Mukhtar Ablyazov, who has been described in the British press as the world’s richest runaway fraudster, is wanted in Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine and has been convicted in absentia for crimes ranging from embezzlement to murder. British courts and politicians also want the Kazakh oligarch, who fled to France following a 2012 arrest warrant, to stand trial in the UK. So far, Ablyazov has managed to sidestep most of his legal challenges, and was even granted political asylum in France last year.
A recent decision by a New York judge, however, has shone a fresh spotlight on the wide variety of misconduct which Ablyazov has been accused of, and an upcoming U.S jury trial will put even more pressure on the fugitive businessman and the French government which has so far sheltered him.
“A Game of Cat and Mouse”
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan, from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), rejected various objections filed by Mukhtar Ablyazov and decided to sanction him for his apparent misconduct during the litigation filed by BTA Bank JSC and the City of Almaty.
It is only the latest in a long list of legal setbacks for Ablyazov across three continents. In the U.S. case, he stands accused of laundering tens of millions of dollars into the United States. Moreover, the court’s decision stated that Ablyazov and his co-defendants — former government minister Viktor Khrapunov and his son Ilyas — had hidden and intentionally destroyed evidence, testified untruthfully and violated court orders. In the words of the judge, the trio has treated the litigation as “a game of cat and mouse.”
The court has not yet decided the amount of the sanction against Khrapunov, but awarded judgment in BTA Bank and Almaty’s favour against Ablyazov of over $140,000. The court decision is the latest legal blow for Ablyazov, who has faced charges in several courts around the world that he looted billions of dollars from BTA Bank through a complicated scheme of fake loans.
It is also not the first time that Ablyazov has been rebuked by judges for his behaviour during litigation. In February 2012, when a UK judge ruled that Ablyazov had committed serious and repeated breaches, sentencing him in absentia to 22 months in prison for contempt, he also described him as lying under oath in a “remarkable and brazen” manner. A second UK judge claimed that “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”. Ablyazov has, apparently, been playing the cat and mouse game for more than two decades.
Rise and Fall
Like in the case of many other oligarchs from post-Soviet nations, Mukhtar Ablyazov’s life was radically changed by the fall of the USSR. Having graduated from a prestigious Moscow institute with a degree in nuclear physics in the waning years of the Gorbachev regime, he quickly abandoned his career in science by moving back to Kazakhstan to take advantage of the new business opportunities.
The right man at the right time, he quickly built an empire in the 1990s and even became the country’s Energy Minister by the end of the decade. During this time, his most important acquisition was BTA Bank, privatized by the state and bought by a group of businessmen that included Ablyazov. In 2002 he suffered his first conviction, being sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of office, embezzlement and tax evasion.
He served less than a year of his sentence, re-emerging soon and becoming the chairman of BTA after the suspicious death of Yerzhan Tatishev, its former head. Originally ruled to be a freak hunting accident, his death became central to the Ablyazov story after Muratkhan Tokmadi, a wealthy businessman and Tatishev’s hunting partner, admitted he took orders from Ablyazov to kill the banker and take the blame. Ablyazov has maintained his innocence in the affair, but was sentenced in absentia to life in prison once Kazakh authorities reclassified the case as a murder.
On the Run
By 2009, Ablyazov no longer felt safe from arrest in Kazakhstan and fled first to London and then to Paris, being hounded by lawsuits and extradition requests at every pace. The British authorities granted him political asylum in 2011, but revoked it in 2014 as part of a broader “clean-up” of asylum decisions granted to individuals which abused the system and the rules. In France, he was close to being extradited to Russia, where he is wanted for a fraud totalling $4.5 billion. After years of legal wrangling he was given reprieve by a 2020 decision of the French authorities which granted him refugee status.
Ablyazov has insisted that all of the accusations against him are politically motivated, given his vocal criticism of the Kazakh government. BTA Bank, meanwhile, maintains that Ablyazov “is desperately trying to position himself as a victim of political persecution […] to deflect attention from his criminal activity”.
The fugitive oligarch’s claims of political persecution have allowed him so far to avoid extradition and prison time, despite his numerous criminal convictions. The recent developments in New York, however, raise fresh questions about how long he will remain at liberty. While Ablyazov is facing charges in a number of jurisdictions—just days after he received political asylum in France, French authorities indicted him for his alleged fraud— the U.S. case in particular is gaining steam. The trial is set to begin in February 2022 in front of a New York jury and it already promises to be an explosive, high-profile affair.