On 13 September, a Belgian national was arrested in connection with an attempt to facilitate the transport of weapons to countries in Africa and the Middle East. The suspect, owner of Belgian humanitarian heavy-lift helicopter company Skytech, is accused of facilitating the delivery of weapons and equipment to countries under international embargo, according to Belgian broadcaster RTBF.
Thierry Lakhanisky is no stranger to the media. His company had a long history of assisting humanitarian missions across the world, even working alongside the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC), the United Nations, and Médecins Sans Frontières.
Skytech maintained a fleet of former Soviet heavy-lift helicopters which Lakhanisky operated across the world. The Belgian’s helicopters even made it onto the silver screen, appearing in French TV shows Opération Okavango and Ushuaia, as well as several documentaries.
However as his company struggled to stay afloat, ultimately filing for bankruptcy, it appears that the lifelong humanitarian took on a new role as a facilitator in the illicit international arms trade. Now, a criminal case against the former Belgian helicopter pilot is being investigated by Federal Judicial police in Brussels on charges of breaking Belgium’s arms brokering laws.
According to his lawyer, Lakhanisky denies the charges against him. He claims to have been working as a “consultant in transactions of military planes and helicopters” to countries across the world, under licence throughout his professional activity.
Belgian investigators allege that Lakhanisky did not possess the valid licences regarding arms brokering to operate from within Belgium. As a result, the state believes that he was not a registered broker and could not carry out missions from Belgium.
Lakhanisky’s lawyers state that he did in fact have the valid licences until the bankruptcy of his company in February this year, conducting all business since then “from abroad, as director and shareholder of a foreign company.”
Hazy Belgian law and rampant trafficking
According to Belgian law, it is legal to work as an intermediary for arms deals, however licences are strictly controlled by the state and professionals must be verified by the Minister of Justice to assure that the deals are both legal and ethical.
SPF Justice received 353 requests for licences since 2003, four of which for brokers. If found guilty, Lakhanisky faces up to five years in prison and up to 1 million euros in fines.
Belgium’s position on the global arms trade is often criticised by investigators, who often find Belgians involved in bypassing embargoes and conducting illegal arms trafficking.
According to RTBF, last summer the Belgian made trips to Ethiopia and Russia on business, which the state considers to be unlicensed activities as a weapons broker from Belgian territory.
Lakhanisky certainly holds close connections with governments, intelligence agencies, and militaries across the world. His company was even alleged to have helped free two French nationals detained by Nigerian authorities in relation to the Probo Koala incident, which caused the death of around seven people in Nigeria in 2006.
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This is yet another scandal in a long-run affair regarding Belgium’s war industry. In 2018, federal prosecutors arrested and prosecuted a shady figure called Jacques Monsieur, who was known by the alias “The Marshal” or “The Fox.”
According to prosecutors, the Belgian facilitated the sale of weapons, fighter planes, and tanks to Chad, Iran, Indonesia, and Mauritania in 2006-2009. Monsieur was believed to be one of the largest arms traffickers in the world.
Viktor Bout, whose life inspired the film “Lord of War”, was sentenced to 25 years in prison in the U.S in 2012 and may soon be included in a prison exchange with Russia. Bout spent part of his life with his family in Ostend, using the nearby airport as a base for deliveries to Africa.