Uganda holds 3.6 tons of gold possibly from Venezuela

KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — A gold refinery established by a Belgian is facing Ugandan sanctions over the questionable importation of 7.4 tons of gold earlier in March, adding to growing allegations that minerals from conflict-plagued countries pass through the Uganda-based company.

The company, African Gold Refinery, had already exported 3.8 tons of the gold that may have originated from South America. But police are holding the remaining 3.6 tons as they await advice from the attorney general on whether to seize the gold and criminally charge the company’s directors, police spokesman Fred Enanga told The Associated Press Monday.

African Gold Refinery, which is licensed to process raw gold, has not yet revealed where disputed consignment was sourced, he said, adding that the alternative is to release the gold if the appropriate taxes are paid to the Ugandan government.

“There is a possibility that it could have come from Venezuela, but that is not conclusive yet,” he said.

Government-owned media, citing local police, reported that the gold came from Venezuela, which is under U.S. sanctions targeting a gold sector that is a key economic pillar of the government of President Nicolas Maduro.

Alain Goetz, the Belgian tycoon who established African Gold Refinery in 2014, told The Associated Press that the company had committed no crime in importing the disputed consignment as gold at any stage of purity “can be treated, can be recast.”

“They do not know that. They do not know anything about gold,” he said of Ugandan police.

He complained that the refinery, for which he now serves as a consultant after selling his stake to an investor from Bahrain, had been unable to export for 17 days, leading gold dealers to move to regional capitals like Nairobi in Kenya.

This is not the first time African Gold Refinery, which is located in Entebbe, 43 kilometers (27 miles) from Kampala, near the international airport, is under scrutiny for suspicious dealings in minerals.

The company has drawn activists’ concern that minerals from conflict-prone countries in the region, especially Congo, will be among its raw materials.

The value of gold exports from Uganda has been rising in recent years, though not much is mined locally.

Gold is now Uganda’s major export commodity, along with coffee. The value of gold exports rose to $204 million in the 2015/16 financial year, up from $250,000 in 2013/14, according to government figures.

The Sentry, an investigative initiative co-founded by American actor and activist George Clooney, reported in 2018 that gold mined from conflict areas in eastern Congo may be reaching international markets thanks to the Uganda-based African Gold Refinery.

The Sentry said at the time that a “corporate network controlled by Belgian tycoon Alain Goetz has refined illegally-smuggled conflict gold from eastern Congo at the African Gold Refinery in Uganda and then exported it through a series of companies to the United States and Europe.”

That report urged Ugandan authorities to investigate the refinery for potential money laundering and called on the U.S., the U.N. Security Council, and the European Union to “investigate and, if appropriate, sanction gold refining and trading companies and their beneficial owners.”

African Gold Refinery denied the allegations, saying it followed the law.