'Aleppo toy smuggler' Rami Adham rejects fraud claims

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Media captionThe "toy smuggler of Aleppo" is now being investigated for fraud

A Finnish-Syrian man feted by the global media for smuggling toys into Syria has rejected fraud allegations.

On Friday, Finnish police said they had launched a preliminary investigation into his use of donated money.

Finnish media have published claims he withheld money, had links with jihadists, and faked an injury.

He told the BBC he has receipts for all spending and is open with the Finnish government about his contacts, but "may have exaggerated" the injury.

Rami Adham, father of six, became known to international media as the "Aleppo toy smuggler" earlier this year.

As the BBC previously reported, Mr Adham has been taking Barbie dolls, footballs and teddy bears into Syria, including his hometown of Aleppo. He also runs a charity in Finland which provides aid in Syria through local partners.

But Finnish police are looking into concerns he may have been misusing donations.

Finnish National Bureau of Investigation chief crime inspector Tero Haapala told the AFP news agency: "A preliminary investigation is underway and we will determine as soon as possible if there are grounds for suspecting a crime."

Facebook photo

On Friday, Finnish newspaper Helsingin Sanomat published an investigation into Mr Adham.

It reported that the organisation he works with to support orphans in Syria, the Alkefah Institute, said that donors had given €35 per orphan, but they had only received €9-€20 per child.

Mr Adham told the BBC the money - minus expenses - covered education and health services for the orphans and a monthly food basket.

"We are providing a full package service, we're not giving all the money to the orphans."

Image copyright Zakariya Barakat
Image caption Rami Adhamsays he has walked up to 16 hours to cross the border on some of his trips to Syria

The newspaper has also alleged that Mr Adham has "tight links" to jihadist groups, particularly raising concerns about a photo posted on Facebook of him with the hard-line Sunni preacher Abdullah al-Mohaisany.

Research by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace describes him as a Saudi jihadi cleric and says he has had close contacts with so-called Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra, a group which was linked to al-Qaeda until it said it was cutting ties and changing its name earlier this year.

"This is something you do when you go to a war zone. In order for me to go to Syria and especially Aleppo, I have to go through many groups," Mr Adham told the BBC.

He says he has been working in full cooperation with Finnish police and intelligence organisations: "They are fully aware of what exactly I am doing in Syria, and who exactly I move around with."

'Fooling around'

Mr Adham also told the BBC he received over €50,000 in excess of his target after extensive international media coverage of his work. He stopped accepting donations recently, saying his small charity does not have the capacity to accept more funds.

He explained the excess money donated to his NGO - a total of €81,000 - would be used to build a school in the countryside around Aleppo, as the siege around the city has prevented him from helping people inside.

Helsingin Sanomat also reported on a series of Whatsapp messages between Mr Adham and a photographer he was working with in Syria, which suggest that he faked being injured in a bombing in January 2016 as a publicity stunt.

"It did occur, but I might have exaggerated it a little bit - why, because I would like the Finnish media to pay attention more to the mass killing of my own people," he said.

The messages were "two people fooling around", he said.