In what is now being referred to as one of history’s biggest leaks, hundreds of journalists have revealed a giant web of offshore holdings of nearly 140 world leaders, public officials, celebrities and athletes belonging to more than 50 countries.
The documents came from the internal database of a global law firm based in Panama called Mossack Fonseca, and span 11.5 million files amounting to approximately 3 terabytes of data. The records, now known as the Panama Papers, date back 40 years.
The information was obtained by German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, which then shared the files with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
"I think the leak will prove to be probably the biggest blow the offshore world has ever taken because of the extent of the documents," Gerard Ryle, director of the ICIJ, told the BBC.
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The names of most of the world politicians exposed in the leaks are not shocking but the extent of their corruption is, nevertheless.
For instance, the released data contains names of family members and associates of Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak, Libya's former leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syria's president Bashar al-Assad, who have links to secret offshore holdings.
One of the biggest revelations showed how President Vladimir Putin's close aides shuffled $2 billion through banks and shadow companies.
And the documents revealed Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson’s undeclared stake in his country's bailed-out banks.
Other famous mentions include the Chinese premier’s family. Xi Jinping’s brother-in-law Deng Jiagui, who was said to have set up two British Virgin Islands companies in 2009, and seven other top officials of China's powerful Politburo Standing Committee were involved in offshore dealings.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud, Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif, President of Argentina Mauricio Macri, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko and Ian Cameron, the late father of British Prime Minister David Cameron, a multi-millionaire stockbroker, have also been implicated in the leaks.
But it’s not just politicians or bureaucrats who hide their wealth, apparently.
Barcelona superstar Lionel Andrés "Leo" Messi — among 20 high-profile footballers — was also listed among those with offshore shell companies, as was the former president of the Union of European Football Associations Michel Platini.
Famous celebrities, including Indian film industry behemoths Amitabh Bachan and his daughter-in-law Aishwarya Rai, winner of 1994 Miss World, also figure on Mossack Fonseca’s list of clients.
An anonymous source that demanded no financial compensation or any other favor in return, apart from a few security measures, sent the documents to Suddeutsche Zeitung nearly a year ago. Later, in collaboration with ICIJ, the newspaper launched a global reporting effort involving 107 media groups in 78 countries.
Here’s a video that explains how the investigation was carried out:
One memo from one of Mossack Fonseca’s partner in the leak reads: “Ninety-five percent of our work coincidentally consists in selling vehicles to avoid taxes,” according to The Guardian.
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The last biggest journalistic leak emerged when Wikileaks cables were released in 2010. The Panama Papers, however, are roughly 100 times larger than the 1.7 GB of Wikileaks data.