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Who is Mukhtar Ablyazov?

On Monday, the UK has formally removed the asylum granted to convicted criminal Mukhtar Ablyzazov. But who exactly is Ablyazov, what crimes has he committed, and where does he fit in the web of EU corruption?

Mukhtar Ablyazov was born to a humble family in 1963 in a Kazakh village near the Russian border. He gave up a promising career in nuclear physics when the break-up of the Soviet Union presented the opportunity for some to make serious amounts of money in a short space of time. Ablyazov made his initial fortune by importing office equipment, but soon spread his net much wider. Many of his activities during that period are still shrouded in mystery, but he was an important member of the group which purchased Bank Turan Alem – later simply BTA – from the Kazakh state.

Ablyazov was appointed minister of energy in 1998, but resigned the following year. Subsequently he was discovered to have abused his government position, and was imprisoned in 2002. He was released just a year later but – having established himself as a dangerous individual – he was asked to give an undertaking to the government that he would forgo any involvement in politics. However, it’s now known that he quickly started making clandestine donations to opposition groups.

Ablyazov took a position on the board at BTA, serving as chairman from 2005 to 2009. In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, he left the company just as regulators began a probe into BTA’s books. It found that almost 20% of the bank’s loan portfolio was ‘non-performing’, meaning debtors were missing their scheduled repayments, leaving the loans likely to default. Eventually it was discovered that over $5 billion had disappeared from the bank’s coffers in what’s thought to be the biggest case of financial fraud in history. So far, over a thousand shell companies and off-shore bank accounts under Ablyazov’s ultimate ownership have been uncovered across the world; it’s assumed these were used to process the stolen funds. A sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment was passed, but Ablyazov had already fled Kazakhstan for London.

A case was launched in 2009 at the English High Court. There, judgments against the Kazakh exile and his associates have now reached £5 billion – again, thought to represent the largest fraud case ever in the UK. Ablyazov acted dishonestly during the trial, and one judge stated: “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”. Eventually he received three 22-month prison terms, to be served concurrently, for contempt of court.

After fleeing the UK before his sentences could start, the man by now known as the ‘Bernie Madoff of the steppe’ was apprehended in France and jailed in 2013. The French prime minister, Manuel Valls, received two requests to extradite him, from the Ukrainian government and from the Russians, and he accepted the latter. Ablyazov though had the opportunity to appeal, and in December 2016 the Conseil d’Etat, the country’s highest administrative court, overturned the prime minister’s decision.

The billionaire’s legal team had successfully argued that the criminal allegations were being used for political motives. It was a surprise decision, and only the second time since the 1970s that the court had overturned an extradition request on the same grounds. Many have assumed there must be something suspect about the reversal, especially after the regional advocate-general’s statement after the first ruling: ‘When you have so much money you can buy everything, but you cannot buy the French justice system’. It’s also worth pointing out that Franco-Russian relations were going through a notoriously bad period at the time, making the French government more hostile to their extradition requests.

Overturning the extradition meant Ablyazov was released from his three-year long detention in a French prison. Ablyazov is believed to still be living in France where his last known abode was a luxury villa on the Riviera. His wife, Alma Shalabayeva, is thought to live in Rome with their young daughter, and the couple appear to spend little time together. In 2017 a ‘sex tape’ emerged appearing to show Ablyazov and a woman several years his junior in a hotel bedroom. This woman has been identified as Lyudmyla Kozlovska, president of the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF), a Polish NGO whose activities include relentless campaigning on the billionaire criminal’s behalf.

Latvian MEP Iveta Grigule-Peterse has warned advocacy groups to investigate the source of donations they’ve received, referring to Ablyazov’s use of stolen BTA money to pay for PR campaigns minimising his fraud, and presenting him as a political dissident. Kozlovska claims her relationship is purely professional, and the woman in the video is merely a lookalike actress designed to embarrass her, the ODF and Ablyazov. The oligarch himself has not commented on the tape. Viewers may wish to watch the tape themselves. The likeness of the two is, at the very least, striking.

Ablyazov’s two elder children have been involved in controversy too. His son Madiyar was sent from Kazakhstan to London when he was ten years old. The boy lived with his uncle and aunt in one of his father’s UK properties, a seven-bedroom mansion on The Bishops Avenue in Highgate (commonly known as Billionaire’s Row). By 2008, Madiyar’s student visa had expired, but he was given leave to remain in the UK while the family applied to become ‘Tier 1 Investors’.

At that time, these visas granted individuals residency, and a path towards citizenship, if they made an investment of £1 million in the country. (The sum, along with any interest accrued, was returned to the applicant at the end of the investment period.) This was during the so-called ‘blind faith period’ when neither the UK government nor the bank dealing with the investment carried out due diligence on the source of Tier 1 Investor funds. The £1.1 million deposited by Ablyazov – leading to the granting of his son’s visa – was suspected by the High Court to have been part of assets already placed under a freezing order. Madiyar now lives quietly in Switzerland.

His elder daughter, Madina, is married to Ilyas Khrapunov. In August, in the latest developments in the High Court case, Khrapunov was found guilty of conspiring to misappropriate funds from BTA, and ordered to pay the bank $424 million in damages, plus $75 million in interest. However, Khrapunov is refusing to travel to the UK from Switzerland where he now lives. He argues that in London he would be at risk of extradition to Kazakhstan or Russia, although Judge David Waksman ruled there was ‘no merit whatsoever’ in the claim.

Far more serious crimes than grand theft are alleged to have been carried out by Ablyazov, including involvement in a failed terrorist plot, and even murder. Erzhan Tatishev was an ex-associate of Ablyazov’s at BTA, and was shot dead on a hunting trip in Kazakhstan in 2004. In 2007, the man convicted of manslaughter for accidentally killing Tatishev admitted he had been paid by Ablyazov for what was in fact an assassination. In August 2018 Ablyazov was charged with murder.

Ablyazov has enjoyed the services of organisations in the UK, US and France to present him as the wronged party. Top legal firms and PR agencies, as well as NGOs and even private security and intelligence companies have all tried to make the case that Ablyazov is simply a persecuted, chess-loving businessman and politician. Courts in Kazakhstan, the UK and US believe otherwise.

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