David Skinner, 47, who runs an insurance firm from the tax haven of Liechtenstein, apparently provided cover for two Iranian-owned tankers involved in transporting crude oil from Syria, according to insurance certificates seen by The Sunday Telegraph.
The European Union put an embargo on all exports of Syrian oil last September, in a bid to starve President Assad’s regime of valuable oil revenues, which account for up to a third of government income. The legislation not only bans EU-based shipping companies from transporting such oil, but also forbids EU-based insurance firms from providing cover.
However, because Liechtenstein is not within the EU’s jurisdiction, there was nothing to stop Mr Skinner’s company, DGS Marine Group Ltd, issuing insurance certificates via a scheme it manages called the British European & Overseas Protection and Indemnity.
Certificates bearing his firm’s name and his signature were obtained by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), an independent body part-funded by the Swedish government that monitors companies and individuals suspected of sanctions-breaking and illicit trafficking.
Mr Skinner, a former shipping lawyer who spent years in the British maritime insurance industry, has denied the allegations, suggesting that the certificates must have been forgeries. On Saturday, he said that the London office of his firm had been contacted in May by the UK Treasury about “being in breach of EU sanctions in regards to Syrian trade”, but that Treasury officials had later confirmed that no breach had taken place.
SIPRI insists the certificates appear genuine, and that there is therefore a case for Mr Skinner to be investigated under EU sanctions law because his firm has offices in Britain, Germany and Cyprus. They further claim he may be in breach of separate international sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme, since the ships concerned were owned by a blacklisted Iranian shipping company. Iran is Syria’s strategic ally and has been accused of providing logistical help to Damascus in its brutal crackdown on dissent, which activists say has already claimed some 14,000 lives.
Hugh Griffiths, an arms smuggling investigator who now heads SIPRI’s Countering Illicit Trafficking-Mechanism Assessment Projects, known as CITMAP, said: “Oil is more important to the Assad regime than weapons right now, as they are short of currency reserves to pay their security forces. If Iranian tankers such as the ones DGS Marine appear to have insured were stopped from transferring Syrian oil, the Assad regime would lose control far more quickly than is occurring now.”
This weekend the Syrian crisis showed no sign of easing, with United Nations observers still stuck in their bases because of escalating violence, and 125 people reported killed in a single day on Thursday. Meanwhile, the MV Alaed, a ship revealed last week by The Sunday Telegraph to be carrying refurbished Russian attack helicopters back to Syria, was preparing to make a second attempt to deliver its cargo from the Russian port of Murmansk. It had previously been forced to turn around after the ship’s British insurers withdrew cover.
The allegations against Mr Skinner concern two tankers, the Amin and the MT Tour, now called the Layal. Both are owned by subsidiaries of Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, which is the subject of EU, US and UN sanctions because of its links to Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme.
In late March, the MT Tour arrived at the Syrian port of Tartus and picked up around 100,000 tonnes of Syrian light crude oil. At the time it was flying the flag of Malta, an EU member, but when the Maltese authorities investigated and suspended the ship’s registration, it changed to a Bolivian flag. The MT Tour then sailed through the Suez Canal and the Gulf of Aden, before anchoring near the Iranian port of Bander Abbas. A few days later, the Amin completed a similar journey with an 80,000 tonne oil load, likewise changing its flag from Malta to Bolivia.
It is understood the ships’ cargoes may have been destined for sale in China or on the international oil black market – possibly earning the Assad regime several million dollars.
Mr Skinner describes himself as a former underwriting manager’s representative and maritime lawyer with a “leading UK admiralty law firm”, with nearly 30 years’ experience in providing protection and indemnity insurance, a specialist maritime policy that typically covers damage to cargo, and injury to passengers and crew.
However, at the DGS Marine Group’s registered office at Bahnhofstrasse 7 in Liechtenstein, an anonymous grey office block, there is no sign or letterbox for the company, and reception staff said they had heard of neither the firm or Mr Skinner. Instead, the office block is mainly occupied by the Jeeves Group of companies, which specialise in setting up offshore firms.
Insurance certificates obtained by CITMAP from the Bolivian Maritime Authority, to which both the MT Tour and Amin re-registered, appear to show that DGS Marine Group issued cover for both vessels from August 2011 to August 2012. The certificates, which bear the stamp of DGS Marine Group’s Denmark office, state: “This certificate has been issued for and on behalf of the British, European and Overseas P and I Insurance by the agents of the managers”, who are listed as DGS Marine in Liechtenstein. They also list a UK mobile number as a 24 hour emergency hotline, which matches the one on DGS Marine Group’s website.
Contacted by phone last week, Mr Skinner, who said he was on business in Singapore, claimed to have known about the signed certificates for some time, and said that they could be forgeries. “That is a digital signature of mine which obviously can be fraudulently duplicated anywhere,” he said. Asked if he had contacted the Bolivian authorities for explanation, he replied: “I have tried to contact the person concerned and all I get is a voicemail.” He also said that had he issued genuine insurance certificates, the Bolivian authorities would have issued reciprocal civil liability certificates – documents relating to international liability for oil spills – but that they had not done so.
Griffiths, however, showed The Sunday Telegraph email correspondence he had with the Bolivian shipping authorities, who forwarded him copies of the certificates they had received from DGS, with whom they had been in touch by email.
Mr Skinner, when asked if he had insured the MT Tour or the Amin, insisted: “No. I have asked all my EU offices and they have no records on their databases on those two ships. I have asked my Liechtenstein office to verify whether this is correct or not. They have not got back to me as yet. Of course I wouldn’t approve of insuring Iranian vessels if they are in breach of sanctions.”
He said the violence in Syria was “shocking and disgraceful” and he was planning a charitable donation to help those caught up in it. “I have personally contributed €25,000 to the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Switzerland. That’s what I asked my wife to do anyway, I don’t know if she has done it yet.”
Further question marks exist over where Mr Skinner’s insurance group is regulated. While DGS Marine Group is located in Liechtenstein, it is not authorised to operate there as an insurance underwriter. The DGS Marine website says that its protection and indemnity facility is registered in the Bahamas, but the islands’ authorities say it is not licensed to carry out insurance business from there either.
“That is news to me,” said Mr Skinner. “I can’t explain that. I will have to investigate myself, because that is not correct.”
Last week Samuel Roth, of the Leichtenstein government’s financial intelligence unit, said it was investigating the company. “They are not registered as an insurer, so it seems surprising that they can offer insurance. We are looking into the issue of sanctions as well.”
Mr Skinner said he was British-educated but South African born and now lived in Lausanne, Switzerland, and did not hold British citizenship. Asked why DGS Marine Group’s 2012 return at Companies House in Britain listed him as a British citizen “usually resident” in the UK, he said: “Yes, I was born in South Africa, but I do hold a British passport. If that makes me a British citizen, then I apologise for any oversight.”
Mr Griffiths said Britain should now investigate whether Mr Skinner had breached sanctions. “He is a British citizen using British mobile phone numbers, British servers and British email addresses as well as London offices, to conduct an insurance operation which appears to have facilitated the illicit transfer of Syrian oil and sanctioned Iranian shipping.”