How Oligarchs Use Brussels To Launder Their

When the police raid­ed the home of the for­mer social­ist MEP and lawyer Pier Antonio Panzeri and found €500,000 in cash as part of the most seri­ous cor­rup­tion case in the European Parliament in decades, nobody noticed one of his clients was an oli­garch who is the sub­ject of the biggest civ­il fraud case in British legal history. 

In exile the oli­garch has assid­u­ous­ly court­ed European politi­cians to pro­mote his defence

This tawdry scan­dal has focused on claims that Qatar fund­ed an influ­ence oper­a­tion in the European par­lia­ment which result­ed in the arrest and impris­on­ment of MEPs and a for­mer vice-pres­i­dent. Over €1.5 mil­lion in cash has since been dis­cov­ered stashed away in flats, offices, and hotel rooms across Brussels, France and Italy. The pay­ments were alleged­ly part of a lob­by­ing oper­a­tion to bol­ster Qatar’s rep­u­ta­tion and counter scruti­ny dur­ing the World Cup of its human rights record. It is a dev­as­tat­ing blow to the EU’s credibility. 

The inves­ti­ga­tion is focus­ing on the parliament’s human rights sub-com­mit­tee which Panzeri was chair­man of. Even though it is not a leg­isla­tive body, the com­mit­tee shines an influ­en­tial spot­light on human rights abus­es by coun­tries out­side the EU which makes it an ide­al tar­get for lob­by­ing by inter­na­tion­al kleptocrats. 

And like Qatar, oli­garchs have used Europe as a vehi­cle for reha­bil­i­tat­ing their rep­u­ta­tion and divert­ing atten­tion away from alle­ga­tions of crim­i­nal­i­ty and con­tro­ver­sy. A case in point is the Kazakh oli­garch fugi­tive Mukhtar Ablyazov who last month was found guilty of a $218 mil­lion fraud in a US court and has been on the run from the UK courts since 2012. He was con­vict­ed in the UK of lying under oath about own­ing a London man­sion, forg­ing doc­u­ments and con­tempt of court. He had been accused of embez­zling $6 bil­lion from Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank as chair­man by chan­nelling funds to thou­sands of off­shore com­pa­nies of which he was the beneficiary. 

Ablyazov fled to London, bought sev­er­al prop­er­ties and was sued by BTA bank for fraud. He lived a lav­ish lifestyle, liv­ing in a nine-bed­room man­sion with an indoor swim­ming pool on Bishops Avenue, Hampstead, and a 100-acre estate on the edge of Windsor Great Park. But he declined to dis­close details of his assets to the High Court and in 2012 was found guilty of con­tempt of court. ‘It is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine a par­ty to com­mer­cial lit­i­ga­tion who has act­ed with more cyn­i­cism, oppor­tunism and devi­ous­ness towards court orders than Mr Ablyazov’, declared Lord Justice Maurice Kay. 

An arrest war­rant was issued against the oli­garch who was sen­tenced to 22 months in jail for con­tempt of court. But just before the judg­ment was issued Ablyazov jumped out of a hotel room win­dow, caught a coach from Victoria down to Dover and escaped to France by fer­ry. In his absence the High Court ordered Ablyazov to pay £1.02 bil­lion and in 2019 issued a sec­ond arrest war­rant. He was jailed in France but obtained polit­i­cal asylum. 

In exile the oli­garch has assid­u­ous­ly court­ed European politi­cians to pro­mote his defence that the fraud alle­ga­tions are polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed because he was a vocal oppo­nent of the Kazakhstan regime. One of his most dili­gent lawyers and active sup­port­ers was Panzeri who pro­mot­ed Ablyazov’s agen­da. Multiple par­lia­men­tary motions con­demned the per­se­cu­tion of ‘dis­si­dents’ and one even called for the pro­tec­tion of Ablyazov himself. 

Panzeri worked close­ly with NGOs like the Brussels-based Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) which cam­paigns against human rights abus­es. The MEP host­ed events, made intro­duc­tions and act­ed as a de fac­to lob­by­ist for Ablyazov. Despite the over­whelm­ing evi­dence against Ablyazov, the NGO remains a staunch sup­port­er of the oligarch. 

‘ODF has includ­ed Ablyazov with­in our advo­ca­cy of defend­ing thou­sands of vic­tims of polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion in Kazakhstan’, a spokesper­son told me. ‘ODF defend­ed Ablyazov, as well as his fam­i­ly mem­bers and asso­ciates between 2013 and 2016, at a time when Kazakhstan, through Russia and Ukraine, pros­e­cut­ed dozens of peo­ple in polit­i­cal­ly moti­vat­ed cases.’ 

The Kazakh oli­garch claims the fraud and mon­ey laun­der­ing alle­ga­tions are ‘the cul­mi­na­tion of the cam­paign by for­mer President Nazarbayev and his allies to wrest own­er­ship and con­trol of BTA bank from (Ablyazov)’. His lawyers stat­ed he fled London because of ‘a death threat’ and was ‘con­stant­ly in fear of his life’ by Kazakh intel­li­gence agents. 

Ablyazov remains in exile in France. But his luck appears to be run­ning out. Last month he lost his appeal regard­ing his asy­lum sta­tus. Characteristically he appealed again and is allowed to stay in the coun­try until the final rul­ing. ‘In the Judgement of CNDA (French Asylum court), Mr Ablyazov was recog­nised as a polit­i­cal­ly pros­e­cut­ed per­son as part of his fight to bring democ­ra­cy to Kazakhstan’, his lawyer Karim Beylouni told me. 

But the oli­garch also poten­tial­ly faces an ongo­ing crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion in France for fraud. The pros­e­cu­tors and BTA bank have filed an appeal with the Supreme Court after a court ruled the statute of lim­i­ta­tion has expired. ‘Ablyazov bank­rupt­ed one of Kazakhstan’s biggest banks by com­mit­ting one of the largest frauds in mod­ern his­to­ry, amount­ing to at least $7.5 bil­lion’, Elena Fedorova, a BTA bank lawyer, told me. The appeal will be heard before June of this year. Today the claim against Ablyazov remains the biggest civ­il fraud case in British legal his­to­ry. Despite his con­vic­tion for con­tempt of court and mul­ti­ple offences, the pros­e­cut­ing author­i­ties have been remark­ably com­pla­cent. The Crown Prosecution Service reviewed the evi­dence and refused to act. In 2019, after the sec­ond arrest war­rant was issued, the UK National Crime Agency had access to all the files but declined to inves­ti­gate because of ‘insuf­fi­cient resources’. His extra­di­tion to face jus­tice looks very unlikely. 

Meanwhile, Ablyazov’s cun­ning ploy of using polit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion as a diver­sion­ary tac­tic has been effec­tive and the European par­lia­ment has been a will­ing accomplice. 

But his close rela­tion­ship with one of the main sus­pects in this lat­est crim­i­nal inves­ti­ga­tion may return to haunt him. 

Original source of arti­cle: The SPECTATOR

Mark Hollingsworth

Mark Hollingsworth is the author of ‘Londongrad – From Russia with Cash’. His new book, ‘Agents of Influence – How the KGB Subverted Western Democracies’, will be pub­lished by Oneworld this April.