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Aid charity facing scrutiny over payments to armed opposition group

Relief International, which operates in countries across the Middle East, suspended from receiving funding by USAID
A Syrian girl looks into a room at a school run by Relief International in Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, near the border with Syria, in 2017 (Reuters)

A global aid charity that works extensively across the Middle East has admitted making monthly payments to an armed opposition group in a conflict zone, but is refusing to disclose where.

Relief International, which is headquartered in Washington DC and has offices in London and Lyon, is understood to have used an intermediary to make payments of around £6,000 ($8,300) a month from late 2019.

The charity says that the payments “related to negotiating humanitarian access with an armed group in a conflict zone”, but that they may “violate some of its most important core principles and policies”.

The payments may also have breached counter-terrorism laws. Under the UK’s Terrorism Act 2000, an individual who makes a payment to anyone who threatens or uses force, in order to influence any government in the world, is committing an offence punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) said Relief International had been suspended from future US government awards.

“USAID takes seriously its duty to be a conscientious steward of American taxpayer funding and holds our implementing partners to the highest standards to ensure that taxpayer funds are used wisely, effectively and for their intended purpose,” a spokesperson said.

“No fraud, waste, and abuse of American taxpayer resources is acceptable.”

USAID said Relief International had informed it that no US government funding was used for the payments, while in London, the British government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said there was “no evidence” that UK taxpayer money was used.

It said: “The FCDO has a zero-tolerance approach to inaction or mishandling of fraud and aid diversion and has a range of measures in place to protect UK aid and taxpayer money and to ensure all funding is used as it should be.”

The Charity Commission, which regulates charities in England and Wales, said: “We are aware of concerns relating to Relief International.

“In line with our guidance Relief International UK, which works with Relief International, reported this matter to the Commission and we are currently engaging with the trustees. We cannot comment further at this time.”

The Charity Commission would be expected to refer any concerns about criminal conduct to the British police. It is unclear whether this has yet happened.

The National Crime Agency in London said it did not routinely confirm whether or not investigations are underway.

Relief Aid is currently operating in 16 countries, including a number in the Middle East.

It has 7,300 staff and volunteers and specialises in offering emergency healthcare and sanitation, and education.

It works extensively with internally displaced people in northern Syria and with Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

In Iran it is working with health professionals tackling the coronavirus crisis. It also works in Yemen, Iraq and Sudan.

In a statement on its website, the charity said: “We started an investigation with outside counsel, self-disclosed to governments and donors, and continue to work to maintain transparency with impacted parties. We are co-operating fully with any government inquiries.”

Despite the promised transparency, the organisation’s public relations consultant said he wished to discuss the matter off the record, with none of his comments attributed to the organisation or himself.

The charity’s staff are understood to have been told last week that the Washington-based chief executive, Nancy Wilson, had left with immediate effect.