How one of the largest financial fraud cases in history can and should finally come to a resolution
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How one of the largest financial fraud cases in history can and should finally come to a resolution

Wednesday, 14 October 2020
This is an opinion article by an external contributor. The views belong to the writer.
In 2009, after auditors at PwC identified a hole of more than $10 billion in the BTA’s balance sheets, many of its bank leaders fled from Kazakhstan, settling in EU counties.

Pressure has been mounting in recent weeks on Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, currently believed to be residing in France, as calls for his extradition to face justice have come from multiple avenues.

France itself refused an extradition warrant from Russia, citing fears that he may face torture. Nevertheless, long standing warrants remain in force concerning alleged crimes in Ukraine, and multiple convictions in his home country.

Now another unexpected threat may face him – extradition to the UK.

Already back in 2012, the High Court of England and Wales handed Ablyazov a 22 month prison sentence for contempt of court. Against the court’s orders, he had failed to disclose considerable assets which, it had been alleged, had been embezzled from Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank during his period of tenure as head.

Prior to sentencing however, Ablyazov fled the UK on a diplomatic passport believed to have been obtained from the Central African Republic, shortly before reappearing in France.

The position of the UK Home Office has been that, as contempt of court is not an extraditable offence, there was little that they could do to bring him back to serve his sentence.

The wind, however, appears to have changed direction now and the remarkable case is back on the agenda in both France and the UK.

A written question to Home Secretary Priti Patel from former cabinet minister Ben Bradshaw, Member of Parliament for Exeter, dated July 20th, asked “with reference to the High Court’s renewed arrest warrant for Mukhtar Ablyazov in July 2019, what steps are her Department taking to secure his extradition from France?”

Those who follow the case closely were surprised not only by the question, but even more so by the reply, which came eight days later from Minister of State for Security James Brokenshire: “As a matter of long-standing policy and practice, the UK will neither confirm nor deny that an extradition request has been made or received until an arrest has been made in relation to that request.”

It had been anticipated that the answer would be a repetition of the “non-extraditable offence” position.

Interestingly, a little over a week after Bradshaw tabled his question, and before Brokenshire’s answer was received, the case of Sergei Pugachev, the Russian oligarch once nicknamed “Putin’s banker” re-emerged in the UK press. He also faces a 22 month jail term, handed down in 2016, for contempt of court for breaching court orders relating to hundreds of millions in allegedly stolen cash: the same charges as Ablyazov faced and was convicted for. He also absconded before sentencing, and he also currently resides in France.

In that same week the Home Office reportedly insisted there was nothing legally to stop him being extradited from France.

On August 14th, the European Commission confirmed that a national judicial authority may issue a European Arrest Warrant (EAW) for the purpose of the “execution of a custodial sentence or detention order”.

The apparent change of direction from the UK may be related to a raid last year by Belgian and Kazakh police on the Brussels home of Ablyazov’s “right-hand” Bota Jardemalie, placed in a position of high responsibility at BTA bank, and who absconded at the same time of the oligarch. Considerable evidence is said to have been obtained in this raid.

It is also the case that the UK is only able to utilise an EAW until the end of the current transition period, a little over four months away.

Awareness of Ablyazov’s crimes are high in the EU institutions, despite attempts to position him there as a persecuted “political oppositionist”.

Romanian socialist MEP Tudor Ciuhodaru, in a written question to the Commission on June 8th, referring to Ablyazov’s embezzlement as “one of the biggest fraud cases in Europe”, questioned whether there is “any mechanism for reducing Illicit Financial Flows and making it easier to recover money stolen through IFFs and discovered in Europe”.

He explained “Regarding my question, the focus for me is on the mechanism that EU uses in such cases. The purpose of it is to get knowledge on how the European Union will react in such circumstances as this Ablyazov case.”

The whereabouts of the billions Ablyazov is accused of embezzling is, as yet, largely unknown. Very little has been recovered to this day.

The whereabouts of Ablyazov himself, however, is another story. The next chapter in the story may well be about to be written.

Most recently, significant progress has been made in the Ablyazov case. On 29 september, the French National Court of Asylum reviewed the decision of the French Bureau for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons and granted the fugitive oligarch political asylum. But Ablyazov did not have to rejoice for long.

On 5 October, he was already arrested by the french police and returned to prison, this time for only two days. The Kazakh oligarch is charged with “abuse of confidence under aggravating circumstances” and “money laundering”. He was released from prison under judicial supervision.

Despite being presented to him as a political asylum gift from France, Ablyazov accuses the French authorities of conspiring with a foreign government and fabricating an investigation against him.

At the same time, in order to thank the generous France for granting him political asylum, Ablyazov accuses the French authorities of conspiring with a foreign government and fabricating an investigation against him. Does he really want to sue the government of hospitable France?