WASHINGTON -- A former president of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International and five other BCCI officials have been charged with laundering millions of dollars in drug profits and money belonging to former Panamanian strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega.
The federal indictment, unsealed yesterday in Tampa, Fla., after an international manhunt found one of the ex-bankers in France, describes the notorious bank as a corrupt organization set up to launder illicit funds through its branches worldwide.
"What we are alleging in this indictment is a racketeering enterprise in a manner that was a corporate strategy, a corporately countenanced operation," Robert S. Mueller III, the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division, told reporters in Washington.
BCCI, which had branches in 73 countries and assets of $20 billion at its zenith, was virtually shut down by banking regulators July 5 after audits discovered evidence that widespread fraud had led to losses of at least $5 billion.
The racketeering and money-laundering charges are the latest in a series of allegations that BCCI was riddled with corruption.
The bank and its former top officers face state criminal charges in New York, and federal grand juries in three other cities are investigating the bank's activities, including its alleged secret acquisition of four U.S. financial institutions.
Accused in the Tampa indictment of supervising money-laundering bylower-level employees was Swaleh Naqvi, who became president of BCCI in 1988 after its founder, Agha Hasan Abedi, had a heart attack.
Besides Mr. Naqvi and five other bankers, five reputed members the Medellin drug cartel were charged in the indictment that was announced yesterday.
The three-count indictment portrays BCCI as a bank built on money-laundering in Latin America. It provides details of the bank's relationship with General Noriega and describes meetings in which bankers discussed ways to get more drug deposits in Panama and Colombia.
When an employee suggested closing drug-related accounts at the Panama branch in 1988, Bashir Shaikh, assistant manager of the branch and one of those charged in the indictment, responded that doing so would mean BCCI might as well shut down the entire Panama operation, according to the charges.
Department of Justice officials said the indictment was the result of a continuing investigation that led to the bank's guilty plea to money-laundering and the conviction of five of its officers in Tampa last year.
The new charges rely heavily on testimony by the former BCCI officials convicted in that case and cooperating with prosecutors.
The Department of Justice has been criticized for failing to pursue BCCI aggressively, and Mr. Mueller and the Tampa prosecutor, Gregory Kehoe, said that the new round of charges demonstrates the agency's continuing commitment to the case.
However, the indictment is likely to add to the criticism because the bank itself was not charged. As part of the bank's guilty plea, the U.S. attorney's office in Tampa agreed not to prosecute the bank further.
A report issued yesterday by Representative Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., and a House Judiciary Committee panel criticized the Department of Justice and other federal agencies for not aggressively pursuing leads about the bank.
The 46-page indictment released yesterday was returned by a Tampa grand jury on Aug. 23. It was kept sealed until after the arrest Tuesday of Syed Z. A. Akbar in the French port of Calais as he stepped off a ferry from Britain.