Japan Tobacco says facing EU probe over Syria

Japan Tobacco, a tobacco giant that is the owner of famous cigarette brands: Winston and Camel, said on August 22 that it was being investigated by the European Union after it was reported that the company violated sanctions by delivering cigarettes to a firm related the Syrian regime, however the tobacco firm denied any violation.

Winston cigs

Winston Filters cigarettes

Japan Tobacco, which is owned by the government by half, declared that its subsidiary JT International (JTI), which is situated in Geneva, had violated nothing regarding claims that it delivered tobacco products to a firm with family links to President Bashar al-Assad.

A probe has been opened by the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), said Algirdas Semeta.

Emer Traynor, spokeswoman for the EU commissioner responsible for the fight against fraud, said that AFP in Brussels that “the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF) cannot probe sanctions violations per se,” but the OLAF can examine “contraband” trade – traffic that does not come through proper customs channels, “including contraband in violation of sanctions.”

If OLAF were to see confirmation that such trade happened, it would report about this to the national authorities, who would make a decision whether to start a criminal prosecution or give other commercial sanctions, she said.

Traynor denied giving other details on a current investigation.

The Wall Street Journal cited corporate documents saying that JTI shipped cigarettes in May 2011 to a firm that at the time was at least partially owned by the Makhlouf family.

The EU and the US say the Makhloufs, who are first cousins of Assad, are partly sponsoring the president’s crackdown on the rebellion in Syria.

The EU imposed financial sanctions on Rami Makhlouf, the successor of the family, and on his brothers Iyad and Ihab, on May 23, 2011, for their suposed role in helping to sponsor Assad’s actions.

Just few days later, Japan Tobacco delivered 450,000 cartons of cigarettes to Syria Duty Free Shops, a company JTI admits was then at least partially owned by Makhlouf, the newspaper said.

Japan Tobacco as well supplied 4.2 million cartons of Winston cigarettes to a tobacco company that is owned by Syria in May 2011, the report said.

“JTI, which controls the JT Group’s International tobacco business, does its business respecting all laws and observe all sanctions, including those placed by the EU,” JT said.

JTI has stopped its shipments to Syria since February 2012 because the tobacco company made decisions in accordance with sanctions the EU decided on.

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