The Aliyev files: wise men from the west bring the case closer to court

Instead of a black hole, a more or less identifiable scenario is taking shape on the horizon concerning the case against the man considered one of Kazakhstan’s most dangerous criminals. Relocated to Austria where he is under arrest since Vienna turned down a request for his extradition to Kazakhstan twice, thereby putting the burden of bringing him justice on Austria’s own prosecutors and courts, charges against Professor Moriarty à-la-kazakhstanaise should be pressed before the end of the current year. What the 43-pages long draft charges exactly contain, though, has yet to be made clear. Whatever they are, long rounds of legal arm-twisting and rope-pulling can be expected, not unlike the parallel case against that other Kazakh culprit Mukhtar Ablyazov on course in France. Fears of leaks and loopholes in both cases persist among the victims, especially since both accused use expensive and highly proactive PR machineries to twist public opinion in their favour. But the relocation of justice to Europe gives some hope that justice will prevail over public brainwashing.

BY CHARLES VAN DER LEEUW, WRITER, NEWS ANALYST

The Aliyev files: wise men from the west bring the case closer to courtNews drips through fragmentarily and sometimes contradictorily in the midst of the continuing nebulous game surrounding the Rakhat Aliyev files in Austria. But after months of uncertainties and hide-and-seek carousels between state officials, lawyers and third parties, it looks now indeed like Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter has finally (and assumedly reluctantly since he is also Aliyev’s ex-lawyer which puts him in an awkward position) given his consent to the Prosecutor General to press charges in court. According to a media report by the Austrial national press agency APA posted on Tagdyr’s site [http://www.tagdyr.net/7179/fall-aliyev-staatsanwaelte-wollen-anklage-noch-im-dezember], this is poised to happen before the end of the year. The minister has been able to hide behind a “committee of wise men” to back up his decision. But the moment the court subsequently decides whether to accept or to dismiss the case is likely to come well into the new year. This decision is poised to be appealed to instantly by either party – in case of a dismissal by the prosecution, in case of acceptance by the defence. In the (most likely) case proceedings continue after appeal, the first hearings can be expected to start “in the first half of the year” according to prosecutors. Proceedings are also expected to be accompanied by legal tit-for-tat actions by adversary lawyers and by parallel proceedings against some of Aliyev’s former associates and accomplices.

The overall legal battle coming up can be expected to take years. It also remains unclear what the initial charges include: solely the double murder that took place in Almaty back in 2007 or also the one in Beyrouth of a Kazakh-Russian journalist, or the multi-hundred-million-euro embezzlement and money laundering files, with part of the laundering operations having taken place within Austria’s own jurisdiction. It could also be that with initial charges limited, additional charges could be filed in the course of the proceedings. The danger is that should Aliyev still have accomplices at large which he has in the Shoraz family of his present-day spouse, in charge of his business assets financed with money stolen and extorted at the time Aliyev was at the summit of his power in Kazakhstan. Endless delays in legal proceedings due to his lawyers’ interventions could give his associates abroad the opportunity to wipe out the traces of stolen funds’ origins and find new offshore hideouts for further fund and asset diversions. In order to prevent this, constant attention to the case and its progress will be required – which is not too difficult since proceedings in Austria are far from limited to courtrooms and rage on with at least equal levels of noise in the public domain.

Almost seeming to ignore the real cause and the real culprit, lawyers on behalf of the latter are now engaging in mud-throwing campaigns against their peers acting on behalf of the victims, with both parties engaging public relation firms to mobilise public opinion in favour of their respective stands. The result is that those PR firms have now become entangled in the legal battle themselves. It started in summer this year with an attempt by Aliyev’s law team to mobilise the prosecution against the law firm of Gabriel Lansky, who has been acting on behalf of the widows of the two murdered Kazakh bankers for seven years now. The campaign initially proved effective, to the extent that at one point police raided Lansky’s Luxemburg branch office, confiscating a number of hard disks and documents to hand them over to the Austrian authorities. After having seized a court in Vienna, Lansky obtained a ruling that the raid had been “illegitimate” and a court order to return the confiscated material. But it seems that the case against Lansky’s chancellery has not been dropped, and recently Aliyev’s team filed a plea pressing for his arrest pending investigations.Those iInvestigations also target the Tagdyr foundation, an information outlet advocating justice to proceed against Aliyev and his codefendants. The foundation is maintained by the two widows, and has been accused to act on behalf of the Kazakh “secret service” – referring to the National Security Council of Kazakhstan which, for all it matters, is no longer very secret these days and maintains a well-equipped press office and an open portal to communicate with the public.

According to the Austrian daily paper Krone in an article posted on its newsreel on December 6 [http://www.krone.at/Digital/Anwalt_Lansky_prueft_Klage_gegen_PR-Agentur-Posting-Debatte-Story-430358] a PR company called Mhoch3 has become the target of a smear campaign followed by legal action initiated by Aliyev’s lawyers. Until about three years ago, the firm was working on the order of Lansky’s chancellery. During the contract’s term, the PR firm posted “unauthorised” messages as comments or statements on various online portals, the paper claims referring to a magazine called Datum. The postings, according to the allegations, included “incriminations” against Aliyev and some of his associates. At the time, Aliyev was not yet under investigations by Austrian prosecutors. Lansky has disclaimed any responsibility for any irregularities committed by the PR firm, which he claims to have employed in good faith, and is now investigating himself if this has indeed been the case. By doing so, Lansky can avoid disciplinary measures by the Bar Assocation. He also points out that on Aliyev’s side, lawyers have spent “many millions of euros” to incriminate the relatives of the murder victims which was definitely in breach of laws and regulations.

The general shift from the courtroom to the public domain in proceedings against the likes of Rakhat Aliyev (in France, similar trends can be signaled concerning the case against that other notorious criminal figure from Kazakhstan Mukhtar Ablyazov) is increasingly becoming a target of criticism in Austria and elsewhere. Thus, an opinion columnist of the Viennese daily Die Wiener Zeitung named Walter Hämmerle in a publication publicised by the newspaper on December 4 [http://www.wienerzeitung.at/meinungen/leitartikel/720923_Schuld-und-PR.html] compares the course of affairs with a Hollywood script, in which “… the very nature of the course of justice has changed, crossing boundaries”, in the column’s words. “Actors are no longer just lawyers and justice officials, and the arena is no longer limited to courtrooms,” the article reads further down. “Specialised agencies are targeting the broader public domain, meant to be captured either in favour or in disfavour of the accused. This relatively new branch is dubbed litigation PR. It focuses on shaping the mood in the course of a legal battle. Politicians, along sith journalists, judges and prosecutors alike are among the targets of attempts to influence their opinion.”

The consequences of such a trend, should it persists, could shake up the entire framework of the law and its enforcement, according to the author: “Behind this concept is the assumption that guilt and innocence can be traded all but randomly according to mere appreciation, and that public opinion is at least as important for their determination as hard judicial arguments in front of an orderly court of law, since justice, too, cannot ignore the trouble caused by public feelings […] Under the cloaks of judges and prosecutors there are also human beings, and only the fewest among us have the strength to swim persistently against the tide of media-steered prejudice.” In other words: he or she who produces the loudest and most frequent noise paid for from the richest coffers will thereby be right – or legal plutocracy in its purest appearance, reminding one of the sweet history of America’s lynching parties…

Aliyev has known the “PR trick” from a very early stage on. In fall 2009, the Austrian weekly magazine NEWS was to reveal that on 24 May 2007, one day before he was sacked as ambassador, Rakhat Aliyev signed a contract with a public relations firm called Red Carpet Opinionleader Consulting, brought to him on recommendation of his close friend former Austrian National Bank govcernor Adolf Wala, with the aim to lay and maintain close contacts with state ministers and top civil servants in order “to get insight and influence in key state decisions” – in the article’s words. One of the contacts mentioned was a top official at the interior ministry called Christian Switak, under cabinet minister Günther Platter. Red Carpet would be supposed to have received the handsome amount of 499,200 US dollar as an advance fee for the job the same day. As for Adolf Wala, the series of scandals he had been involved in had not prevented Austria’s Bank OIAG Fimbag to appoint him as chairman of its board of administrators. He also remained chairman of the board of football club FC Vienna. Last but not least: as it would appear, both Wala and Aliyev had been longstanding members of the Austrian “Society of Friends of the Police” (see previous episode).

Aliev’s PR agents’ jubs were not limited to Austria. Other firms working for him were apparently particularly active in London, but most of all close to the higher echelons of America’s high and mighty. “With billions of dollars at stake, plenty of people here have been willing to play bit roles in the Nazarbayev family drama, including teams of corporate lawyers, Capitol Hill lobbyists, a former American ambassador to Kazakhstan and the sister of a lawmaker,” the New York Times [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/30/world/asia/30kazakhstan.html?pagewanted=all] wrote in a background report published on May 29 2011. “And there have been charges and countercharges of illegal payments to unidentified members of Congress. […] No longer powerful at home, Mr. Aliyev turned to Washington, knowing that his former father-in-law cared greatly about his reputation there,” the article read further. “Early in 2008, Aliyev has hired RJI Government Strategies, a small Washington lobbying group whose consultants include Tanya Rahall, sister of Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a West Virginia Democrat; and a friend of Representative Darrell Issa, Republican of California.”

Generally speaking, what is at stake here is the fact that within official legal proceedings, each and every individual either under investigation or facing charges in court, either on behalf of the state or on behalf of one or more private parties, has the right to legal assistance whether he or she can afford it or not. If this principle falls through, the entire principle of citizens’ equality before the law is bound to be undermined, with on one side perfectly innocent defendants faced with the risk of being stigmatised as guilty and hence unjustly convicted, while guilty ones can get off the hook by manipulating the “presumption of innocence until proven guilty” within the public domain. For the right to assistance is not true, though, for PR firms, and the possibility to enter the public domain on one’s own initiative begins and ends with the possibility to pay for it. This in the end could lead to a nightmarish scenario in the development of global justice, which can be compared with so-called gunboat diplomacy in politics – meaning that culprits can buy themselves out and be replaced by scapegoats. Darwin in business…

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