The Ablyazov files: crossfires over the Channel/I

It is official now: not just the vilified Russian Federation but also war-torn Ukraine have reassured French authorities to see to it that the course of justice, nothing more and nothing less, will be strictly followed in case extradition to either country of the Kazakh multi-billion master crook Mukhtar Ablyazov should take place. In other words: no politics, just plain crime and punishment. Proceedings in a second round after formality failures in the first one have started concerning Ukraine’s demand, followed by Russia’s – after which the government is to decide if, and if so to where, the culprit will go. The chief-perpetrator himself would probably pprefer Ukraine, since facts gathered so far strongly suggest that he has former accomplices there who now occupy high places. It is therefore that through his lawyers he is engaged in a ferocious struggle with the French magistrates and lawyers on behalf of the plaintiffs to “prove” his “political” positioning and the “persecutions” to which he wants the world to believe that he is victim.

BY CHARLES VAN DER LEEUW, WRITER, NEWS ANALYST

The Ablyazov files: crossfires over the Channel/IThis time, no “technical” mistakes – and no delays either: last week, proceedings before a French court of law started concerning the green light for the government to extradite Mukhtar Ablyazov, Kazakhstan’s $6-billion (according to cautious estimates only) swindler Mukhtar Ablyazov to Ukraine. Within no more than weeks, the court is set to rule. The verdict will be followed by a second round of proceedings concerning Russia’s demand for extradition. In all: before the end of the year it should become clear whether Ablyazov will end up in Lukyanivska or in Matroshka – Kiev’s and Moscow’s detention centres for celebrated criminals respectively.

“The Instruction Chamber of the Court of Appeal in Aix-en-Provence has initially said yes on January 9,” a report [http://www.atlantico.fr/decryptage/affaire-ablyazov-retour-guerre-qui-en-finit-pas-entre-oligarque-kazakh-et-hauts-magistrats-francais-gilles-gaetner-1773050.html] by French veteran journalist Gilles Gaetner, former deputy editor in chief of the much-celebrated weekly L’Express, posted on September 26 on Atlantico, reads. “But for purely formal reasons without touching upon fundamentals, the court of cassation in April this year annulled the rule of the Aix jurisdiction, and dispatched the case before the court of Lyon. The entire sensitive file has had a subsequence bearing signs of a highly despicable climate between Ablyazov’s lawyers and the magistrates of the court of appeal in Aix-en-Provence – in particular [targeting] state attorney Solange Legras and to a lesser extent the president of the Instruction Chamber Nicole Besset. The two latter have been the victims of piracy of their exchanges of sms and mail messages with maître Guillaume-Denis Faure, lawyer on behalf of the extradition demanding state of Ukraine.”

From day one on, especially Solange Legras openly dismissed Ablyazov’s “political” displays, calling him “just a scoundrel” In mid-December, after having attended public hearings on the extradition case at the court of Aix-en-Provence, a Reuters correspondent on visit [http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/12/12/us-france-ablyazov-idUSBRE9BB13E20131212] quoted the prosecutor as saying: “When you have so much money, you can buy everything. But you cannot buy the French justice system. You will have to submit to its rules.” But that was not where the bad news for Ablyazov ended: rather than Ukraine where the culprit hopes to find help of friends in high places, preference went to the Russian Federation. “The court favoured extradition to Russia because it had suffered a greater financial loss, at $5 billion, rather than Ukraine, which lost $400 million, as a result of Ablyazov’s alleged embezzlement,” Solange Legras said in Reuters’ words. “The budget of the French justice system is less than the sum diverted by Mr. Ablyazov from the Russian Federation alone.” The news report further quotes Solange Legras as stating that “…both Kiev and Moscow [are] bound by the Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights which barred returning a political refugee to his home country, or transferring him to a third country without the agreement of the extraditing power, in this case France. “It is easy to be an opponent to hide one’s true nature as a fraudster,” the report quoted her as observing.

Faure, Legras and Besset have filed charges “against X” for infringement of judicial confidentiality, making it clear who in their view X is supposed to be, especially after the siphoned communications were posted on an Ukrainian website belonging to a would-be “humanitarian” organisation. In response, Ablyazov’s lawyers filed suits for alleged “trafic d’influence”, “association de malfaiteurs” and “forfaiture” against the two magistrates. Bad news for the lawyers: following the siphoning’s exposure in December last year, meanwhile Ukrainian police seized the website under question and found out that the stolen communications were originally genuine but had been “modified and falsified” before being posted.

Central in the Ukrainian connections in the Ablyazov files stands the name of Igor Kolomoisky, Ukraine’s second-richest tycoon and hawkish anti-federalist campaigner, following the violent takeover of power by the current regime appointed governor of the Dnepropetrovsk province. Kolomoisky reputedly has his own “private army” consisting of mercenaries, originating, among other sources, of soldiers of Fortune sent by America’s Blackwater corporation. His militiamen have been responsible for the mass murder in Odessa last winter. But Kolomoisky also happens to own the country’s largest bank, Privat Bank, which is now in the process of being bailed out for the equivalent of roughly a billion US dollar, following schemes during the previous decade which look like the spitting image of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s fund and asset diversions at the time he was at the helm of Kazakhstan’s BTA bank. Only this time, it is not the government bailing out the faltering bank, but the international Monetary Fund. According to available information, the money “lost” on non-repaid loans at the time include part of those funneled away through Privat Bank by Mukhtar Ablyazov. Despite such sircumstances which could imply the possibility of a power struggle between centrist and rightist groups in Ukraine, Roman Marchenko, dubbed by the Wall Street Journal “an outside lawyer for the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office seeking Mr. Ablyazov”, was quoted by the paper as stating that “nothing has been changed” regarding the extradition. “The present government continues to support the prosecution of Mr. Ablyazov in Ukraine and his extradition,” the article quoted him as declaring.

Media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic remains all the more ambiguous for it. “A French court will hear arguments Thursday on whether to extradite Mukhtar Ablyazov, a once-powerful Kazakh banker turned fugitive who is sought on fraud charges by Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan,” the Wall Street Journal [http://online.wsj.com/articles/ablyazov-extradition-battle-to-resume-thursday-in-france-1411591769] reported in the immediate run-up of the hearings. “Mr. Ablyazov’s case is as messy as it is vast, and sorting out what to do with him has occupied lawyers and judges in five countries. He was arrested last year at a seaside villa in the south of France, and in January a court in Aix-en-Provence approved hisextradition to Ukraine or Russia. That ruling was overturned by France’s top appeals court, and the case is now being reheard in Lyon. But much has changed since the first ruling: Ukraine’s government was swept out and replaced, and Russia has seized part of Ukraine. The European Union, backed by France, has imposed sanctions on Russia, and France has threatened to suspend delivery of a warship it had agreed to provide Russia before the conflict. [In the] meantime, Kazakhstan and the bank Mr. Ablyazov once ran are quietly working to get him returned to the U.K., where courts have not looked favorably upon him. He lived in London before fleeing on the eve of a prison sentence and the bank has won billions in judgments against him in civil courts there.”

The “English files” concerning Ablyazov are subject to their own disturbances. “According to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, lawyers working for Kazakhstan have approached the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office, which has the capacity to bring criminal charges that could trigger extradition,” the paper claims in its article. “The SFO declined to comment. Other lawyers for Kazakhstan have approached the U.K.’s Home Office about whether his refugee status could be cancelled, the documents show. Earlier this year, the Home Office informed Mr. Ablyazov that it intended to do so; his lawyers have challenged the move and the status hasn’t been cancelled, Mr. Sahlas said. The Home Office declined to comment, and the Kazakhstan spokesman declined to answer questions about any approaches to the U.K. government.”

The issue of Ablyazov’s political asylum has been subject to a blurring campaign by Ablyazov’s lawyers ever since his arrest in France pending the eventuality of extradition. “The Home Office is revoking the refugee status of a prominent Kazakhstan dissident, it has emerged,” The Independent [http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/kazakh-dissident-loses-uk-refugee-status-after-david-camerons-trade-mission–sparking-claims-the-government-is-attempting-to-curry-favour-with-the-oilrich-country-9268490.html] reported on April 17 this year. The Kazakh regime has accused Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former minister and bank chief who is in custody in France, of money-laundering and fraud and has demanded his extradition. His lawyers have now disclosed that the Home Office contacted him three months ago to tell him his asylum status was being cancelled.” Such a cancellation in most European countries is a so-called “administrative measure” and cannot be appealed to in court: granting political asylum is the government’s privilege and so is thereby its withdrawal. Moreover, even if eventually it would appear that the British Home Office has stalled that withdrawal, it would not prevent UK authorities to investigate further into charges of money laundering by Ablyazov since this has taken place on a vast scale within English jurisdiction – including the purchase of real estate in and around London and through mailbox companies in England and on the British Virgin Islands.

This could be among the bottom reasons that Ablyazov’s lawyers keep blowing smoke. “The UK has decided to revoke the asylum status it granted in 2011 to Mukhtar Ablyazov, a former banker accused of fraud and one of Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev’s main political opponents,” the Financial Times (unjustly stressing Ablyazov’s “political” masquerade) wrote in an exhaustive report on the issue [http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/c22e50d0-c53e-11e3-89a9-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3EcPNpweb] published one day earlier. “Mr Ablyazov, former chairman and main shareholder of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, which was nationalised in 2009, was informed in January of the UK Home Office’s intention to cancel his refugee status. Lawyers for Mr Ablyazov, who is in prison in France where he is fighting a protracted legal battle against extradition, accuse the UK of violating international laws protecting refugees by engaging in communications over his refugee status with his country of origin, and refusing to release information to him about those contacts. The lawyers say documents they have obtained suggest that David Cameron, UK prime minister, saw the issue as an obstacle to better relations with Kazakhstan.”

The campaign to link Ablyazov’s refugee status’ withdrawal is mainly carried out by his lawyer Peter Sahlas – and goes indeed a lot further than just pleading in court. “Documents obtained by Mr Sahlas and provided to the Financial Times show that two London-based law firms, Reed Smith and Ronald Fletcher Baker, are acting on behalf of the Kazakhstan government in lobbying the UK government as well as the Serious Fraud Office, which was pressed to open a criminal investigation into Mr Ablyazov. A recent memo by Reed Smith cites a private UK investigator hired by Kazakhstan as saying the UK decision to revoke Mr Ablyazov’s refugee status was being driven by the home secretary, Theresa May, as part of a wider ‘clean-up’ of asylum decisions that have been taken in recent years in respect of individuals who have abused the system and rules,” th FT article reads further down. “Mr Ablyazov’s status ‘is considered to be a problem for UK-Kazakh relations and there is a pro-Kazakhstan push by David Cameron, who is keen to drive the relationship forward’, the memo says. […] [Ablyazov] was originally given 10 days to respond to the Home Office’s declaration of its intention to revoke his asylum status. Submissions by his lawyers resulted in an extension to mid-April and his legal team said they would challenge cancellation of his status, if confirmed, in the UK courts.” (to be continued)

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