a better life for themselves, their community and their country, Canada,” Gavin Tighe said in a statement issued to CBC News. He’s a lawyer with expertise in financial services who is representing the three men.

“They have no connection directly or indirectly with the Government of Iran. The allegations in this regard are without foundation in reality. Our clients look forward to refuting these specious and politically motivated allegations in the appropriate forum at the appropriate time.”

Saeed Ghasseminejad, an expert in Iranian sanctions and illicit financing, said the men are operating businesses in Canada thanks to a “loophole”: they’re being prosecuted in the U.S. but they have not been sanctioned and they face no legal proceedings in Canada.

“When you are being prosecuted for a national security-related crime which especially touches the global financial system, this freedom to operate in another jurisdiction is problematic at best,” said Ghasseminejad, the senior Iran and financial economics adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in the U.S.

Global News was among the first to report on the U.S. allegations against the men in 2021. Global reported that one of Salim Henareh’s companies tied to the indictment received the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy, which was set up by the Liberal government to help businesses stay afloat during the pandemic.

A CBC News investigation has since obtained more than 200 pages of civil and criminal court records, business filings and property records in Canada and the U.S.

Company records confirm Salim Henareh’s company ceased operations as a Canadian money services business and is now a numbered company registered under Ontario law. Company filings list Salim Henareh as its president.

CBC News also has learned of several other businesses tied to Salim Henareh that continue to operate out of the same Toronto plaza that was part of the FBI’s investigation.

The three companies are all registered as active in Ontario, according to provincial business records, and are not named in the U.S. indictment.

Three businesses, tied to Salim Henareh and part of an FBI investigation, operate out of the same Toronto plaza. (Paul Smith/CBC News)

One of the companies, Lenders for Growth, claims on its website that it has “virtually limitless access to funding.”

Another, Rosmount Capital Funding Inc., calls itself an “alternative lending company” providing “simple and speedy” residential, commercial and construction loans. The firm’s principal broker posted on LinkedIn that he offers loans of up to $5 million that can be approved within 24 hours.

The third company, Sky Property Group Inc., describes itself on its website as a “unique property management company” that does business worldwide.
Businesses, properties moved into spouses’ names

Websites identify Abtahi as the vice-president of Rosmount Capital Funding and Lenders for Growth.

Company filings with the provincial government show all three of the businesses run by Salim Henareh were moved into his spouse’s name after the U.S. indictment was filed.

His spouse, Ladan Hosseinzadeh Sadeghi, is currently listed as the president of these companies (she is not involved in any of the U.S. allegations). For years before the U.S. indictment came down, provincial government records listed Henareh as the director of these three companies.

Property records also show Salim and Khalil Henareh moved two Toronto-area homes they bought about a decade ago for more than $3.2 million total into their spouses’ names after the U.S. allegations came to light.

Clement, who has worked undercover at some of the highest levels of organized crime, said he thinks the men moving their assets suggests they’re “naively” trying to distance themselves and safeguard those assets from seizure by authorities.

Clement said he hopes the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP are closely monitoring the men’s business activities in light of the U.S. allegations. The real estate industry, Clement said, is highly vulnerable to money laundering.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, where are they getting this money?” said Clement. “Who are they doing it for? Where’s the profit going? I’d have all kinds of questions about their relationship with Iran.”

CSIS confirmed it’s aware of the charges laid by the United States Department of Justice against the “Iranian nationals” but would not comment on the possible existence of any investigation, citing a need to maintain the integrity of its operations.

The RCMP said it also couldn’t comment for the same reason.

Canada’s financial intelligence unit, FINTRAC, has not publicly issued any administrative monetary penalties connected to the U.S. indictment. The unit also said that doesn’t mean other compliance enforcement action was not undertaken quietly.

FINTRAC said it’s prohibited from commenting on information that may have been disclosed to law enforcement or national security agencies.
‘Our government continues to crack down on financial crimes’

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office said that “while we cannot comment on cases before the courts in the United States, we are horrified by the Iranian regime’s brutality and blatant disregard for human rights.

“Our government continues to crack down on financial crimes, including money laundering, to bolster and protect both our economy and Canadians.”

The office said it’s invested about $400 million into tackling money laundering over the past three years and set aside $2 million in last year’s budget to create a new financial crimes agency to investigate complex cases across the country.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong said that while the government has made “a lot of announcements, we’ve not seen a lot of action and I think that’s the key problem here.”

“I don’t think these individuals should be able to operate here in Canada in violation of U.S. sanctions,” said Chong, citing the U.S. allegations against the three men. “And I think that starts by ensuring that we have tools in place to shut down these kinds of operations here in Canada.”

Canada hasn’t prosecuted enough individuals living here who are tied to the Iranian regime, Chong said.

He’s calling on the government to release an update on its promise in the 2021 budget to put in place a beneficial ownership registry by 2025 that would reveal the real people behind shell companies in Canada trying to launder money or commit financial crimes.

The U.S. government has taken the three men to civil court to seek a money laundering penalty of $157 million. That case is stayed until the related criminal proceeding concludes, court documents say.

A date has not been set for the criminal trial in California. Court records say the case is “complex” since it involves 10 defendants currently abroad and will require 15 days of court time.

Source » cbc