Dutch Court Fight Lays Bare Reality Of Kidnap Industry

Sunday, September 25th, 2005

According to Dutch Court Fight Lays Bare Reality Of Kidnap Industry, kidnappings are big business — although no one wants to admit it:

From Iraq to Chechnya to China, the kidnap industry is booming. According to companies that offer ransom insurance and groups that track the problem, kidnapping generates hundreds of millions of dollars a year, enriching criminal gangs and helping fuel armed insurgencies. In almost all cases, for fear of encouraging the practice, governments and companies that pay ransoms deny cooperating with kidnap groups.

In Mr. Erkel’s case, this script has unraveled. In an unusually public spat, the Dutch Foreign Ministry has gone to court in Geneva to try and force the Swiss branch of Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF, to pay back the money it says was used to purchase Mr. Erkel’s freedom — plus 9.2% interest. Documents in that case, which was filed in June 2004, plus numerous interviews in Europe and Russia, lift the veil on the kinds of shadowy negotiations often held between kidnappers, intermediaries and victims’ governments, employers and families.

European countries, in particular, often bend their no-ransom pledges, according to many people who work in this field. A string of French and Italian hostages were freed in Iraq earlier this year and few experts believe government denials that ransoms were paid. The U.S. government sticks to its stated policy of not paying. American companies and individuals, however, often cough up through intermediaries hired by insurance companies, says Greg Bangs, a specialist in kidnap and ransom policies for Chubb & Son, an insurance company.

The practice is buoyed by the tangled relationships in many parts of the world between kidnap gangs and the local law-enforcement agencies ostensibly charged with capturing them. In June, the Kremlin-backed president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, told reporters that Russian forces were responsible for as much as 10% of the reported kidnappings in the region — though he said the practice was legal because they were detaining suspected insurgents. Human-rights groups say families often pay Russian troops to secure the release of an arrested relative. The local police chief investigating the Erkel case says a portion of ransom payments often ends up in the pockets of security officials.

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