Kazakhstan: British Court Jails Exiled Oligarch
In a move that has no doubt delighted some in Astana, London-based businessman Mukhtar Ablyazov has fallen foul of the British legal system in his long-running High Court battle with Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank. On February 16 Judge Nigel Teare ordered Ablyazov be jailed for 22 months for contempt of court. He accused Ablyazov of “deliberate and brazen” deception in concealing assets he was ordered to disclose, including a house worth a million pounds on The Bishops Avenue, a swish London address nicknamed “billionaires’ row.”Ablyazov is being sued in the London High Court by BTA Bank, the financial institution he chaired and owned through undeclared holdings until the state forcibly nationalized it in 2009.BTA alleges Ablyazov has defrauded it of $5 billion, a charge he denies. In a telephone interview with EurasiaNet.org in January, Ablyazov said BTA – which recently defaulted on its bonds – was being used by the administration of President Nursultan Nazarbayev as “a tool of political pressure on me.”Ablyazov’s defense team concedes that Ablyazov has in the past concealed holdings through offshore firms to protect his business interests from the authorities in Kazakhstan, where they say the rule of law does not apply.Ablyazov was not in the High Court for the latest ruling, prompting BTA’s Queen’s Counsel Stephen Smith to voice concern about a “flight risk” and call for an arrest warrant to be issued quickly. Ablyazov’s QC Duncan Matthews denied Ablyazov, whose passport has been seized by the court, had fled.In court testimony Ablyazov, who has political asylum in the UK, has painted what Judge Teare last year described as a “chilling picture” of Kazakhstan. “His evidence suggests that Kazakhstan has much in common with Ancient Rome,” the judge remarked.Ablyazov once served a prison term in Kazakhstan in a separate case: He was jailed in 2002 on corruption charges he says were politically motivated.In an e-mailed statement on February 16, BTA First Deputy Chairman Nikolay Varenko welcomed Ablyazov's sentencing as an “important step forward in the asset recovery process.” Locksley Ryan of RLF Partnership, which represents Ablyazov, told EurasiaNet.org by telephone from London that Ablyazov was “very disappointed with the judgment” and would appeal.Kazakhstan’s prosecutor’s office issued a statement after the ruling saying that 18 people had been convicted inside the country in BTA-related fraud cases, and legal proceedings continue against another 22 people.The judgment is sure to be greeted with glee in Astana, which is seeking to blame Ablyazov for violence in and around the town of Zhanaozen in December, where 17 died after police opened fire on demonstrators. Ablyazov denies an allegation by investigators that he channeled funds to striking oil workers in the town.
Joanna Lillis is a journalist based in Almaty and author of Dark Shadows: Inside the Secret World of Kazakhstan.
Sign up for Eurasianet's free weekly newsletter.