HONG KONG — Shipping firms in Hong Kong accused of being fronts for Iranian businesses involved in Tehran's weapons programme offered no clue Friday as to the nature of their business from their spartan offices.
The US on Thursday slapped sanctions on 24 shipping companies, saying the firms were affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), under international sanctions for its role in Iran's weapons programme.
Twenty of those firms were listed in Hong Kong and AFP on Friday visited the two offices where they are all listed.
Four firms are listed at the same address in the financial hub's glitzy downtown core, where a woman appeared to be working alone in a spartan office filled with stacked cardboard boxes.
"We help clients establish a representative office in Hong Kong," said the woman, May Ho, before asking an AFP reporter to leave.
When asked what the firms do, she replied: "It is hard to say", later adding that she mainly did "office secretarial work".
Alex Tse, an employee at a neighbouring office, said few people come and go from the tiny space and neither appeared to be Ahmad Sarkandi or Ghasem Nabipour, the firms' listed owners.
The two men were designated by the United States last October for working on IRISL's behalf, the US Treasury said.
Another 16 Hong Kong firms and four in Britain's Isle of Man were said to be owned or controlled by IRISL, and operated a number of vessels on behalf of the Iranian shipping group.
All 16 of the Hong Kong companies have the same address: the office of international law firm Holman Fenwick Willan.
Office manager Peter Spizzirri declined comment and referred AFP to the firm's London office, while another Holman employee confirmed that it acts as a representative office for the now-sanctioned shipping firms.
The free-wheeling Asian business centre, which is also a major shipping hub, has long been an easy place to register businesses.
A record 139,530 new companies were registered in Hong Kong last year, an almost 28 percent year-on-year increase, according to government figures.
But firms dodging sanctions or engaging in other illicit activity often look to the southern Chinese city for cover, said Dane Chamorro, managing director for North Asia at security consultancy Control Risks.
It was also easy to start companies in Hong Kong that are registered in tax havens such as the British Virgin Islands, he added.
"It's very easy to set up a business or buy a shell company in Hong Kong. You can buy one off the shelf for about $1,000 and you're off and running," Chamorro said.
"The downside is that some (companies) will set up in Hong Kong for illegitimate reasons".
Arthur Bowring, managing director of the Hong Kong Shipowners Association, said he had not heard of the men or the firms targeted in the US statement.
"We would be very concerned if companies were set up illegally, particularly if those companies were shipping companies," he added in an email to AFP.
Last month, Hong Kong authorities detained a cargo ship linked to IRISL over an alleged loan default with a group of European banks.
A Hong Kong government spokeswoman said Friday the city would continue to "exercise vigilance" in enforcing existing UN sanctions against Iran over its weapons programme.
The US has stepped up its efforts to isolate Iran-linked commercial entities tied to its military development programmes since the UN Security Council placed a fourth set of sanctions against Iran in June 2010.
"Today's (Thursday's) designations expose the latest in a string of deceptive measures Iran is taking to continue its illicit conduct", the Treasury's sanctions czar Stuart Levey said a statement.
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