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A story of bribes, a plane crash, a suicide and convict transfers

06 june 2014, 15:25
1

At first glance it looked like a ho-hum news story about a justice-system procedural matter – the transfer of two Ukrainians that a Kazakhstan military court had convicted of bribery to a prison in their homeland.

But a couple of facts jumped out at me:

The first was that the bribes were related to contracts that Ukraine's state-owned arms-export corporation Ukrspetsexport received to repair Kazakhstan military aircraft.

The second was that one of the aircraft the corporation was supposed to have repaired crashed on December 25, 2012, near Shymkent, killing all 27 Kazakhstan Border Guard troops aboard.

I use the phrase "supposed to have repaired" because investigators found evidence of multiple safety-equipment malfunction on the Antonov 72, raising the question of whether the transport craft was repaired at all before it crashed.

My conclusion after reading several accounts of the accident and the bribery case was that corruption can not only ruin the lives of those who get caught but also kill innocent people.

Tengrinews©

27 Kazakhstan Border Guard troops. Tengrinews©

In addition to the 27 Border Guard troops who died in the crash, I learned that this tragic affair claimed another life as well: The former head of the Border Guard killed himself when it looked like he would face a bribery indictment in the awarding of the Antonov 72 repair contract.

The judicial-system procedural story that I mentioned in the opening of this column surfaced this week. It was about Kazakhstan and Ukaine being close to completing arrangements to transfer the two Ukrainians who were convicted of bribery -- Ukrspetsexport marketing employees Oleksandr Shkoliarenko and Oleksandr Khruliov -- to a Ukrainian prison.
The two have been in a Kazakhstan penitentiary since their convictions in the summer of 2013. That means they still have 5 1/2 years of their 6 1/2-year sentences to go.

Reporter Anna Babinets did the best story I saw about the bribes that the Kazakhstan military court convicte Shkoliarenko and Khruliov of giving to two Kazakhstan military officers to obtain separate aircraft-repair contracts for Ukrspetsexport.

The first contract, for $4 million, was for repairing two Antonov 72s. The second, for $35 million, was for refurbishing three MiG 29 fighters.

Babinets, who is based in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, used Kazakhstan court documents and interviews to produce her piece for the Ukrainian investigative bureau Slidstvo.info. She did her story, which appeared in the Kiev Post, in conjunction with the Washington-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Evidence of multiple equipment malfunction surfaced within weeks of the Border Guard Antonov 72 crashing in December of 2012.

27 Kazakhstan Border Guard troops

Photo courtesy of russianplanes.net

Civil-aviation Investigators apparently learned of the bribes while looking into the cause of the accident.

They presumably turned the information over to prosecutors for possible criminal charges.

It didn't take long for those charges to be filed.

Shkoliarenko and Khruliov were arrested on January 26, 2013, in Astana, barely a month after the Antonov 72 crash.

Prosecutors alleged that they had bribed Kazakhstan General Almaz Asenov to obtain the second contract -- the one to repair the MiGs.

The two Ukrainians were tried separately.

Their court cases centered on a $200,000 installment of a $1 million bribe.

Prosecutors said Shkoliarenko and Khruliov agreed to give Asenov a million dollars to obtain a contract for Ukrspetsexport to repair three MiG 29s and purchase a rocket launcher. Most of the money was for the repair.

At the time the bribe was agreed on, in 2011, Asenov was head of the Kazakhstan military's armaments unit. The $200,000 payoff made on January 25, 2013, in Astana was the fourth of what was supposed to have been five equal installments to Asenov, prosecutors said.

In the summer of 2013 the Kazakhstan military court convicted Asenov of soliciting and accepting a bribe. He is serving an 11-year sentence.

The bribe to obtain the Antonov 72 repair contract was made a year before the MiG-repair bribe -- in September of 2010, prosecutors said. Most of the money was for the repair.

Shkoliarenko and Khruliov gave General Talgat Esetov, then head of Kazakhstan's Border Guard, $500,000 to obtain the $4 million MiG-repair contract, according to court documents.

By the time the contract was awarded in 2011, Esetov was no longer with the Border Guard.

In an ironic twist of fate, one of the dead in the Antonov 72 crash was the officer filling the position Esetov once held -- the acting head of the Border Guard, Colonel Turganbek Stambekov.

On January 31, 2013, only five days after the two Ukrainians were arrested in Astana, Esetov committed suicide, apparently figuring that bribery charges would be filed against him in the Antonov 72 repair contract.

Former subordinates testified in court that Esetov pocketed half the $500,000 bribe, and gave the rest to others he worked with.

In another irony, one of those who testified that Esetov gave him $40,000 of the $500,000 bribe was Colonel Kayrat Zhalbagaev, some of whose relatives died in the crash. The court sentenced him to two years in prison, with one year suspended because of his cooperation in the case, and confiscated the $40,000.

In November of 2013, Kazakhstan's Prosecutor General, Askhat Daulbaev, said in a television interview that three key safety devices aboard the Antonov 72 "were not functioning" during its final flight.

Wreckage of AN-72. ©Tengrinews.kz

Wreckage of AN-72. ©Tengrinews.kz

"The simultaneous breakdown of three devices in one flight" meant that Ukrspetsexport had botched the repair job, he said.

It came out later that the devices were the plane's autopilot, its altimeter, which measures altitude, and its barometer, which works in conjunction with the altimeter to ensure accurate altitude readings.

Two questions that came to my mind after reading about the bungled repair job were:

Did Ukrspetsexport repair the Antonov 72 at all, or did it simply do a slipshod job and take the money and run?

And does the kind of "who-cares? mentality" that spawns million-dollar bribe payments extend down to the repair-bay floor, too?

Although you can't directly connect the $4 million bribe to the Antonov 72 crash, don't you get the feeling -- as I do -- that the two are intertwined?

Not only does my stomach get queasy when I think about the sequence of bribe-shoddy repair-crash, I also feel uneasy about the Ukrainians being transferred to a prison in their homeland.

Let me point out again that the two men convicted of bribery work for an important state-owned Ukrainian company.

Given that, how many of you believe they will serve out the entire 5 1/2 years of their remaining 6 1/2-year sentences when they hit Ukrainian soil?

If you do, I'm willing to bet you they'll serve little if any time in Ukraine. And, cynical old journalist that I am, I'm willing to give you 20 to 1 odds on our wager.

 


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