The United States has accused Nazem Ahmad of commissioning paintings from U.S. artists in violation of U.S. sanctions. One such painting is present in this Justice Department-provided photo of Ahmad at his desk. Photo courtesy of Justice Department
April 19 (UPI) -- A Lebanese art dealer blacklisted by the United States for being a Hezbollah financier was indicted on accusations of using a complex web of businesses to evade U.S. sanctions, officials said Tuesday, as the U.S. Treasury hit his vast international money laundering network with punitive measures.
Nazem Said Ahmad, 58, was sanctioned by the United States in 2019 on accusations of being a top donor for the U.S. designated foreign terrorist organization Hezbollah.
Authorities said the art collector and Belgian citizen procured huge sums for the Iran-back militant group through his trade in so-called blood diamonds.
The nine-count indictment unsealed Tuesday in an Eastern District of New York courtroom charged Ahmad and eight co-defendants with continuing their illicit dealings for the art collector in violation of U.S. sanctions.
The court document states that since December 2019, the nine people used a web of companies to obtain $160 million in art and diamond-grading services through the U.S. financial system while obfuscating that the client seeking the services was Ahmad.
Of the nine defendants, one who was not identified was arrested Tuesday in Britain at the request of the United States, while the other eight, including Ahmad, remain at large, most probably outside of the North American nation.
While the indictment was being unsealed, Treasury officials designated what they described as a vast international money laundering and sanctions evasion network of 52 people and companies working to facilitate the payment, shipment and delivery of cash, diamonds, gems, art and luxury goods for Ahmad's benefit.
Those hit with asset freezes Tuesday are located in Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Belgium, Britain and Hong Kong.
"The individuals involved in this network used shell companies and fraudulent schemes to disguise Nazem Said Ahmad's role in financial transactions," Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said Tuesday in a statement.
Britain also sanctioned Ahmad on Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors accused the network of obtaining art valued at more than $450,000 from galleries and persons in the United States and another $780,00 in art from U.S. individuals living internationally since Ahmad was blacklisted.
An unnamed Chicago art gallery was commissioned through the sanctions evasion network to produce several pieces for Ahmed, including one seen in a photo provided by the Justice Department of Ahmed at his desk. A New York artist also sold him six paintings valued at nearly $200,000, prosecutors said.
The defendants are also accused of having submitted nearly 500 diamonds to a U.S.-based diamond company for grading after Ahmed was hit by sanctions. Among the rocks include a 45-carat diamond that was valued in March 2021 at $80 million.
Treasury officials said that since 2021, Ahmad has acquired more than $54 million in artwork from major auction houses, galleries and exhibitions as well as directly from artists, often concealing his involvement in the deal. The investment in art, the State Department said, was a preemptive attempt to mitigate the effects of U.S. sanctions, while the art gallery he opened in Beirut has been a front to launder money.
"The luxury goods and art market has been an ideal avenue for Nazem Said Ahmad and his co-conspirators to move funds out of Lebanon, capitalizing on schemes to overvalue and undervalue artwork," the Treasury said.
The United States has offered a $10 million reward for information that leads to his arrest.
The vast number of moves the Biden administration made Tuesday came on the 40th anniversary of the Hezbollah bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut that killed 63 people.