Dec. 27, 2011 -- This week, the Blotter is reprising seven different Brian Ross Unit investigations that made a difference in 2011. Today: Celebrities caught making millions from private parties for dictators.
They're known for their work on the big screen or on a big stage, but in 2011, several major American celebrities found themselves in ABC News headlines for partying with the family of a ruthless North African dictator or an eastern European leader accused of torture – spurring each of them to issue public apologies and in many cases returning fees they had received for their appearances.
First, confidential U.S. State Department cables released by the anti-privacy website WikiLeaks revealed in February 2011 that in recent years, music stars Beyonce, Jay-Z, Usher, Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado had each either attended or performed at parties thrown by Mutassim Gadhafi, the son of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. As late as 2010, Beyonce and Usher attended the lavish party thrown by Mutassim at the Bahamanian island paradise of St. Barts. Mariah Carey reportedly performed at a similar party the year before. Nelly Furtado performed for the Gadhafi "clan" in 2007. Mutassim served as National Security Advisor to his father's regime, which was accused of terrorism and war crimes. Like his father, Mutassim was killed in October by rebels after a popular revolt toppled the 40-year-old regime.
But just days before Mutassim's death, two major Hollywood movie stars and another singer apparently failed to learn from their celebrity colleagues' mistake and attended a party for a Chechen leader accused of torture and ordering murders.
Big screen stars Hilary Swank and Jean-Claude Van Damme were the headlining celebrities at a party thrown by Chechen president Ramzan Kadyrov in the Chechen capital of Grozny. The party was allegedly to celebrate the city, but happened to fall on Kadyrov's thirty-fifth birthday. Swank spoke at the event and Van Damme was even photographed performing some martial arts moves on stage.
Kadyrov has been the target of human rights groups for years for allegedly directing intimidation, torture and murder of Chechen rebels and opposition figures. A former bodyguard of Kadyrov's was set to testify that Kadyrov personally carried out torture -- including once on the bodyguard -- when he was gunned down in Vienna, Austria, in 2008.
Impact: In the case of Mutassim's and Kadyrov's parties, after the ABC News reports, the celebrities involved publicly apologized for their association with the alleged criminals and, in most cases, donated fees they received from the parties to charity. Usher, Beyonce, Mariah Carey and Nelly Furtado collectively gave millions to various charities in the aftermath.
A representative for Swank told ABC News a week after the initial report that she would be donating her fee to charity as well, but did not say how much it was.
In many of the cases, the celebrities claimed they did not know exactly who it was they were performing for.
"I was naive and unaware of who I was booked to perform for," Carey said in a statement, posted on her website in February. "I feel horrible and embarrassed to have participated in this mess. Going forward, this is a lesson for all artists to learn from. We need to be more aware and take more responsibility regardless of who books our shows. Ultimately we as artists are to be held accountable."
Jean-Claude Van Damme, on the other hand, reportedly returned to Chechnya to have dinner with Kadyrov and was considering participating in a high-profile kick-boxing match there. Representatives for Van Damme did not return requests for comment to ABC News during initial coverage of the party in mid-October.