A sheik and a man wanted by the Norwegian police are travelling to poor countries selling Russian vaccines at a premium.
In Norway, a businessman denies involvement.
In a secret audio recording, he tells a different story.
It is 3 March and the moment of truth for Minister of Health, Kwaku Agyeman-Manu (65).
A flight from the Emirates is taxiing to the terminal in Accra, capital of Ghana, where the Minister of Health is waiting.
Out step two men: One is a sheik and second cousin of the ruler of Dubai. The other has been on the run from Norwegian police for years.
Boxes containing a total of 16,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V are unloaded from the plane and placed in front of the Minister of Health.
The sample proves that the Sheik has access to the coronavirus vaccine. A product sought after by every country in the world. Now, it is time for negotiations.
Six days later, the Ministry of Health in Ghana signs an agreement with the Sheik. They announce that they have reached an agreement regarding the purchase of 3.4 million vaccine doses.
No price is publicly disclosed.
However, already before the agreement is made public, a man charged with money laundering in Norway is describing himself as an intermediary in the trade:
“ If I were to tell you how many people made money from it, you would… you wouldn’t believe it was true”.
While the world’s richest countries have ordered three-four-five – up to ten – times as many vaccines as they have residents, the world’s poorest countries are at the back of the queue.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes this situation as a “catastrophic moral failure”. A failure that increases the risk of new virus mutations and which will be paid with “lives and livelihoods”, according to the WHO.
In the vacuum left by the international community, some have eyed an opportunity to earn big money.
VG has documented how intermediaries have obtained the Sputnik vaccine and are re-selling it at a premium.
Through investigations in countries including Ghana, Russia, Pakistan, Guyana and Iraq, VG has been able to document how the Russian vaccines have travelled via a sheik in the Emirates and round the world.
Among those involved are at least one individual with a long and troubled past with the law in Norway.
The Norwegian patient
On 12 March last year the coronavirus reached Ghana. It came from Norway.
A Norwegian diplomat and a Turkish resident were the two first confirmed cases of infection, explained the Minister of Health at a press conference.
“People panicked”, says Ghanaian health journalist Fred Smith.
Minister of Health, Agyeman-Manu was himself infected with the coronavirus but denied being sick until the President wished him a speedy recovery in a televised address.
A welcome sheik
For Ghana there have been three pathways to the vaccine:
1. The international vaccine alliance Covax.
2. The African Union, similar to how Norway relies of the EU.
3. Separate agreements entered into directly with vaccine manufacturers or others with access to vaccines.
These three pathways have also been the options available to most African countries, according to Doctoral Fellow Nana Kofi Quakyi, who is studying public health and closely monitoring the situation in Ghana.
Via the first two pathways and a smaller donation from India, Ghana was able to obtain nearly one million vaccine doses at the beginning of the year.
Vaccination began in March.
Ghana’s special drone system was used to transport vaccines as quickly as possible to their destinations in three of the country’s 16 regions:
At the same time, Ghana’s President announced that the goal was to vaccinate 20 million people by October of this year. That represents almost the entire population of the country, excluding children and pregnant women.
The first million would not suffice.
Therefore, a sheik explaining that he had access to millions of Sputnik doses was a welcome sight.
But where had the Sheik obtained them?
“ I have arranged for vaccines. I was a go-between and conveyed vaccines to Ghana”.
These are the words of Norwegian Per Morten Hansen (59). The words are uttered before the vaccine agreement is made public – to someone other than VG.
Hansen begins speaking about his acquaintance with a former American film star, who has since become a Russian citizen.
“Steven Seagal (69) is a Russian Ambassador (Special Envoy, journalist notes)”, he says.
In the early 90s, Seagal was one of Hollywood’s biggest action heroes, with Under Siege (1992) as the highlight of his career. Nowadays, he is promoting weapons manufacturers in the Middle East and has become an important supporter of Vladimir Putin’s regime.
“I speak with him once a week”, says Hansen.
“I routed them… I had Steven route them. Bought five million doses”.
Today, Hansen denies having said any of this. He had no knowledge of any vaccine agreement before VG told him about it, he says. Hansen warns of legal action if VG publishes the statements.
Through his lawyer, Steven Seagal denies any involvement in – or knowledge of – vaccine sales in Ghana.
VG has audio recordings where Hansen discusses his role:
Who is Per Morten Hansen?
Currently, Hansen is indicted for aggravated money laundering following a fraud case in Belgium.
The police links Hansen to the efforts to secure proceeds in the amount of NOK 17 million. Hansen denies guilt.
Hansen is also embroiled in a longstanding dispute with the Norwegian tax authorities, that are demanding more than NOK 20 million from him and are attempting to seize a home in Holmenkollen and a cottage in Kragerø.
The authorities believe both are actually owned by Hansen, though they are formally listed in the name of a friend of his.
His career began with several failed nightclub and restaurant projects in the late 80s.
In 1992, he – jointly with debt collector Espen Lie – was convicted of receiving proceeds from crime from a number of items, the most valuable of which was the Munch lithograph Madonna.
He filed for personal bankruptcy, then attempted to sell diet chewing gum together with singer Morten Harket and boxer Ole Klemetsen, as well as the noodles of new-deceased Lee Chul-ho (known as “Mr. Lee”).
He then imported CD players and videotapes, without paying customs duty, resulting in a 2003 fraud conviction.
Hansen later secured a lesser sentence through a psychiatrist who was later convicted jointly with a psychologist in a major scandal where they had sold false medical certificates to criminals.
In years following his prison stay, Hansen has had contact with several wealthy Russians.
He is formally emigrated and resides in an exclusive part of London, which has become a capital outside of Russia for wealthy Russians.
In 2010, then 17-year-old Arkadiy Abramovich (son of oligarch Roman Abramovich) attempted to acquire the football club FC Copenhagen.
Per Morten Hansen acted as an intermediary and attended on behalf of Abramovich in the initial conversations, according to Danish newspaper Børsen.
In 2015, another Russian oligarch and Per Morten Hansen planned a trade involving an oil field, according to Nettavisen.
The Serbian Nobel price
Later the same year, Per Morten Hansen is at the National Theatre in Belgrade, capital of Serbia.
On stage is Steven Seagal. He is there to receive the Karic Brothers Award for his humanitarian work:
“It is really an honour to follow many leaders who have been awarded before me, such as Vladimir Putin and many other extraordinary people”.
The award aims to become “Serbia’s version of the Nobel Prize” and was founded by two super rich brothers.
After the award ceremony, Seagal and Hansen are photographed together.
Another photo shows the two hiking together in Norway.
In September 2019, a letter is sent from Sheik Ahmed Dalmook Al Maktoum (34) to Steven Seagal. This is the Sheik who would later sell vaccines to Ghana.
The letter has previously been described in the magazine Kapital.
“I refer you to my meeting with Mr. Per Morten Hansen, who I understand is a good friend of yours, and wish to invite you to Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as soon as possible”, writes the Sheik.
A meeting at the sheik's office
Al Maktoum is the ruling family in Dubai. Ahmed Dalmook is a relatively peripheral family member, as the ruler’s second cousin..
The size of the young Sheik’s fortune is unclear; while the richest sheiks own private planes, he rents.
At the time the letter was sent, the Sheik and Hansen have made several corresponding share purchases, according to Kapital.
“I wish to discuss sectors for mutual business cooperation and how we can potentially cooperate. I look forward to meeting you in Dubai”, the Sheik writes to Seagal.
Three weeks later, Hansen posts a photo of himself and Seagal outside the Sheik’s office.
There is also another photo of Seagal outside the Sheik’s office.
The man on Seagal’s left is Umar Farooq Zahoor (45). Farooq Zahoor grew up in Norway, is a Pakistani national, and has for several years been closely associated with the Sheik.
When the Sheik sold overpriced gas turbines to Ghana via the company Ameri Group in 2015, Farooq Zahoor and the Sheik both signed the agreement.
At the same time, Farooq Zahoor is wanted in Norway for what the police believe is his role in the spectacular Nordea fraud in 2010, where the conspirators emptied the account of a super-rich widow.
NOK 62 million of the proceeds have never been recovered.
He denies guilt. Norwegian police is unable to get a hold of him because the Emirates refuses to surrender him.
This means that he can enjoy the high life in Dubai, with businesses, luxury and parachuting:
“Umar Farooq Zahoor continues to be wanted by Norwegian police”, says Public Prosecutor Carl Graff Hartmann to VG.
Farooq Zahoor has been convicted of misappropriation in Norway.
He absconded from Norway before the judgement was pronounced.
In Switzerland, the limitation period in a criminal case expired because the police was unable to get a hold of him.
There, he was wanted for having started a fake bank.
Together at the airport
The Sheik and Umar Farooq Zahoor has for several years travelled round Africa, Asia and South America, met with heads of state and signed agreements – often just memorandums of understanding.
When the Sheik arrives in Ghana to sell vaccines in March of this year, he is once again accompanied by Farooq Zahoor. A photo from the airport shows the Sheik’s delegation. VG has also received confirmation from airport staff that Farooq Zahoor was present.
The Sheik’s previous trade caused a political storm in Ghana. Why did no one react to the fact that the Sheik and Farooq Zahoor had now returned?
Part of the answer may be the fact that very few knew of what was taking place.
If you travel to Ghana today, you will receive a swab up your nose and a bill of USD 150 when you arrive at the airport.
The company that has been awarded the contract to perform the testing, is owned by another company, which, in turn, is owned by a company in the Commonwealth of Dominica, a tiny tax haven in the Caribbean, which conceals the true owners.
The company was awarded the lucrative contract from the state without any tender procedure.
The pandemic has in several cases been used to set aside standard tender procedures in Ghana, which increases the risk of corruption, according to the report “Strengthening Covid-19 Accountability Mechanisms (SCAM)”.
The agreement to purchase Sputnik vaccines did not go via the Parliament of Ghana, which is a statutory requirement for international agreements, says Member of Parliament Kwabena Miontah Akandoh (40). He is the Minority ranking member on the Health Committee of Parliament.
The major private health organisations have also not been informed. Normally, they take part in detailed budgeting of purchases of e.g., malaria or HIV medication together with the government, explains Gabriel Benarkuu, who is the head of a coalition of health organisations in Ghana (GCNH).
During the coronavirus pandemic, the situation has been different.
“Everything that has to do with Covid funding and purchases has occurred with zero insight into how the money has been spent”, says Benarkuu.
– Have you been informed of how the Sputnik agreement was established?
– No, I have no idea, he says.
Umar Farooq Zahoor, too, does not wish to say anything about what the sellers have earned from the trade.
“We are subject to non-disclosure agreements with the authorities when we buy and sell, so we have no interest in discussing details regarding what types of agreements, what types of prices and what types of expenses are involved”, he says.
– Well, can you answer if you have made money from this?
– That’s none of VG’s business.
– If I’ve made money from it, then I’ve made money from a good deal. there’s nothing wrong with that?
Later in the conversation, Farooq Zahoor states that he has not made a single krone from the vaccine trade, personally. He states that he has not been involved in the negotiations of the agreement and that he has also not signed it.
“VG has been on a witch hunt for me and has had a racist motive for everything they’ve written about me. It’s jealousy, plain and simple. They’re unable to see that a businessman is doing well and are vilifying me everywhere”, says Farooq Zahoor.
Sheik Al Maktoum has not responded to VG’s questions.
The Ministry of Health in Ghana first stated that the Minister of Health would give an interview on the story, but then postponed the appointment. Since then, they have not responded to VG’s enquiries.
But there is a trail. For Ghana is not the only country the Sheik has sold vaccines.
On 19 November last year a private plane lands in Guyana, one of South America’s poorest countries.
Out steps Sheik Al-Maktoum, dressed in traditional white garbs. Right behind the Sheik is Umar Farooq Zahoor with a wheeled suitcase and sweatsuit.
At a press conference in May this year, at VG’s request, a local journalist asked the Vice President from whom the country had purchased vaccines and what they had paid.
The Russians state that they sell the vaccine for approximately 10 dollars per dose, internationally.
“The first set of Sputnik vaccines cost 20 dollars per dose. We shopped around, in the United States, but were unable to obtain any vaccine, just as in Europe. We tried via Covax, to no avail. Then, a company associated with the Prince of Dubai came here”, says Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo (57).
The sellers stated that they had a limited vaccine inventory, according to the Vice President.
“At the time, we would probably have paid whatever it took just to obtain vaccines for our people, because we were unable to obtain them from anyone else”, says Jagdeo.
Initially, Guyana purchased 200,000 doses.
What was the name of the company affiliated with the Sheik that sold the vaccine?
“I do not know the exact name of the company, but I know they supplied Africa and some other countries”, says the Vice President.
The vaccine trail
VG has gained access to documents from another African country where the Sheik has attempted to sell vaccines. There, the chain through which the vaccines have travelled is described.
The Russians sell their vaccines through their national Investment Fund (RDIF). The fund has established a company in Russia called Human Vaccine LLC.
This company is, among other things, behind sales to Slovakia and Hungary, which occurred at the normal price, approximately 10 dollars per dose, public contracts from the countries show.
However, Human Vaccine LLC has also appointed the anonymous and recently established company Aurugulf Health Investment LLC in Dubai as an “exclusive seller and distributor of Human Vaccine’s Sputnik V” in several countries in Africa and Asia.
Who – and how many – have a stake in Aurugulf is currently a mystery.
Aurugulf has, in turn, hired the Sheik’s private enterprise as its sales agent.
In search of the price
Outside the hospitals in Karachi, Pakistan, there are long queues of people hoping to purchase the vaccine. It is April of this year.
In Pakistan, the Sheik has entered into an agreement with a local private pharmaceutical company to sell the vaccine, documents from the Drug Regulatory Authority of Pakistan (DRAP) show.
The local Pakistani company has become embroiled in a dispute with the authorities regarding how much they can charge for the vaccine.
In court documents, the Pakistani company states that they pay 45 dollars per complete vaccine, i.e., 22.5 dollars per dose.
For end users in Pakistan, the price becomes even higher, because the vaccine is sold on the private market.
Mahwish Bhatti (35) from Lahore tells VG that she paid 78 dollars, or 39 dollars per dose, in order to obtain the Sputnik vaccine at a private clinic.
“I was desperate”, says Bhatti.
Bhatti has previously been interviewed by the BBC.
The documents from Pakistan also refer to the fact that it is one of the deputy heads of the Russian Investment Fund who has approved the re-sale via the Sheik and Aurugulf in the Emirates.
With the Iraqi government body for drug purchases, Kimadia, there is also a price sheet that mentions Aurugulf.
There, the price is 20 dollars per dose, double of what the Russians themselves are charging for the vaccine.
And in Ghana?
The Ministry of Health has not responded to any questions. However, as VG is about to leave the country, a phone call is received from the Ministry of Finance, requesting a visit from VG.
A group of bureaucrats receive VG but note that the entire process has taken place in the Ministry of Health.
– They signed the contract, we just pay at the end of the day, says one of the bureaucrats.
– What do you know about the price?
– I have a fairly good idea, at least regarding Maktoum (the Sheik, journalist notes), so I know that they sold for 19 dollars.
With 3.4 million sold doses, this entails a potential profit exceeding 250 million, before expenses for storage and transport.
The Ministry of Finance informs that Ghana has currently only paid for 300,000 doses.
It is pentecost in Norway when VG meets with Per Morten Hansen outside a bakery in Frogner, Oslo.
He denies ever having been involved in the trade.
“I am not involved in the vaccine trade”, says Hansen.
“First of all, I have no interest in it […], it’s not my cup of tea”, he continues.
Hansen also denies having known or ever having spoken about the trade prior to VG contacting him.
– You had also never heard of the deal?
– No, I have never been involved in any trade.
– And not even heard of it?
– No, if I have not been involved, then I have not … The information I have is what you have given me, says Hansen.
A little later in the conversation, he states:
– What I’m interested in you understanding, is that if you believe you have documentation that I have had anything to do with it, you can go ahead and print it, but then I have told you I do not.
– Just to be crystal clear, what I’m saying is that you have stated that you have a role.
– No, I have never said that. No, never ever said that.
– According to what you have said, Steven Seagal has been involved making this happen.
– No, no, that’s complete bullshit.
VG has subsequently informed Hansen that the audio of the conversation where he discusses his role in the trade has been recorded.
Lawyer Christian Flemmen Johansen of Elden Law Firm states that he represents both Steven Seagal and Per Morten Hansen in this matter. He has sent the following statement after VG confronted Hansen with the audio recording.
“I have discussed the matter with Steven Seagal and Per Morten Hansen. Seagal is clear that he has no knowledge of or involvement in the sale of vaccines to Ghana and has no further comments to the information in the story. Hansen states that he is not involved in the vaccine trade anywhere in the world”.
After the interview, Umar Farooq Zahoor has asked to withdraw all his statements and also refers to his lawyer John Christian Elden of Elden Law firm.
Wednesday of this week, Ghana’s Minister of Finance, Ken Ofori-Atta, calls VG:
– The agreement with the Sheik, do you view it as a sensible agreement? To pay 19 dollars per dose?
– I don’t know. You know, you are confronted with “the good guys” from the West not giving you any assurances of supply [of vaccines], and you have 30 million people and are to save lives. You know, it’s easy to sit somewhere else and say: Why are you doing this? But you need to make sure you protect your people. You manage that as well as you can. This is a all a contrived and manufactured crisis, because clearly there’s enough [vaccines] to go around if only there was equity and justice in what we are doing.
Listen to the interview with minister Ken Ofori-Atta here.
The journalists Frederick Asiamah and Manasseh Azure have contributed from Ghana. Kurt Campbell has contributed from Guyana. Mohammed Komani has contributed from Jordan. Shelleygan Petersen has contributed from Namibia.