Without warning one evening in November, agents from Kazakhstan’s security services mobbed the parking lot of a shopping center in Almaty to arrest Iskander Yerimbetov on charges of money-laundering. Family members of the 46-year-old entrepreneur have described the operation as a “hostage-taking.”
Three of Yerimbetov’s business associates are also facing similar charges. But a deeper glimpse into the case reveals a murkier story, about how Astana is – according to critics – abusing its justice system to pursue everybody and anybody linked to fugitive opposition figure Mukhtar Ablyazov. Yerimbetov’s close relatives also allege that prison officials have subjected him to abuse.
Yerimbetov is well-known in Kazakhstan’s business circles for making his fortune in investment banking and telecommunications. According to family members, he used his savings and bank loans to purchase cellphone firms in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan that he then sold them on to Russian telecoms companies at a profit.
In 2013, he broadened his investment portfolio with the purchase of a candy factory in the industrial hub of Karagandy, in central Kazakhstan. Prosecutors maintain it was that confectionery plant, as well as a civil aviation company based in Kazakhstan's commercial capital, Almaty, and a string of offshore companies that were used as clearing houses for Ablyazov’s reportedly illicitly gained riches. All this has been going on undetected since 2005, they say. Ablyazov, currently living abroad, is accused by authorities of carrying out a massive embezzlement scheme during his tenure in charge of BTA bank. He maintains that the case against him is politically motivated.
Aside from what is claimed by the authorities, Yerimbetov has a more obvious link to Ablyazov. His sister, Bota Jardemalie, who has secured political asylum in Belgium, is one of Ablyazov’s lawyers. As to the accusations of money-laundering against Yerimbetov, those are all nonsensical, say family members.
“[Yerimbetov] was arrested with one aim: to force our daughter, his sister, to return to Kazakhstan and provide testimony against Mukhtar Ablyazov,” Yerimbetov’s father, Myrzakhan, told reporters in Almaty on January 10.
Myrzakhan Yerimbetov described his son as “a hostage in the war on the opposition.”
Almost all politically tinged arrests in Kazakhstan in recent years have in some way led back to Ablyazov, who has been involved in opposition politics since 2001 and is a harsh critic of long-serving 77-year old authoritarian leader Nursultan Nazarbayev. The financier’s feud with the government began – in its current phase – in 2009, when the government seized his bank and he fled for London over fears he was to be arrested.
Jardemalie was intimately involved in some of the international legal troubles that followed. Ablyazov first felt the heat from his former bank, BTA, which sought billions in damages for alleged fraud through a lawsuit filed with the London High Court. That episode ended in a fiasco for Ablyazov when he was debarred after fleeing the United Kingdom in reaction to a judge ordering him jailed for contempt of court in 2012. Subsequent court rulings ordered Ablyazov and associates to repay some $5 billion to BTA.
Ablyazov was later arrested by French police in a dramatic swoop on his luxury digs on the Cote d’Azur. He spent three years in a Paris jail battling against extradition to Russia or Ukraine, where he also is facing embezzlement charges. In 2016, a French court ruled to find the extradition bids politically motivated and released him.
Jardemalie was deeply involved in that mammoth extradition battle. She also worked on the case involving Italy’s legally dubious deportation of Ablyazov’s wife, Alma Shalabayeva, to Kazakhstan in 2013. Such was the media furor in Italy at the time that Astana was forced into a deeply embarrassing climbdown and allowed Shalabayeva to leave Kazakhstan.
It was the involvement of Jardemalie with all the Ablyazov cases that Yerimbetov’s family believe left him open to arrest.
“My brother is basically collateral damage,” Jardemalie told Eurasianet.org from Belgium, her voice breaking with emotion. “It’s quite incredible. We are talking about the government taking hostages, because they cannot get me out of Belgium by using any other means.”
One claim in Yerimbetov’s indictment is that in December 2013 he accepted $5.4 million from Ablyazov to buy the Karagandy candy factory for use as a money-laundering vehicle. At the time, Ablyazov was already in a prison cell in France.
The indictment lists numerous other companies and offshore intermediaries. It is unclear how investigators have pieced together their case. But at least some of the offshore companies mentioned are listed as being linked to Yerimbetov in items posted on a website featuring the Panama Papers, a trove of leaked documents in 2015 from Panama-based corporate services provider Mossack Fonseca.
Jardemalie said that the suggestion that Ablyazov, who has long been under withering scrutiny, would have brought money into Kazakhstan for laundering was “ridiculous.”
“[Yerimbetov’s] money comes from very legitimate, scrupulously documented deals,” she said.
Yerimbetov’s mother, Gayni, was even more categorical. “Neither Iskander nor his companies have ever received any money from Mukhtar Ablyazov or from figures linked to him,” she said at the January 10 news conference.
A more pressing matter for Yerimbetov’s family is what they say is the ill-treatment he is receiving in jail. Among their allegations are that he has been beaten by cellmates at the instigation of investigators and that he has been threatened with rape and being injected with an HIV-tainted syringe.
An envoy dispatched by the government-backed human rights ombudsman to holding cells on January 12 to investigate the claims said a “visual examination” of Yerimbetov revealed no evidence of “bodily injuries.”
Gayni Yerimbetova said that during her own visit the following day, she found her son covered in bruising and complaining of a possibly broken rib. Yerimbetov, flanked by an investigator, insisted he had fallen off a bunkbed, she said.
In an apparent attempt to dispel such claims, prison officials dragged a clearly reluctant Yerimbetov before a cameraman from pro-government news website Nur.kz. Throughout the filmed footage, Yerimbetov hides his face from the camera and refuses to respond to questions. An article written by a Nur.kz journalist to accompany the footage casts doubt in scornful terms on the allegations of physical abuse.
The torture allegations have been sent to the prosecutor’s office for investigation, the Interior Ministry department responsible for prisons told Eurasianet.
Neither the Prosecutor-General’s Office nor the National Security Service responded to Eurasianet’s queries about claims of torture or that the Yerimbetov case is politically motivated before publication. The issue has also been raised in a letter to Astana from members of the European Parliament in December.
There is another curious episode reported by rights activists that, if true, demonstrate the lengths to which security services appear to be going in pursuing Yerimbetov’s case. Prominent human rights campaigner Bakhytzhan Toregozhina says that when she met Yerimbetov’s parents at a cafe in Almaty in December to discuss the case, she noticed a strange object hidden in a box of napkins on the table that she later discovered was a listening device.
Toregozhina posted photos of the item on her Facebook page. Some days later, Toregozhina showed the device to journalists at a press conference. When one person in the room, who introduced himself as a blogger, insisted on being given a closer demonstration of the object, Toregozhina anxiously brought the press conference to a hasty close. At this point, the young man leapt from his seat, grabbed the device and ran out of the room. Details of this account were reported by the respected Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
While numerous people with known or claimed ties to Ablyazov have been jailed in recent years, the man himself remains at large. Last year, he was convicted in Kazakhstan in absentia on embezzlement charges after a trial he denounced as a “farce.” If he remains abroad, he will never serve a day of his 20-year sentence.
Since his release from a French jail in 2016, he has used social media to continue his political battle against Astana, boasting of how he will overthrow Nazarbayev and bring about regime change.
Ablyazov has never been convicted of corruption in another country – although one London High Court ruling in a BTA-related case deemed it likely that certain financial transactions “were part of a dishonest scheme whereby Mr. Ablyazov sought to misappropriate monies which belonged to the bank.”
Jardemalie hoped – vainly – that Nazarbayev’s high-profile visit to Washington to meet President Donald Trump on January 16 might put the troubles of those like her brother on the agenda. Yerimbetov’s case “provides a window into the relentless obsession that Nazarbayev has with crushing all opposition to his regime,” she wrote in an appeal for international attention.
Astana denies that the Ablyazov case is politically motivated, but Yerimbetov’s parents say their son is an unwitting pawn in a dirty, decade-long confrontation between an authoritarian regime and Ablyazov. “Of course we are very afraid,” his mother said. “It turns out we have to choose between our son and our daughter … But we won’t choose. We will fight to the end.”
Update: January 24, 2018 — Following publication of this article, Kazakhstan's National Bureau for Counteracting Corruption on January 24 issued an official denial of allegations that Yerimbetov had been subjected to abuse in jail, which it said had been investigated and "do not correspond to reality."
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.