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Police shed light on visa scam arrests

POLICE swoop on an address in London

By Staff Reporter

FRESH details have emerged of last week's massive London police swoop on criminal gangs involved in forging passports, student visas and related immigration material.

We revealed last week how police arrested over 20 suspects, including a Zimbabwe mastermind whom we can today name as Harry Wilson.

It emerged Saturday that the operation was heavily assisted by South African crime intelligence police officers who worked for over nine months with British police in London.

During "Operation Maxim", SA police infiltrated the syndicate, which allegedly owned a sophisticated industrial printing press with watermarks capability that produced documents that looked genuine. Blank birth certificates were found when police raided the premises. The machine was able to reproduce thousands of IDs, visas and passports.

South African police crime intelligence head, Commissioner Mulingani Mphego, told City Press that 20 people (12 men and eight women) were arrested during the operation.

Wilson, the chief target of the operation is a Zimbabwean-born naturalised UK citizen who is reputed to be a billionaire. Wilson is described by police as "well acquainted with South Africa", has travelled widely there and in other parts of the world and owns many properties in South Africa and in the UK.

Also arrested with him was another Zimbabwean, Martin Slater, who was allegedly the passport carrier. Other arrests have been made in Malaysia and Indonesia, Mphego said. The syndicate allegedly also had South African operatives, and the arrest of at least another five people is imminent.

Mphego said South African documents were targeted because travel with SA documents is easier through many centres of the world, especially the UK and US, which have clamped down on the passports of many countries since September 11, 2001. The documents were allegedly not produced for South Africans but for anyone who might have needed them including Zimbabwean students trying to beat the restrictive visa regime.

Money generated through the scheme was allegedly laundered through properties in the UK, but South Africa was the key channel, where a number of old-age homes were bought. The bulk was used to buy heavy-duty and earth-moving vehicles from South Africa, which were then taken to Zimbabwe.

The syndicate allegedly also operated other businesses as fronts. "These businesses may not even be profitable in themselves but would show a profit through the money laundered through them," Mphego said.

The asset forfeiture units in both the UK and South Africa are doing audits of the properties in the two countries , Mphego said. The aim was to seize the properties.

Mphego said customers who approached the syndicate for documents were vetted through "professional counter-intelligence methods of being followed and monitored for a long period.

"The operation was a very difficult one. It took us almost a year of hard work. We had to get our people in there. If someone went in saying they were an Afrikaner South African needing documents, he had to be Afrikaner and speak with the right accent.

"It was dangerous work but we got our people right in there . It started because of concern by both our country and the UK over the abuse of travel documents.

"The key thing is that these documents were not produced with the collusion of any South African government official. This was not corruption of home affairs staff. These were independent professional people who were producing these documents on their own from their own machines.

"South African documents are considered gold in that market. The people who would need them therefore do not need to be heading for South Africa but just needing travel documents that would lead to the least number of questions and least suspicion when they travelled to wherever they may be going.

"People would also need the South African documents for naturalisation in places such as the UK because of the relationship between South Africa and the UK, which translates into easy access to permanent resident status," Mphego said.
Additional reporting City Press
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