A trial that opened this week in Kazakhstan sees the government returning with gusto to the pursuit of its favorite bogeyman: disgraced banker and opposition stalwart Mukhtar Abylazov.
The special inter-district court of Almaty, Kazakhstan’s business capital, on April 3 started hearings into charges of alleged massive fraud. The anti-corruption bureau has put the cost of the alleged financial machinations while Ablyazov was head of privately run BTA Bank at more than $7.5 billion — a sharp jump from the $6 billion that has previously been cited.
Abylazov was nowhere to be seen. He did, however, post a video appeal on his Facebook page on the eve of the hearings to give advice on how to mount massive protest rallies in Kazakhstan in his absence.
“You have to choose a theme for the protests that will bring thousands or tens of thousands of people out onto the street,” Ablyazov said from an undisclosed foreign location. He suggested that land ownership issues, education and bad roads could be good spurs for rousing demonstrations.
In Ablyazov’s absence, three of his former associates are having to face the music. Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov, chair of loan committee at BTA bank and a former No.2 to Ablyazov, admitted full culpability. Saduakash Mamesh, chair of the board, and Kairat Sadykov, loans director, pleaded only partial guilt.
Prosecutors are depicting the illegality at BTA Bank not just as Ablyazov’s handiwork, but the effort of a vast criminal conspiracy involving more than 100 people from Kazakhstan, Russia, the United States and other Western countries. They maintain that this network was responsible for the creation of offshore companies that were then used to salt away and launder ill-obtained funds.
Ablyazov has always vehemently denied all accusations against him and says he is object of a politically motivated witch-hunt.
Prosecutors are getting full value from one of the accused, Zharimbetov, who spoke in court on April 4 like somebody in receipt of a plea bargain.
“I was a witness to the way in which Ablyazov came to the bank, how he pitted people against one another, how he would frighten some people. The character of his actions in achieving his goals during his work at the bank never changed. He pursued all his goals in the same way. As soon as he arrived and seized the reins, he began recruiting people — some would get the carrot, others would get the stick,” Zharimbetov was cited as telling the court in a Sputnik-Kazakhstan report.
One alleged lynchpin in the scheme as described by prosecutors was Ilyas Khrapunov, the son of another notorious government foe — former Almaty mayor and now resident of Switzerland, Viktor Khrapunov. The younger Khrapunov is married to Ablyazov’s eldest daughter Madina.
According to the prosecution, Ilyas Khrapunov headed a company created by his parents and called Swiss Development Group. The purpose of this vehicle, Ablyazov’s accusers say, was to find investment projects through which to launder funds embezzled from BTA Bank.
Kazakhstan’s international legal representatives scored something of minor victory last week when they successfully convinced a US appeals court to allow a lawsuit claim there against Khrapunov, who they say plowed his own alleged corruption-generated income into lavish US-based real estate.
The Ablyazov curse regularly claims victims in Kazakhstan. The most recent case is that of young independent journalist Zhanbolat Mamay, who has been languishing in a pretrial detention facility since February 10 on suspicion of laundering the former banker’s cash.
Ablyazov has said on his Facebook page that he has never even met Mamay, who would have been far too young to engage in the kind of practices of which he was being accused. Ablyazov headed BTA Bank from May 2005 through to February 2009.
“At that time, Zhanbolat was 17-20 years old,” Ablyazov said.
Ablyazov puts all the government’s eagerness to jail him down to his concerted opposition to President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Then again, a judgment in a related trial in Britain’s High Court found that Ablyazov had orchestrated or authorized false loans at BTA Bank. Ablyazov was debarred from fighting the case in a High Court ruling that accused him of “cynicism, opportunism and deviousness towards court orders.”
Ablyazov fled the UK — where he had been granted political asylum — in 2012 after a judge ordered him jailed for contempt of court after finding he had lied about his assets.
He eventually departed for the French Cote d'Azur, where he was arrested in a 2013 swoop on the mansion where he was living. In a setback for Kazakhstan, however, a French administrative court in December 2015 ruled against Ablyazov’s extradition to Russia, where he is also wanted on embezzlement charges.