By Brian Hutchinson and Graeme Hamilton
ARI Ben-Menashe is back in business. A former spy and international arms dealer, the Montreal resident recently tried to incriminate Zimbabwe’s opposition leader in an alleged presidential assassination plot.
w the self-described “man of infamy” is using a Canadian government Website to promote his latest venture.
Ben-Menashe is chief operating officer of Albury Grain Sales, a commodities brokerage that was registered last year in Montreal.
The company has obtained a free listing on Industry Canada’s “Strategis” Website, which helps “buyers and sellers connect”.
While the Industry Canada listing contains unverified information about Albury, it offers no insight into Ben-Menashe’s controversial past.
For decades, he has raised eyebrows with unsubstantiated tales of international intrigue and political subterfuge; his business dealings, meanwhile, have led to bitter accusations and lawsuits.
Alexander Vassiliev just had his own experience with Ben-Menashe.
“I e-mailed him in April, and that’s how it all started,” says Vassiliev, vice-president of Sonox International Inc, a Florida-based food export company.
“Now we’re in the hole, big time.” Vassiliev says that Albury agreed to arrange a US$33,6-million shipment of soybeans to a Sonox partner in Uzbekistan.
Ben-Menashe maintains that Sonox “defaulted” on its contract with his company. Whatever the truth, the soybeans never materialised, and Vassiliev wants his US$336 000 deposit returned.
“I wish I had known about this person and the things he is supposed to have done,” says Vassiliev. “It looks like we are one of the latest victims.”
Born in Iraq and educated in Israel, Ben-Menashe’s life story could have been torn from the pages of a paperback thriller. Fired from Israel’s intelligence service in 1987, he claims to have spent the next two years as a secret advisor to Yitzhak Shamir, then Israel’s prime minister and to have sold Israeli airplanes to Iran. Israeli officials have consistently denied the account.
Ben-Menashe says he arranged the transfer of an $8,5 million “donation” from Israel to a major Australian political party.
It was payment, he said, for illicit arms trading. In 1993, after Israel refused to renew his passport, and his application to settle in Australia was denied, he married a Canadian woman and moved to Montreal’s affluent Westmount district.
He made more headlines three years ago after taking a lucrative “advisory” position with Zimbabwe’s President, Robert Mugabe.
Ben-Menashe claimed that Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change party, soon approached him, asking for help in a bid to “eliminate” Mugabe.
To bolster his astonishing claim, Ben-Menashe produced a grainy videotape of meetings he held with Tsvangirai in London and Montreal, where the alleged assassination talks took place. The tapes were handed over to Zimbabwean authorities.
Most international observers believed Tsvangirai had been framed; nevertheless, he was charged in Zimbabwe with treason, a crime punishable by execution, and went to trial in 2003. Ben-Menashe was the prosecution’s star witness.
He caused a sensation inside the Harare courtroom, where he angrily clashed with defence lawyers. Judge Paddington Garwe described Ben-Menashe as a “rude, unreliable and contemptuous” witness.
In his judgment last autumn, Judge Garwe found that “nowhere” in the Ben-Menashe videotape was there “a direct request made by the accused … to assassinate the President”. Tsvangirai was acquitted.
Back in Canada, Ben-Menashe faced other difficulties. Police in Montreal arrested him in 2002 and charged him with assault, following complaints from his wife and mother-in-law.
He was eventually acquitted, but subsequent divorce proceedings have been acrimonious. His business affairs unravelled. A private company he founded in Montreal was put into bankruptcy after being sued by at least 10 different parties in several developing-world countries.
Carlington Sales Canada Corporation was accused of pocketing large payments for shipments of grain and other foodstuffs that allegedly never materialised. According to statements of claim and affidavits filed in Quebec court, Carlington required customers to provide 10% deposits, ahead of shipments.
The deposits were to be held in trust. It was alleged the money was instead split among Carlington employees, including Ben-Menashe. Most of the lawsuits were eventually settled out of court.
But Ben-Menashe’s American partner, Alexander Legault, was ordered deported, thanks to unrelated fraud charges he faced in the United States.
Among other things, Legault is alleged to have participated in an illegal investment scheme in Florida that bilked US$8 million from 300 individuals. In May, 2003, he failed to present himself at Montreal’s airport for his scheduled deportation.
An arrest warrant was issued. According to the Canada Border Services Agency, Legault remains at large. Sonox vice-president Alexander Vassiliev knew none of this when he approached Ben-Menashe two months ago. They met at Ben-Menashe’s downtown Montreal office and negotiated a contract, which they signed later in Riga, Latvia.
Albury Grain Sales undertook to ship 12 000 tonnes of soybeans from North America to Sonox’s own agents in Uzbekistan. Sonox wired US$336 000 to Ben-Menashe’s company. Vassiliev says the money was contractually required by Albury, and was to be held as a deposit until the soybeans were delivered.
“The tone changed once we wired the deposit,” says Vassiliev. “We got suspicious. Everything was always going to happen ‘tomorrow.’
But Ben-Menashe couldn’t tell me where the soybeans were loading, what the ship’s name was, things like that. Something was terribly wrong.”
Vassiliev says that before signing his contract with Albury, background checks were conducted on the company.
But no one had thought to examine Ben-Menashe’s past. Eventually, Vassiliev ran his own computer search and came across a National Post story from 2003 that laid bare Ben-Menashe’s unsettling history.
“I was stunned,” Vassiliev says. Accusations levelled at Carlington were particularly disturbing, he says. They closely resemble the experience he claims to have had with Ben-Menashe’s new company, Albury.
“Nonsense,” declares Ben-Menashe, seated at a table inside a Montreal coffee shop, not far from Albury’s modest downtown headquarters.
Albury has conducted itself honourably, he insists. It was Sonox that failed to follow terms of its US$33,6 million soybean contract.
“We are the guys who are going to lose, not them,” Ben-Menashe says. “I really don’t want to go into details.” Carlington had “hundreds of happy customers. Not hundreds, but we did quite a few deals. Tens and tens and tens.”
The problem, he says, is that his reputation precedes him. “You don’t hear about the good stuff,” he snaps.
“You only hear about the bad stuff. Once the Zimbabwe thing started, it all became open season. Anybody could say anything and it was alright because (I was) vilified.”
Dressed in a grey pinstripe suit that doesn’t hide a middle-aged paunch, and sporting spiffy, red-frame spectacles, he does not look the part of an international man of mystery.
The 53-year-old has not worked for Mugabe “for over a year”, he says, owing to philosophical differences. “Things that were supposed to happen after (Mugabe’s promised) land reform didn’t really happen.”
Ben-Menashe defends his role in the Tsvangirai affair, even if it appeared a little unsavoury. “We didn’t break the law, but we weren’t innocent bystanders, either. We do break eggs to make an omelette.”
He says he continues to act as a “political consultant”, conducting sensitive security work in the Middle East and Africa. This infuriates Vassiliev. “I hate that Ben-Menashe is able to travel freely around the world,” he spits.
“It seems like no one can stop him.” Vassiliev says he will be forced to sell his house in Florida if he cannot recoup the money he wired to Albury Grain Sales.
Ben-Menashe’s company continues to maintain its listing on Industry Canada’s Website. The federal department “does not guarantee” the accuracy of any information posted on its Strategis Website, says Bob Porter, Industry Canada’s director-general of information management.
“We assume no responsibility for it.” — National Post (Canada).
By Brian Hutchinson and Graeme Hamilton