REYKJAVIK // Iceland’s prime minister resigned on Tuesday, the first political victim of a mushrooming global scandal over hidden offshore financial dealings exposed in the so-called Panama Papers.
Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was the biggest casualty so far of a worldwide media probe into 11.5 million leaked documents that purportedly reveal the offshore financial activities of 140 political figures.
“The prime minister told (his party’s) parliamentary group meeting that he would step down as prime minister and I will take over,” said the Progressive Party’s deputy leader Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson.
Other leaders and celebrities implicated in the papers leaked from a Panamanian law firm have hit back at the allegations, denying any wrongdoing despite the international furore.
Those named include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s associates, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s relatives, FIFA’s new president Gianni Infantino and stars such as Argentine footballing great Lionel Messi.
Iceland’s leader had been under pressure after it emerged he and his wife invested millions of dollars in an offshore company that had stakes in three Icelandic banks that collapsed in 2008, tipping the country into a deep recession.
He denies any wrongdoing, but bowed out on Tuesday after thousands took to the streets.
“We want a new government,” said Katrin Thorvaldsdottir, 63. “We want to be governed by people who pay their taxes in Iceland, and for that we need a new vote as soon as possible.”
Mr Gunnlaugsson’s office sought to play down the decision, saying the premier had “suggested” his deputy take over “for an unspecified amount of time”.
“The prime minister has not resigned and will continue to serve as chairman of the Progressive Party,” it said in a statement.
The vast stash of records from Panama’s Mossack Fonseca law firm was obtained from an anonymous source by German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and shared with more than 100 media groups by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
The first findings were published on Sunday after a year-long probe.
Offshore financial dealings are not illegal in themselves, though they may be used to hide assets from tax authorities, launder the proceeds of criminal activities or conceal misappropriated or politically inconvenient wealth.
Australia, France and the Netherlands have announced investigations, while Canada has requested a copy of the papers for its own probe. A judicial source said Spain had opened a money-laundering probe into the law firm.
Panama has pledged to investigate the revelations, but France’s Finance Minister Michel Sapin said his country would still put it back on a list of countries that do not cooperate in tracking down tax dodgers.
Minister for the presidency, Alvaro Alema, reacted angrily, threatening “retaliation measures against countries that include Panama in ‘grey lists’” of tax havens.
Panama also hit back at the head of the OECD, Angel Gurria, saying his description of the country as the last major tax haven impenetrable to law enforcement was “unfair and discriminatory”.
Mossack Fonesca, which was already being investigated in Germany and Brazil, blamed the leak on a hack from overseas and said it had lodged a criminal complaint with Panama prosecutors.
“That is the only crime that has been committed,” said one of the founders, Ramon Fonseca.
The papers, from around 214,000 offshore entities covering almost 40 years, have been met with anger, bafflement and denial since their release.
Beijing refused to respond to “groundless accusations” that eight current or former members of the ruling party’s most powerful body concealed their fortunes through offshore havens, as well as relatives of Xi, who has overseen a much-publicised anti-corruption drive.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to create a commission to investigate after three of his children were named in the papers, while the Kremlin blamed a US plot for claims a close friend of Putin’s heads an offshore empire worth more than $2 billion.
Messi’s family has denied wrongdoing over allegations the footballer and his father own an offshore company not disclosed in a Spanish tax probe.
Also among the revelations from the Panama Papers:
- New FIFA president Gianni Infantino signed TV rights contracts for football tournaments in 2006 and 2007 using a company headed by two defendants in the body’s corruption scandal. He denied any wrongdoing and said he was “dismayed” by the claims.
- Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri said he had declared an offshore company registered to him, his brother and father to tax authorities and “there was nothing strange about the operation”.
- Prime Minister David Cameron’s father ran an offshore fund that paid no tax in Britain for 30 years. A government source said the premier did not have any such funds.
- Oscar-winning Spanish director Pedro Almodovar cancelled a media event for his newest film, “Julieta,” after being named in the papers.
- Syria used Mossack Fonseca to create shell companies to help it break international sanctions and fund its war effort, French paper Le Monde reported.
- The head of one of Chile’s leading anti-corruption watchdogs resigned after being named in the papers.
* Agence France-Presse