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Mukhtar Ablyazov’s last stand

05 november 2014, 22:32
0
The world is closing in on Mukhtar Ablyazov.
The former chairman of BTA, who fled Kazakhstan in 2009, just before the government took over the wounded bank, has one chance left to avoid extradition to Russia and prison.

 In late October a court in Lyons, France, granted Russia’s request that Ablyazov be extradited to face charges that he embezzled $3 billion from BTA’s Russia operation.

He will be appealing that decision to the Court of Last Resort, France’s highest arbiter of non-constitutional issues, his French lawyers say.

Barring an unforeseen development, the appeal will be his last chance to avoid prison on allegations that he stole between $6 billion and $10 billion from BTA in Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine.

British courts have already determined that he embezzled $6 billion from the bank. Kazakhstan regulators, and lawyers and investigative journalists in Kazakhstan and the West, say the actual figure is much higher.

The thievery not only gutted BTA but also played a key role in the near-crippling of the Kazakhstan financial system during the global financial crisis of 2007 to 2009.

Mukhtar Ablyazov ©Yaroslav Radlovsky

Ablyazov shouldn’t count on the Court of Last Resort to help him pull off another Houdini-like escape from justice. He’s already fled Kazakhstan and Britain to avoid incarceration.

If some of the stinging comments that French judicial officials have made about him are an indication of how the Court of Last Resort will rule on his extradition request, then the jig is up.

Solange Legras, the advocate general of the region in southern France where Ablyazov was arrested last year on an Interpol warrant, described him as “a criminal on a grand scale.” An advocate general is an official who advises the government or courts on legal matters, so her views carry a lot of weight.

Ablyazov has tried throughout his five-year self-imposed exile in the West to portray himself as a political dissident rather than a crook.

He has contended that Kazakhstan’s embezzlement allegations were fabricated by a government wanting to punish him for starting an opposition political party in 2001. He has also maintained that the bank-looting allegations against him in Russia and Ukraine were similarly trumped up, although he has not offered a reason why.

Ablyazov’s attempt to portray himself as a political dissident was a shrewd public-relations ploy that worked for three years. He knew Western governments love political dissidents – and that they rush to embrace them even when their dissident claims are suspect.

Mukhtar Ablyazov. ©RIA Novosti

At first his gambit worked to perfection, with Britain granting him political asylum.

What turned the game against him was a British court convicting him of a felony in a BTA-related case in February of 2012.

BTA had sued Ablyazov in Britain, seeking the recovery of some of the billions of dollars it said he had stolen.

The court handling the lawsuit had ordered him to turn over a list of all of his assets in Britain, which included a number of multimillion-dollar homes.

He tried to conceal many of those assets, however. When the court learned about it, it sentenced him to 22 months in prison for contempt.

Anticipating the sentence, he once again fled to avoid prison – this time to France.

BTA hired private detectives to tail an ethnic-Ukrainian woman whom Western journalists say was his mistress – and she led them to a luxury villa he was renting near the Riviera.

French special forces using a plane and armored personnel carriers swooped down on the villa to arrest him on July 31, 2013.

They marshaled that kind of force on grounds that Ablyazov was reputed to keep a “private militia” around him, the French military said. The operation ended without a shot being fired.

In January of this year a court in Lyons ordered Ablyazov extradited to Russia or Ukraine. Kazakhstan had requested his extradition as well, but France and Kazakhstan have no extradition treaty.

Bruno Rebstock, lawyer of dissident Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, stands outside the Aix-en-Provence courthouse, Southern France. ©REUTERS

In April a French appeals court overturned the January extradition ruling on a technicality. It ordered the lower court to address the technicality and hear the case again.

That rehearing was what led to the court issuing a new extradition order in late October of this year, setting the stage for Ablyazov’s final appeal to the Court of Last Resort. It is expected to be heard in early 2015.

The back-breaker for Ablyazov – the move that shattered his claim to be a dissident and thus his sympathy with many Westerners – was his conviction in Britain.

A lot of people in the West, including top government and diplomatic officials, had given his claim to be a dissident the benefit of the doubt, while furrowing their brows over the growing evidence suggesting he was a crook rather than a dissident.

They pointed out that the evidence against him was coming from Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, former Soviet countries whose justice systems they saw as suspect.

A British court’s conviction of Ablyazov erased many Westerners’ doubts. Britain’s justice system has long had a reputation for a fairness, so the verdict was seen as impartial and just.

The British establishment followed up the verdict by making it clear it no longer believed Ablyazov’s dissident claim: It revoked his asylum in April of this year.

I watched with wry amusement as the debate over whether Ablyazov was a dissident or a crook was taking place.

Before he was convicted in Britain, many Western news organizations went out of their way to describe him high in their stories – often in the first paragraph – as a dissident.

It was reported as fact, not as a claim that was open to question.

As I read these depictions, the words of the old American circus-promoter charlatan P.T. Barnum popped into my mind: “There’s a sucker born every day.”

Since the conviction in Britain, fewer Western journalists have depicted Ablyazov as a dissident, although some stubbornly cling to that tag.

Mukhtar Ablyazov. ©RIA Novosti

When I think of a dissident, I think of Mohatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Lechs Walesa – folks who did what they did out of selflessness for the greater good, not out of world-class greed.

I think Solange Legras, the French judge advocate general, put it aptly. “It’s easy to be an opponent (to claim you’re a dissident) to hide one’s true nature as a fraudster,” she declared.

"When you have so much money, you can buy everything,” she added. “But you cannot buy the French justice system. You will have to submit to its rules. The budget of the French justice system is less than the sum diverted by Mr Ablyazov from (the BTA operation in) the Russian Federation alone."

Ouch!

Legras made those scathing comments in a court hearing in December of 2013 on Ablyazov’s request not to be extradited.

You can bet the rest of the French judiciary knows about Ablyazov’s conviction in Britain and about Legras’ sentiments, which I why I think the Court of Last Resort will uphold the Lyons court’s extradition order.

Meanwhile, the British justice system wishes it had never heard of Ablyazov.

He’s been a one-man band tying up that system, EuroMoney journalist Elliot Wilson wrote in a riveting article on the Ablyazov case.

At the heart of the embezzlement scheme was more than 1,000 shell companies that Ablyazov created to make it difficult to trace what he was doing, BTA’s lawyers convinced British courts. Many of the sham companies were registered in obscure islands  around the world.

Untangling the convoluted web that Ablyazov wove to try to conceal the assets he diverted from BTA will take at least 20 years, Wilson quoted unnamed legal sources as saying.

Back in Kazakhstan, BTA continues to struggle.

The government took over BTA and Alliance Bank, whose chairman was convicted of stealing $1.2 billion, in 2009 to prevent the financial system from collapsing.

This year it sold its stakes in the banks. Kazkommertsbank and the business tycoon Kenes Rakishev teamed up to buy BTA for $1 billion.

Businessman Kenes Rakishev. ©wikipedia.org

The new owners will have their hands full trying to resuscitate BTA. A whopping 80 percent of its loan portfolio were bad loans at the start of 2014. That’s one of the highest bad-loan rates of any bank in the world.

Whether Ablyazov ends up in a Russian prison remains to be seen.

I’m convinced of one thing, however: The vast majority of Kazakhs would have no problem with France’s Court of Last Resort deporting him to Russia.

About nine out of 10 Kazakhs I’ve talked with say he’s done great damage to the country’s financial system, and ought to be held accountable.

 


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