Crime without punishment in 2014: III/the Khrapunov files
The year 2015 could become one of satisfaction and disillusions in one for those seeking justice in Kazakhstan. While two of the nation’s most notorious culprits behind bars, one pending extradition to the Russian Federation in France and the other pending trial for multiple murder in Austria, a third black sheep in the person of former Almaty mayor Viktor Khrapunov and family remains as free as a bird in the land of the cowbells and the cuckoo clocks. While contradicting investigations against the Khrapunovs but also against the plaintiffs and their representatives are dragging on in Switzerland amidst a continuing waves of propaganda attacks by the Khrapunovs, in California they are now the target of a criminal case, filed by the City of Almaty for embezzlement and other abuses of office. But the case involves a few weird details. While charged with money-laundering operations in the USA as a result of financial diversions from Kazakhstan – meaning a felony committed on America’s territory, the least one could have expected from the American authorities was freezing all accounts and property under question. But nothing has apparently prevented the Khrapunovs from selling off one of their most valuable properties to an Australian-born Hollywood star.
BY CHARLES VAN DER LEEUW, WRITER, NEWS ANALYST
“Singer Bruno Mars is the latest star resident of Los Angeles’ Studio City area after paying a reported $6.5 million (AU$8 million) for a property in Fryman Canyon,” a report posted on an Australian site [http://www.billionairesaustralia.com/bruno-mars-snaps-up-studio-city-home/] on January 2 this year was to read. “The Uptown Funk singer, who has two Grammy Awards under his belt, has bought a piece of real estate in the gated community. The two-acre estate includes a home with seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms. The house has high ceilings and has been freshly refurbished ahead of its sale. It includes a spa, steam and dry sauna plus a wine cellar. The property also has a separate children’s wing with two bedrooms and a guest area for when Mars is entertaining. Plus there is a three-car garage and a built-in bar. The listing boasts that it offers five-star, hotel-style living. Mars is believed to have purchased the property from Elvira Kudryashova, the daughter of Kazakh oligarch Viktor Khrapunov. She paid $5.7 million for the real estate in 2013 and carried out extensive renovations before putting it back on the market with an asking price of $7.78 million just eight months later. Mars is joining a host of celebrity residents in Fryman Canon, which is adjacent to Laurel Canyon, including George Clooney and Teri Hatcher.”
The report in Variety [http://variety.com/2014/dirt/real-estalker/bruno-mars-buys-studio-city-estate-1201388860/] referred to puts the affair more frivolously. “Thanks to an entirely unexpected but certainly most welcomed Christmas Day communique from tireless real estate yenta Yolanda Yakketyyak,” the text reads, “Your Mama learned that wildly popular singer-songwriter-choreographer and budding voice actor Bruno Mars recently made an under-the-radar, $6.5 million acquisition — via an opaque corporate entity — of a private, multi-acre estate in a discreet gated enclave in the heavily celebrified Fryman Canyon area of Studio City, Calif. The famously fancy-footed, two-time Grammy winner purchased the property, as per public records, from Elvira Kudryashova, a young gal otherwise known as the daughter of immensely rich and allegedly shady Kazakh oligarch Viktor Khrapunov. Miz Kudryashova, who apparently goes by at least a couple other names, purchased the property, along with a man who we’ll just assume without any direct knowledge is or was her husband, in July 2013 for $5.7 million and flipped it back on the market just eight months later with an optimistic asking price of $7.787 million.”
“A long, hedge-lined and tree-shaded driveway leads up from the gated cul-de-sac to a roomy motor court and a front-facing, three-bay garage that will shelter six cars, per digital marketing materials,” the report describes the property. “A double-height rotunda entry links to generous formal living and dining rooms done up for the seller by and unnamed “European interior designer” with a brazen and unrestrained thing for jewel-toned furnishings and intricately patterned wallpaper set off against intricately patterned rugs and intricately patterned window treatments. […] Any hoodles, poodles, the sprawling manse also includes a wood-paneled office, a spacious family room with muscular coffered ceiling treatment and built-in bar; a temperature controlled wine room; and a center-island kitchen and an adjoining breakfast room lined with a curving wall of glass doors that open to the poolside entertainment areas. A discrete guest wing has four en suite bedrooms, according to the listing description, and a separate a children’s wing offers two more en suite bedrooms plus a children’s family room and kitchenette. The sizable master suite is complete with a fireplace regrettably set a sad, cock-eyed angle just a little too close to the bed for this property gossip’s personal taste, as well as a private office/sitting room, a kitchenette/coffee bar, dual walk-in closets and a pair of bathrooms decked out with both steam and dry saunas. The backyard has over the shrubbery and roof top views over the San Fernando Valley and resort-style amenities that include an infinity-edged swimming pool and spa, a built-in grill station and outdoor kitchen, and children’s playground, and an open-air cabana with stone fireplace and built-in heaters.”
The sale has been completed, apparently unhindered, under the shadow of a criminal case against the sellers of the property. This year should witness the result, which in theory could reverse the sale and even put the buyer under suspicion and eventually under prosecution. “The largest city in Kazakhstan has sued former government minister Viktor Khrapunov and several of his relatives,” Reuters [http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/05/14/us-kazakhstan-khrapunov-lawsuit-idUSBREA4D0NG20140514] reported on May 14 last year. “The lawsuit, filed on Tuesday by the city of Almaty in a Los Angeles federal court, alleges civil racketeering charges and several other counts. U.S. courts have jurisdiction because Khrapunov and his family have purchased real estate in Southern California, the documents show. […] Khrapunov was mayor of Almaty until 2004, and in 2007 became national Minister of Emergency Measures until he stepped down later that year, according to the lawsuit. He lives in Switzerland. Khrapunov is the target of criminal fraud charges in Kazakhstan, and the Swiss government has frozen several family accounts, the documents show. When he was mayor, Khrapunov engineered the sale of state-owned real estate to entities controlled by family members, the city’s filing states. In some instances, Khrapunov then caused development permits to be issued in connection with the sites which increased their value. Khrapunov and family members then resold the parcels “at a significant profit,” the lawsuit says. When he became aware that the Kazakh government had begun an investigation, he fled to Switzerland in a private jet, the lawsuit says. Khrapunov has accumulated a fortune worth between $324 million and $432 million, the lawsuit claims, placing him among the 300 richest people in Switzerland. To conceal their activities, Khrapunov’s family executed several transactions abroad, the lawsuit says, including buying homes in Beverly Hills and Studio City, California.”
The Californian case apparently encouraged Kazakh authorities to make a bid for Khrapunov’s extradition. “Kazakhstan has requested the extradition of a former Akim (Mayor) of Almaty city Victor Khrapunov, Tengrinews reported on June 16 [http://en.tengrinews.kz/crime/Kazakhstan-demands-Khrapunov-extradition-from-Switzerland-254204/] citing the Prosecutor General’s Office. “Kazakhstani Prosecutor General’s Office is not conducting any investigation (in regards to the Khrapunov case) at the territory of Switzerland. In March, we sent a request to Switzerland through the diplomatic channels asking the Swiss authorities to extradite Victor Khrapunov,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said in response to Tengrinews’ formal inquiry. Pursuing one of the earlier media reports that Kazakhstani law enforcement authorities were suspected of espionage at the territory of Switzerland, Tengrinews asked the Prosecutor’s office to comment on the information. The Prosecutor General’s Office denied the allegations. “We have not received any formal inquires from the Swiss Prosecutor General’s Office,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said. 24 criminal cases against Viktor Khrapunov and his wife Leila Khrapunova are being investigated in Kazakhstan. According to Kazakhstan investigators, the Khrapunovs transferred to over $48 million and 7.7 million Euro to foreign accounts in Switzerland and to offshore accounts between 2003 and 2007. Viktor Khrapunov used to hold high-ranking positions in Kazakhstan: he used to be Energy Minister, Almaty Akim (Mayor), East-Kazakhstan Oblast Akim (Governor) and Emergency Situations Minister. In April 2008 he immigrated to Switzerland. In August 2013 all the bank accounts of the Khrapunov family in Credit Suisse и Schroder & Co Bank AG were frozen by the Swiss authorities ‘until the time the origins of the funds are defined. Bank, financial and other documents were seized for review and legal assessment,’ the Swiss police reported.”
The extradition request is most likely to be politely declined – which in theory should result in Khrapunov’s prosecution under the Swiss law. But whether that will ever happen is extremely hard to tell. “Switzerland is known for its tourism, beauty and sustainable development all over the world but this country is known and popular for housing black money, plundered wealth of innocent people by politicians. Now information coming that Switzerland is now also popular in Central Asia for harbouring white-collar criminals having their bank accounts of black money and residing their after plundering public money from central Asian countries including Kazakhstan,” a newsreel called Dispatch News Desk reported on August 24 last year [http://dnd.com.pk/will-interpol-arrest-ilyas-khrapunov/]. “Giving political asylum, offering long stay visas and sometimes residency to those who have black money and are wanted by their countries is become a norm of Swiss legal and political system. Now Central Asian countries are also crying over such situation because Swiss system is providing shelter to those who steak public money and run to Switzerland where they live luxury life and even Interpol is usually shy to arrest them. The recent case is of Ilyas Khrapunov and this case is reported by Abashek Sinha from Dubai. According to this latest example, Ilyas Khrapunov is wanted by Kazakhstan and Interpol is officially wanted him in several criminal cases by he is enjoying wonderful life without fear in Switzerland. In a recent interview Ilyas Khrapunov claimed that the money he had was given by her mother. It is interesting to note that he is wanted by Interpol but he enjoy the right of giving his version to media and nobody is asking him about his past and how he became so rich and what is status of money his family stolen from his native country—Kazakhstan. It looks that it is very simple for criminal people to loot the money of their country and live in European countries without any problem due to existing rules and law of European countries. It is also very interesting that Interpol is after someone for arrest in criminal charges but he or she is enjoying an open luminous life in European country without any fear of arrest or face the charges.”
The article quotes a report from an author called Abashek Sinha which reads as follows: “The career path of Ilyas Khrapunov has been on fast track because of his alleged relations with criminal groups. He is cunning and a talented one. On the one hand, one could say that Ilyas was fortunate with his mentors. On the other, a more sinister side exists. The money he received from his mother, who also calls herself a successful businesswoman, is now believed to have been embezzled from the public purse of the Kazakh city of Almaty, with the help of his father, who was the mayor of the city at the time. Ilyas once quiet and timid character was influenced by his father-in-law, the renegade oligarch, Mukhtar Ablyazov, who quickly became the boy’s financial advisor. In the murky waters of offshore companies and transactions, Mukhtar managed his affairs “like a fish in water”, impressing his son-in-law by siphoning off assets worth billions from Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank before retreating to London. Ilyas’ parents, his mayoral father Victor Khrapunov and businesswoman mother Leila Khrapunova, in turn moved to Switzerland, leaving Kazakhstan shortly before criminal proceedings against them commenced. They fled almost simultaneously, in 2008 and 2009, and chose the same line of defence against possible prosecution. Therefore, when Kazakhstan sentenced them to long prison terms in absentia, and reported them to the Interpol watch list, the law enforcement system was powerless to act. The case became a political one. Ablyazov received political asylum status in the UK and managed to disconnect himself from Kazakhstan. To gain sympathy, he portrayed a picture of himself as a national leader in exile, pursued by the authorities who had fabricated phoney accusations to discredit their rival. And so an aggressive information war began and it was working – people believed him. Eventually, aided by the lawsuit for the embezzlement of the BTA funds, a British judge ordered Ablyazov’s imprisonment for lying about his financial assets. He was labelled a criminal and had acted like one. During the civil proceedings, the court uncovered his systematic and intentional misconduct and obstruction of justice and sentenced him to a 22-month prison sentence for obstructing the course of justice and for contempt of court. The United Kingdom promptly cancelled his political asylum status. Ablyazov fled the country, accusing the High Court in London of political engagement with Astana, implying allegations of collusion and corruption. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested at his Cote d’Azur mansion and imprisoned in France. From there he continued broadcasting his message of violated rights and arbitrary justice. Today, the question of his extradition is being decided.”
“The Khrapunov family initially acted more subtly,” the article continues. “Victor Khrapunov believed that if you managed to get away with stealing there is no need to further tempt fate, and so he quietly melted away. However, Ablyazov’s information war badly needed more attention and Victor Khrapunov became new fuel for the fire. Recently, the prosecutor’s office in Geneva opened an investigation on suspected money laundering by the Khrapunov family. All their accounts with Credit Suisse and Schroder&Co. Bank AG were frozen and documents seized. The Kazakh authorities immediately filed a lawsuit against the ex-mayor of Almaty in California, accusing him of stealing $300 million. According to the case file, Khrapunov’s children, along with their wives, used the stolen funds to purchase real estate in the Los Angeles area, including $6.2 million to buy a house in Beverly Hills and $5.7 million for the purchase of two acres of land in Studio-City. In addition, they leased Rolls Royce and Bentley luxury cars. And so Khrapunov’s file on the Interpol “wanted” list was opened. It is reported that 30-year-old Ilyas is suspected of creating and managing an organized criminal group as well asmoney laundering and property acquired through illegal means. Interestingly, despite Interpol actively looking for his parents it has not prevented them from leading a public lifestyle in Switzerland. This is now an issue for the European law enforcement agencies, but it is strange that the family continue to hide rather than face their accusers and prove their innocence. The high profile nature of this case should ensure a fair trial in international courts. As long as such serious accusations stand, it is inexcusable to simply dismiss them. The governments should either extradite or conduct their own investigation. It is necessary to send a clear message to the public: to dispel any doubt that the old world became a place where oligarchs are absolved of all their past misgivings in return for investing millions. It may be mentioned that there is a law suit against Khrapunov and his wife Leila Khrapunova in United States also and they are accused of embezzling more than $300 million through illegal sale of municipal property and international money laundering schemes and that the money was used to buy luxurious cars and houses, businesses and other assets in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.”
At a later stage, the Khrapunovs stopped “acting more subtly” and in early 2013 a full-scale series of verbal and judicial attacks against Kazakhstan took off. “Several persons in the Swiss entourage of the Khrapunovs have filed penal complaints under the accusation that they have been spied upon in Switzerland,” a lengthy report published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung [http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/schweiz/bundesanwaltschaft-ermittelt-wegen-spionageverdacht-1.18318511] on June 10 last year was to read. “They say that their computers have been hacked into and infected with spying programmes. These programmes are supposed to have been sent at the time from forged e-mail addresses under micknames, allegedly designed especially for the Khrapunov entourage. As early as 2010, Khrapunov’s son and daughter-in-law [Ablyazov’s daughter – ChvdL] claim to have found a GPS spy transmitter in their car in Geneva. In early 2013 a lawyer on the family’s behalf as well as Khrapunov himself filed a penal complaint alleging that unknown people had manipulated their computers. With support of these complaints, Geneva’s chief prosecutor Jean-Bernard Schmid opened a criminal investigation, carried out by Geneva police. In early 2014, though, Schid had to hand the file over to the federal prosecution – as he confirms. Carlo Bulletti, chief federal prosecutor for state security, took over.” In March last year, the latest move came in the form of one more similar complaint, this time from Marc Comina, Khrapunov’s “communications counsel” who claimed that the cyberspitfire website he maintained to help Khrapunov throw mud at Kazakhstan had been hacked in the same manner referred to in earlier complaints. This year it remains to be seen which case prevails: the one against the culprit and his companions or that against his victims.