The Aid Organization That Wasn’t
Meet the Russian-led fake human rights group implicated in an international criminal caper.
Early last year, economist Harald Malmgren, who served as an aide to every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy through Gerald Ford, was contacted by an organization called the International Human Rights Defense Committee asking if he would be interested in getting involved in its work. Malmgren was intrigued, and according to a spokesperson, told the organization he would be interested in exploring the possibility—he assumed the group, which goes by the acronym of its French name CIPDH, was affiliated with the United Nations. CIPDH’s website claims to work with U.N. agencies, and its logo—a blue and white azimuthal map of the Earth enveloped by a wreath of olive branches—bears a striking resemblance to that of the U.N.
But as the chaos of the pandemic kicked in, Malmgren, now in his mid-80s, quickly forgot about the offer. CIPDH did not. The group announced on its website that Malmgren had agreed to work as a national officer of its oversight committee and, without his knowledge, published a five-year “contract” signed by CIPDH’s head of personnel.
Although there’s little evidence of the CIPDH’s purported humanitarian work, there’s plenty of indications of another kind of activity. CIPDH officials have been named in news reports in a half-dozen countries, from South Korea to Spain, as suspected of involvement in a range of crimes including fraud, soliciting prostitution, and harboring some of the billions of dollars that deposed Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi spirited out of the country before he was killed.
While the full scope of CIPDH’s activities remains unclear, the imprimatur of seeming to be affiliated with the United Nations appears critical to what it does, claiming on its website that the organization is tasked with “mainstreaming human rights within the United Nations.” It is an image it has carefully cultivated, creating fake diplomatic license plates and passports for sale. CIPDH officials have been photographed wearing bright blue dress uniform-style military outfits, replete with epaulettes and shoulder patches with the organization’s emblem.
“They look like twins of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet or like some imagined authoritarian leaders from Borat,” said Yuliya Zabyelina, a professor of political science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on transnational crime.
The group is filled with characters with colorful pasts. Milan Kalostrovic, the CIPDH personnel head who signed Malmgren’s “contract,” is a wealthy Montenegrin businessman who is currently awaiting trial in Montenegro, where he has been accused of kidnapping and trying to extort more than $142,000 from a Serbian gas station owner.
The group’s representative to Crimea, Viktor Litvinov, led a pro-Russian militia in 2014, which aided Moscow’s annexation of the peninsula. In 2019, CIPDH Vice President Alexander Ionov spearheaded a fundraising campaign to help pay Maria Butina’s legal bills, who was imprisoned in the United States after pleading guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent for Moscow. Ionov also runs a Russian nongovernmental organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement, which works with separatist groups around the world. When contacted for comment, Ionov said he was no longer affiliated with the group but refused to say when he had stepped down from his role.
It’s unclear who exactly is behind CIPDH’s sprawling and murky international network. Gerard Salvato is listed on CIPDH’s website as the group’s president. He declined to comment for this story. According to his LinkedIn profile, Salvato works as an advisor to Iskander Ioussoupov, a longtime emissary to France from the Russian Republic of Tatarstan who is described on CIPDH’s website as its secretary-general. CIPDH shares a street address with the republic’s representative office in Paris. In 2018, Ioussoupov was awarded the Order for Merit to the Fatherland—one of Russia’s highest honors—by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ioussoupov told Foreign Policy that his role with CIPDH was purely voluntary and that he had never been paid by the group.
The group’s activity—spanning Europe to Africa to Asia for more than a decade—raises troubling questions about the ease with which it has successfully masqueraded as a human rights group affiliated with the United Nations, using it as an entree around the world—and to what end. “In many countries in post-Soviet Eurasia, just the uniform and all of those awards and regalia, they would have a very big impact on the perception of the person by the general public,” Zabyelina said.
Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the United Nations secretary-general, confirmed there was no record of CIPDH ever having collaborated with the U.N. and added that it was “looking into addressing the confusing similarity of the CIPDH logo with that of the U.N. emblem.”
Founded in France in 2006, CIPDH also registered as a nonprofit in the United States in 2019. The group went largely unnoticed until 2016, when a man claiming to be the deputy director of CIPDH was sentenced to four years imprisonment in South Korea for defrauding a company of millions of dollars by promising access to the Russian mining industry. Local news reports described him as wearing a military-style uniform and that he had conned his victim by claiming he worked for a U.N.-related organization and had high-level contacts in the Russian government and security services. In sentencing, the judge said the man had “swindled several millions of dollars from victims by claiming that he was working as an assistant director for an international human rights protection committee whose legitimacy is questionable.” And he noted that “the amount of financial damage he inflicted was very high.”
Since then, CIPDH and its employees have been implicated in similar crimes across multiple countries. In 2019, the director of CIPDH’s Central Asia department, Firdovsi Alakbarov, was arrested in Azerbaijan on suspicion of defrauding three people of thousands of dollars, promising to appoint them to senior positions within the fictitious human rights group, and saying he would give them diplomatic passports. A police mug shot shows Alakbarov wearing the blue CIPDH uniform. In a statement to Foreign Policy, Alakbarov said he was acquitted of unspecified charges after spending a year in prison and denied any wrongdoing.
Officials from CIPDH have also been caught using fake diplomatic license plates in Spain and Kazakhstan, and in February, six people from an organization of the same name, the International Human Rights Defense Committee, were arrested by Ukrainian authorities in Kharkiv after being accused of soliciting prostitution. The Security Service of Ukraine did not respond to a request for comment about the arrests.
Asked about the reports, Ioussoupov, who is CIPDH’s secretary-general, dismissed them as the work of the tabloid press and the “global legal illiteracy” of local law enforcement agencies.
“You are making generalized conclusions about the whole organization based on conduct of some individuals that are not even [employees] of CIPDH,” he said in response to questions from Foreign Policy. “[T]he main office of CIPDH in Paris and our organization registered in France is not responsible for any action that could be conducted by local representation offices in different countries.”
Asked whether the group had intentionally portrayed itself as closely affiliated with the U.N. to conduct fraud, Ioussoupov said, “It is difficult to comment on something that does not exist in reality and arose as a conspiracy theory in someone’s heads.”
There is a long history of groups in former Soviet countries using fake humanitarian organizations as a front for criminal activity, said Louise Shelley, founder and director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime, and Corruption Center at George Mason University.
“It’s the perfect cover,” she said. In the 1990s, as criminal gangs flourished in the wake of the Soviet collapse, a human trafficking network in St. Petersburg, Russia posed as a spina bifida foundation, Shelley said. It was only after a dozen or so beautiful young women applied for U.S. visas to travel to the United States to research the rare birth defect that an official at the U.S. consulate caught on to the scam.
In the 1990s, substantial law enforcement and intelligence resources were dedicated to criminal networks in the region, but after the terror attacks of 9/11, much of this expertise was shifted to tracking down terror networks, which also used charities as fronts to raise and launder money. “This is sophisticated international network analysis—sometimes it’s done but not that often,” Shelley said.
With attention elsewhere, these groups can avoid attracting attention as long as they don’t get too ambitious. “Just to get on my radar, you have to be pocketing millions,” said Debra LaPrevotte, a former FBI special agent who specialized in international corruption investigations. LaPrevotte, who retired from the FBI five years ago, said she was aware of CIPDH from her time investigating transnational corruption.
“These kind of operations tend to survive by not drawing enough attention,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian organized crime, noting that as long as criminal cases associated with CIPDH didn’t rise beyond a certain level, national law enforcement agencies were unlikely to flag the issue to Interpol, meaning the groups could exploit the seams in international criminal jurisdiction. Interpol, the international police organization, said it does not comment on specific cases or individuals in response to a request about CIPDH.
In recent years, Russian influence networks and disinformation campaigns have drawn intense scrutiny for their efforts to advance the Kremlin’s agenda. Although it remains unclear exactly why CIPDH would go to such lengths to portray itself as affiliated with the U.N., officials’ previous brushes with law enforcement suggest its goals are more criminal than geopolitical.
A number of members of CIPDH were implicated in a similar scam in Russia that was shut down by Russian authorities in 2013. The International Committee Against Organized Crime, Terrorism, and Corruption (ICOCRIM) was accused of posing as a law enforcement agency and offered all the trappings, including medals, uniforms, and titles—for a fee. Those involved “hid behind an imaginary law enforcement agency. … [They] proclaimed themselves to be generals and began to engage in illegal activities for personal gain,” Russian law enforcement officials said after the group’s offices were raided in several cities. Before it was shuttered, the group successfully defrauded a man in Moscow of $1.5 million, according to Russian press reports.
Although ICOCRIM was led by a former officer of the Russian security services, business records show that CIPDH Vice President Matias Meroving, its Russian representative Vladimir Berezovski, and its Euro-Asian representative Victor Semenov were listed as co-founders on its incorporation documents, which also show that ICOCRIM claimed to have headquarters in Paris at CIPDH’s former address.
Meroving did not respond to repeated requests for comment and Berezovski and Semenov could not be reached. Ioussoupov said he was unaware of their affiliation with ICOCRIM.
While most CIPDH activities were relatively low-level fraud in Europe and the former Soviet Union, there is one anomaly that hints at the group’s broader reach.
A 2017 U.N. Security Council report alleged that CIPDH may have used its offices in Accra, Ghana, to store some of the wealth that Qaddafi, once believed among the richest men in the world, got out of the country before he was killed. A photo in the U.N. report shows dozens of boxes of what is thought to be the dead dictator’s cash and CIPDH’s logo on the door. After he was deposed in 2011, the Libyan government announced a 10 percent finder’s fee, sparking an international treasure hunt for the cash. The U.N. report notes that its requests for further information from the Ghanaian authorities went unanswered. The Ghanaian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on this story.
Among the treasure hunters searching for the cash was Erik Goaied, a Tunisian businessman who claims to have been the source for the U.N. report’s comments about CIPDH in Ghana. Goaied told Foreign Policy he traveled to Ghana three times in 2016 to verify the whereabouts of what he estimated to be $9 billion of Qaddafi’s money stored in the country. Goaied claimed the boxes had been labeled with the logo of the International Committee of the Red Cross so as not to attract attention when they were transported out of the country. (A spokesperson for the Red Cross strongly denied any involvement.)
Goaied said the money in Ghana is under the control of former Libyan intelligence officials from the Qaddafi era, and that the CIPDH’s offices, who he referred to as “the Russians,” were used to occasionally store the assets.
CIPDH’s office in Ghana was, at least up until a few years ago, a bunker-like building surrounded by a barbed wire-topped, iron-and-stone wall bearing the organization’s emblem. Goaied, who claimed to have seen the stash of cash twice at CIPDH’s office, said the Russians wore blue military-style uniforms. “It’s definitely not a human rights organization or an association, anything like that,” he said.
Foreign Policy has been unable to independently verify Goaied’s claims, and it is unclear whether CIPDH still has an office in Ghana. Ioussoupov described the allegations as “fake” and said the CIPDH office in Accra operated completely independently from the group’s headquarters in Paris. There is, however, a page on CIPDH’s main website devoted to its office in Accra, Ghana, which is also referred to in other documentation on the site. “Any partner structure that expresses a desire to represent our interests and implement humanitarian programs at its own expense, of course, gets on the site as our representative office,” Ioussoupov said.
From Korea to Spain to Ghana, CIPDH’s activities highlight how organized crime has shredded its passports—even the real ones—to become an emerging transnational threat.
“Post-Soviet organized crime is at the vanguard of going past territorially based organized crime such as that we associate with the mafia or La Camorra in Italy,” Shelley said. “Their abuse of humanitarian organizations is not new, but [it is] pernicious.”
Update, March 29, 2021: This piece has been amended to clarify the role of Iskander Ioussoupov with CIPDH.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack
Dean Sterling Jones is a blogger and freelance writer who has written for the Guardian, BuzzFeed News, and the Daily Beast. Twitter: @shootingthemess