Fraud, fakery and human rights: the end of a strange organisation

In 2014 two human rights researchers from Britain went missing in Qatar. They had gone to investigate the conditions of migrants working in the Gulf state and it turned out that the authorities, displeased by the researchers' activities, had arrested them. International media took up the case and nine days later the men were released without charge.

That might have been the end of the story except for one small fact. The researchers were not employed by one of the well-known human rights organisations but by an organisation that hardly anyone had heard of – the Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD).

GNRD was based in Norway, had plenty of funds and, according to its website, prided itself on using "out-of-the-ordinary" approaches to humanitarian issues. Just how out-of-the-ordinary its methods were started to become clear in 2015 when police raided its headquarters on suspicion of laundering millions of dollars. GNRD has since gone bankrupt and, following a trial in September, its founder-president has now been convicted of fraud and forgery.

Emirati connections

The ill-treatment of migrant workers had long been a scandal in the Arab Gulf states, and Qatar was no exception. But GNRD's specific focus on abuses by Qatar seemed to be motivated by politics. At the time, Qatar and its Gulf neighbour, the United Arab Emirates, were engaged in one of their periodic spats and despite GNRD's claims of being "neutral and impartial" it had clear Emirati sympathies.

A search of its website revealed several enthusiastic reports about the UAE's human rights "achievements" and an international human rights league table published by GNRD showed the Emirates in 13th position worldwide, just one place behind the UK and far ahead of any other Arab country. Qatar, meanwhile, was ranked in 85th position.

There were also some troubling questions about GNRD's founder-president, Loai Deeb. Before setting up his human rights organisation in 2008, Palestinian-born Deeb – who had acquired citizenship in Norway – was head of the "Scandinavian University", a fake institution based at his home in Stavanger which had eventually closed down under threats of legal action by the Norwegian authorities.

Deeb himself pretended to have a doctorate in international law from Oxford University and insisted on being known as "Doctor Deeb".

Loai Deeb, founder and president of GNRD

Online harassment

Intrigued by Deeb's background and GNRD's apparent connection with the UAE, I began monitoring its activities in a series of blog posts. GNRD responded by accusing me of "criminal harassment" and urging "respected institutions" to take no notice of what I was writing. It said in a press release:

"After carefully examining all the claims made by Mr Brian Whitaker in his articles, GNRD have found that the allegations are often false and misleading and therefore GNRD is in the process of opening a legal case."

I never heard from GNRD's lawyers but shortly afterwards there were repeated attempts to hack my social media accounts and several fake accounts were created using my name. Over a period of several weeks, hundreds of automated Twitter bots also posted defamatory tweets about me. Among other things, they falsely accused me of being paid by the Qatari government and claimed I had been expelled from Yemen for a sexual offence. Interestingly, the same bots posting these tweets were also being used to promote the activities of Loai Deeb.

Later, GNRD organised a demonstration outside the UN building in Geneva where a statement was read out denouncing my blog posts (see video below).

Gaining acceptance

At its peak, GNRD had more than 100 staff, with branch offices in Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Sudan, Jordan and the UAE as well as its headquarters in Norway.

The alarming thing about this was how readily it became accepted as a normal humanitarian organisation when a few rudimentary checks would have shown it was anything but normal. Regardless of its peculiarities, GNRD had been granted consultative status at the United Nations, signed a cooperation agreement with the African Union and acted as an official observer for elections in several Arab and African countries.

At one point GNRD had no fewer than 15 staff accredited by the European Parliament in Brussels for lobbying purposes and it organised several meetings hosted jointly with MEPs. It also struck collaboration agreements with universities in Norway and Spain and, rather bizarrely, established a relationship with the Church of Scientology.

Posts on GNRD's website gave the impression of a lot of activity, perhaps to show its mystery backers they were getting something for their money, but on a closer look there was little of substance. The website documented numerous meetings, almost always held in conjunction with some another organisation. Its reports usually ended by expressing a hope that the two organisations would work together again in the future, and this looked like a deliberate strategy for GNRD to gain credibility through association.

Big ambitions

By 2014 there were signs that GNRD had big ambitions but several attempts to engage with issues more directly and proactively resulted in failure – as with the hapless researchers sent to Qatar.

In May 2014, for instance, it dispatched a five-person mission to the Kurdish-held area of northern Syria which returned home empty-handed, having been unable to reach its intended destination.

A few months later, with Yemen on the brink of civil war, GNRD flew prominent Yemenis to a conference in Brussels which Deeb hailed as "a real opportunity to achieve an all-inclusive national reconciliation". However, the conference achieved nothing apart from issuing a declaration described by one Yemeni political analyst as "worthless in terms of its substance and content".

Early in 2015, GNRD attempted to tackle the problem of terrorism with a two-day conference at one of the most luxurious hotels in Geneva. Some 200 delegates from 67 countries were said to have attended and a list of "VIP guests and speakers" showed that a number of genuine counterterrorism experts were among them.

The main purpose of this hugely expensive event was to promote GNRD's draft of an "International Convention on Counterterrorism". The proposed convention was clearly unworkable but extracts from the document were read out to the conference by a succession female GNRD employees who had been allowed to buy new clothes on expenses specially for the occasion (see video below):

Questions of funding

Exactly who was paying for GNRD's activities is still a mystery but it's now known that almost all its funding came via the UAE – a total of more than $13 million between 2013 and 2015.

Deeb claimed it was "sponsorship" money from successful businesses he had established in the Emirates. One of these companies, Deeb Consulting which he supposedly ran with his brother, was GNRD's main donor during 2014. However, there are plenty of signs that Deeb Consulting was not a real business. It appears that money was simply being channelled through shell companies in order to disguise the true sources of GNRD's funding.

The large transfers of money eventually triggered an alert in the international banking system and in May 2015 Norwegian police raided GNRD's headquarters and Deeb's home on suspicion of money-laundering. Following the police raids GNRD's funding dried up, salaries went unpaid and a few months later the organisation was declared bankrupt.

Deeb's crimes

The money-laundering investigation didn't get very far – largely because the UAE failed to cooperate. Norwegian police say they sent a request to the Emirati authorities for help with the investigation but never received an answer and were given no opportunity to question people in the Emirates who may have been involved in suspicious transfers.

However, in the course of their money-laundering investigation the police uncovered other crimes for which Deeb has now been convicted. These are set out in detail in a written judgment issued by the court.

Considering Deeb's previous incarnation as head of the fake "Scandinavian University", it's not surprising that most of the charges against him involved some form of fakery. Documents uncovered by the Norwegian police, for example, included a series of false invoices for travel expenses.

Part of this deception was connected with GNRD's efforts to gain official recognition from ECOSOC, the UN's Economic and Social Council. An initial application for consultative status was refused on the grounds that GNRD's accounts were not in order. Some forged paperwork solved the accounting problem and a further application, in 2014, was granted. Besides enhancing GNRD's credibility, this allowed it to take part in the activities of the UN Human Rights Council and to hold meetings on UN premises in Geneva.

Among the documents that helped secure ECOSOC's recognition was a set of accounts for GNRD's Jordan office, purportedly verified by an auditing firm which turned out to have been unregistered and had a phone number that didn't work. In its written judgment, the Norwegian court concluded that the audit report was false and had been produced by Deeb and his staff to mislead the UN in connection with the ECOSOC application.

Another document presented in support of the ECOSOC application was a fake contract with a South African company, Water and Sanitation Services. This was supposedly an agreement whereby GNRD would sponsor water projects carried out by the firm in Chad, Congo, Cameroon and the Central African Republic – but the firm denies all knowledge.

Later on, the fake water contract also provided cover for Deeb's online gambling. He was a heavy gambler and according to court documents used at least $1.2 million of GNRD's funds (as well as his own money) for this activity. Payments to gaming companies were disguised in GNRD's accounts as payments for African water projects.

As a result of the police raid on his home, Deeb was also found to have imported large amounts of gold without declaring it to customs. A safe in his house contained three kilograms of gold jewellery with a precious-metal value of about $120,000. On a separate charge he was convicted of giving false information to Norwegian immigration authorities in connection with a residence permit for an Iranian who was purportedly working for GNRD.

Deeb has been sentenced to four-and-a-half years in jail, though he is currently free pending a possible appeal.

What was it about?

Despite the lengthy police investigation, Deeb's intentions in creating GNRD are still a puzzle. Although he founded the organisation in 2008, its website showed no significant activity until 2013 when large sums of money began arriving via the Emirates.

Deeb's own financial situation changed spectacularly around the same time. His personal income in Norway, which had been around $25,000 a year until 2012, suddenly leapt to $600,000 in 2013. In 2014 he bought two properties in Norway for a total value of 12.3 million kroner ($1.6 million) and paid for them in full without taking out a mortgage.

Money-making aside, Deeb was clearly on some kind of ego trip. He ran GNRD in the style of a Middle Eastern autocrat and maximised the opportunities for self-promotion. On social media he described himself as a "public figure" and, although little known, appeared to be enormously popular. His Facebook page had 1.2 million "likes" and his Twitter account had 1.46 million followers – presumably paid for. Norwegian media pointed out that if these figures were true Deeb would be the most popular person in the country, with more online fans than all the government ministers and members of parliament combined.

GNRD and the Emirates

One big unanswered question is the exact nature of GNRD's relationship with the Emirates. Although no evidence has emerged of direct government funding, the UAE's non-cooperation in the money-laundering case can be viewed as a sign of GNRD's favoured status. It was also allowed to maintain a branch office in the Emirates where independent civil society organisations and international NGOs are not normally welcome.

Although most of GNRD's funds came via the UAE from untraceable sources, a document dated August 2103 shows a bank transfer of 100,000 euros to GNRD from al-Mezmaah Studies and Research Center in Dubai. Al-Mezmaah describes itself as "an independent centre established by Dr Salem Humaid with the aim of concentrating on the regional affairs of the United Arab Emirates and also its repercussion at the Arab and international level and all that which exalt [sic] the name of the United Arab Emirates".

Al-Mezmaah engages in a wide range of activities but has been especially active campaigning against Qatar, Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, as can be seen from the articles on its website.

Salem Humaid, the founder of al-Mezmaah, has held various government posts in Dubai – most notably with the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority. He has also written occasionally for the Emirati newspaper, The National. One of his articles for The National attacked Human Rights Watch, suggesting it was "little more than a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood's international organisation".

GNRD and Egypt

Beyond the UAE, though, GNRD had several other political connections. In 2014 it was one of three obscure organisations appointed as international observers for the presidential election which legitimised General Sisi's seizure of power. The observer mission later produced an enthusiastic report which said the Egyptian people had "experienced a unique process toward democratic transition" and complimented them on "their achievements thus far towards a path to democracy".

One senior member of GNRD's observer mission for the presidential election was its grandly-titled "High Commissioner for Europe", the late Anne-Marie Lizin, a Belgian politician who had been convicted of electoral malpractice and banned from holding public office.

The following year GNRD was appointed again to observe Egypt's parliamentary elections. It sent a large observer team and issued a preliminary report on "this epoch-making democratic process" but a promised "comprehensive final report" on the elections never materialised. By then, though, GNRD was facing serious internal problems as a result of the Norwegian police investigation.

GNRD and the Kurds

During the conflict in Syria, GNRD developed a relationship with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). This appears to have come about through Deeb's connection with Haytham Manna, a Syrian leftist and secularist based in Paris. Deeb and Manna had previously worked together in an organisation called the International Coalition Against War Criminals (ICAWC) which in 2009 attempted to have three Israeli politicians and seven military commanders prosecuted for war crimes.

Manna, who was a speaker at several GNRD events, later became a founder of the Syrian National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in which Kurdish Syrians were represented by the PYD.

Haytham Manna (left) and Khaled Issa of the PYD at GNRD's conference

In 2013 GNRD held a conference in Brussels under the title "Against Dictatorship and Foreign Intervention in Syria". The four main speakers were Deeb and Lizin from GNRD, plus Manna and Khaled Issa, the PYD's representative in France. A report of the conference posted on GNRD's website was among various items deleted when Norwegian media began taking an interest in its activities.

The PYD helped arrange two GNRD fact-finding missions, including the one mentioned above that failed to reach Syria in 2014. A mission to Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2015, headed by GNRD "High Commissioner" Lizin, appears to have been more successful. After the group's return, GNRD facilitated presentations by PYD members at a lunch for "decision-makers" in Brussels and at UN headquarters in Geneva.

GNRD and Palestine

GNRD's connections with Palestine were no less intriguing than those with the UAE – and possibly even more significant in the light of claims that GNRD was a Palestinian front organisation.

In 2012 some documents – allegedly part of a classified report prepared by the Palestinian Authority's external security department – appeared briefly on the website of the PA’s official news agency, Wafa, but were hastily deleted.

The report claimed that western countries were using Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and similar organisations as a “striking arm” to influence policies around the world and remove governments from power. It proposed that the Palestinian Authority should have its own “striking arm” and named GNRD as the vehicle for this.

The Jerusalem Post reported at the time:

"The plan envisages using GNRD as a front for the establishment of an “effective and credible international human rights group that would operate from Geneva and whose goal would be to defend Palestinian causes” and collect information. The cost of the project is estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars."

Palestinian officials claimed the documents were fakes planted on Wafa's website by hackers. Other Palestinian sources cited by the Jerusalem Post claimed they were genuine and had been leaked by Mohammed Dahlan, the former head of “preventive security” in Gaza, along with Muhammad Rashid, a former financial adviser to Yasser Arafat, to discredit Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

Whether the documents were authentic or not, GNRD did have several characteristics of a front organisation – not least in its opaque funding, its efforts to gain acceptance through cooperating with more normal organisations and the way it sought to play down its extensive Palestinian connections.

For example, Deeb's biography on Wikipedia claimed that as a teenage activist in Gaza he had been imprisoned and tortured by Israel. After moving to Norway had also been active on Palestinian issues, including the unsuccessful attempt to prosecute Israelis for war crimes.

Another GNRD board member – and its director of operations in Brussels – was Ramadan Abu Jazar, a Belgian citizen of Palestinian origin and head of the Palestinian House organisation in Belgium. He had previously brought a lawsuit against the Belgian government for failing to prevent the import or sale of Israeli settlement products in Belgium.

Despite both men's strong links with Palestine there was no mention of them in their profiles on the GNRD website. Deeb's profile simply said:

"PhD in International Law. 15 years of activities in the field of human rights. Member of many lawyers associations, such as in Cairo, Paris, London. Fellow of the Academy of European Law in Germany. Member of the Union for the ICC in Lahaye 'Den Haag'."

The image cultivated on its website was of an organisation concerned about Palestine – as most rights groups are – but not in an obsessive or strident way. Among the 2,500 pages on its website only 44 contained the word "Palestine". Many of those mentions were just incidental and most of the others were relatively bland, such as a report of GNRD youth groups attending an Easter service at a church in Gaza and carrying white flowers "to symbolise peace and religious tolerance between Muslims and Christians in Palestine".

This was fitted with GNRD's desire to be viewed as "neutral and impartial" but there were a few cracks in the facade. Some of its less-publicised activities relating to Palestine were far more politicised. For example, GNRD had produced a hard-hitting report on Israeli violations in the Gaza buffer zone which it circulated at the UN Human Rights Council. The 19-page document, compiled in collaboration with a Palestinian organisation, Al-Dameer Association for Human Rights, could also be found on GNRD's web server, but not as a normal part of the website. It had been tucked away in a folder labelled "userfiles".

For whatever reason, GNRD seemed anxious to avoid public controversy regarding its Palestine activities, and when NGO Monitor (a pro-Israel organisation) raised complaints about anti-Israel bias at two meetings held by GNRD on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council, GNRD responded by deleting reports of those events from its website.

Intelligence connections

More recently, the Norwegian broadcaster NRK discovered two formal connections between GNRD and the Palestinian Authority. One was a diplomatic passport that the PA had issued to Deeb in 2013. Diplomatic passports required special authorisation but, oddly, there was nothing in the PA's records to show who authorised it for Deeb – which suggested that authorisation had come from Palestinian intelligence.

The second discovery was a document from 2011 carrying the names and signatures of GNRD's executive board. NRK said it had been able to confirm that one of the signatories (who it did not name) was a Palestinian intelligence officer.

Deeb told NRK both claims were untrue but declined to discuss them further.

NRK went on to quote an unnamed source in Palestinian intelligence as saying that the support for GNRD was intended to combat Israel's occupation of Palestine. "We needed a voice and a large organisation that could give us power in the UN and in the international arena."

If, as seems very likely, GNRD did have some official support from the Palestinian Authority it's still unclear how extensive that support was, or how long it lasted. During its lifetime GNRD also seems to have served various other interests.

The biggest puzzle of all, though, is why any potential benefactors would view GNRD as a realistic vehicle for pursuing their goals. It had limited expertise, achieved very little and wasted huge amounts of money in the process but fraudster Deeb somehow managed to inspire enough misplaced confidence to attract millions of dollars in funding.