Nazem Ahmad, a Lebanese collector and dealer who trades in art and diamonds, was indicted yesterday (18 April) in New York along with eight co-conspirators in what the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) alleges is a vast international enterprise to evade sanctions and funnel financial support to the militant group Hezbollah.
Ahmad’s accountant in Britain, Sundar Nagarajan, was arrested, but the eight other defendants remain at large and are believed to be outside the US, according to authorities. Ahmad, a dual Belgian-Lebanese citizen, is said to be a resident of Lebanon. His assets in Britain were frozen on Tuesday.
“The funding of foreign terrorist organisations like Hezbollah is illegal, regardless of whether that funding comes in the form of cash or the export of high-priced diamonds and art,” Matthew S. Axelrod,the assistant secretary of commerce for export enforcement, said in a statement.
The investigation that led to Tuesday’s indictments—involving DHS as well as the US departments of Commerce, Justice, the State and Treasury—found that after sanctions were imposed upon Ahmad in December 2019, entities under his control or acting on his behalf allegedly continued to transact in the US, importing goods worth more than $207m and exporting goods worth more than $234m, primarily art and diamonds.
The “investigation speaks to the unwavering commitment of the US and UK governments to prevent art and diamond markets from becoming a haven of illicit financial activity”, Tae D. Johnson, a deputy director at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in a statement. “We will utilise every tool at our disposal to dismantle these illicit networks.”
In addition to the indictments against Ahmad and his eight alleged co-conspirators, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 52 entities and individuals in nine countries who have ties to Ahmad. One of those people is his daughter Hind Ahmad, who runs Beirut-based Artual Gallery and the gallery DIDA in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. According to a Treasury Department announcement, she helped her father evade sanctions by arranging deals on his behalf and helping him create an alias with which he was able to continue transacting in the US.
“I would have never imagined this would ever be possible,” Hind told The New York Times. She dismissed the allegations that her father was helping to finance Hezbollah and claimed the accusations against him were the result of lies told by his enemies in Lebanon.
At various times, Ahmad has owned works by Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso, among others. His Instagram account features photos of works by many blue-chip and emerging artists, from canvases by the rising painters Lucy Bull and Flora Yukhnovich to works by canonical Modern and contemporary figures like Mark Rothko and Jean-Michel Basquiat. According to the Justice Department, Ahmad obtained art valued at more than $450,000 within the US and works valued at $780,000 from US individuals outside the US after sanctions were imposed on him in December 2019.
US authorities announced the new indictments and sanctions against Ahmad and his associates on the 40th anniversary of the 18 April 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people, including 32 Lebanese citizens and 17 Americans. US authorities attributed the bombing to Hezbollah. At the time it was the deadliest attack on a US diplomatic facility.