Maurer on the Eve of a Delicate Trip to Kazakhstan
The Kazakh affair. The Swiss judiciary draws a line under the so-called “Kazakh affair” after seven years of investigation. On November 12, the Canton of Geneva’s public prosecutor closed its criminal investigation of the Kazakh ex-politician Viktor Khrapounov. The latter found refuge in Switzerland in 2007. Kazakhstan accuses him of embezzling public funds; he considers himself to be a political victim of the Kazakh regime.
The Confederation also previously rejected several Kazakh demands for international mutual assistance. The justification given by the Federal Office for Justice: Kazakhstan is not able to guarantee Viktor Khrapounov proceedings in respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms. This motivation is politically explosive when seen in the context of the trip the President of the Confederation is readying himself for this week.
The Khrapounov case took on the dimensions of political drama over the last years in Berne due to the implication of several lobbyists and national counsellors who put pressure on judicial authorities in Kazakhstan’s favour. Today, Geneva’s public prosecutor reached the conclusion that Kazakhstan has not been able to prove its accusations. The Khraponouv family has asked the Confederation for damages amounting to up to 3 million Swiss Francs.
Switzerland Sends Kazakhstan Packing
Relations between Kazakhstan and Switzerland have the appearance of a solid friendship. Yesterday, we learned that the President of the Confederation, Ueli Maurer, is about to fly east. This Thursday, the Russian President Vladimir Putin will receive him; Friday, he heads for Kazakhstan to meet Kassym-Schomart Tokaiev, who presides over the country’s destiny since March. The aim? To “deepen bilateral relations further,” according to President Maurer’s press team. The mission is to “exchange intensely on commercial relations.”
Behind the scenes, the situation between Switzerland and Kazakhstan is distinctly less harmonious. Only days before the presidential trip, the Swiss judiciary has pulled out a red card against its Kazakh colleagues. On 12 November, after seven years of investigation, the public prosecutor of Geneva has closed the criminal investigation against the Kazakh exile Victor Khrapounov, who currently lives in Geneva.
Viktor Khrapounov is the favourite target of Kazakh authorities in Switzerland. Aged 70, he has held ministerial offices, as well as the mayorship of the city of Almaty. In 2007, after falling out with the regime, he and his family found refuge in Switzerland.
Since then, Kazakhstan has tried everything within its means to attack him, alternating between official approaches and others less so. The demand of international mutual assistance addressed to Switzerland dates back to 2012; not long afterwards, the public prosecutor of Geneva opened a criminal investigation to look into suspicions of money laundering. But the Kazakhs were not satisfied by ordinary judicial proceedings: they hired a shady private detective agency to gather information on Viktor Khrapounov. And to apply political pressure on Swiss judicial authorities, they employed lobbyists, like the ex-ambassador Thomas Borer or the agency Burson-Marsteller. The latter succeeded in convincing the national counsellors Christa Markwalder (PLR) and Christian Miesch (UDC) to file a parliamentary inquiry into the Khrapounov case. When these manoeuvres were made public in 2015, Switzerland was shaken by the “Kazakh affair,” with the role of lobbying in the Federal Parliament at its heart.
Sentenced to 17 Years
Given this broader context, the case at the origin of the debate has sometimes been relegated to the background. Kazakhstan accuses Viktor Khrapounov and his ex-wife Leila of embezzling millions. In October 2018, Kazakhstan condemned them in absentia to 17 and 14 years of prison respectively. Their belongings, as well as those of their family members, were seized. The Khrapounovs insist they are political victims of the Kazakh regime.
Kazakh efforts have come to naught with the Federal Office for Justice. The decision made public today in fact dates back to 9 October 2018, at which time Switzerland rejected all demands for international mutual assistance against Viktor Khrapounov. The criteria for mutual assistance were « not met, » to rehearse the laconic explanations provided by the Federal Office.
The conclusion arrived at by the public prosecutor of Geneva allows for better comprehension of the underpinnings behind the Federal Office’s decision. And the light it sheds is fiery. In its order to close the case, the responsible prosecutor indeed mentions the reasons Switzerland advances in justification of its refusal to enter into matter: article 2 of the law on International Mutual Assistance in criminal matters (EIMP), which excludes assistance being provided to countries that infringe the European Convention on Human Rights or that instrumentalize their judicial system with the aim of attacking people politically.
Simply put : the Confederation deems that the judicial system of the country the President of the Confederation is visiting this week to deepen ties is not worthy of trust – at least as far as the Khrapounov case is concerned.
The public prosecutor’s decision brings the detail of the accusations Kazakhstan levels at the Khrapounovs into view. The country argues that while mayor of Almaty, Viktor Khrapounov sold municipal property to his wife Leila, a businesswoman. Again according to Kazakhstan, the latter went on to sell these assets with an important added value, allowing her to transfer – and launder – tens of millions of Francs in Switzerland.
This is precisely the accusation the prosecutor has today dismissed. In one case, the transactions of the properties concerned were in any event prescribed. And in the others, the « elements typical of money laundering were not carried out. » Furthermore, it « is not established » that the actions the Khrapounovs undertook stem from a prior crime – a determining criteria in evaluating whether acts are constitutive of money laundering.
At the same time, and despite the above statement, the prosecutor nevertheless reproaches the Khrapounovs of provoking the opening of an investigation “due to their behaviour.” The only element she presents to back her reasoning is the Kazkah sentence delivered in October 2018. This same fact leads the prosecutor to refuse damages to the Khrapounovs for the seven years of criminal investigation they underwent.
3 Million in Damages
The Swiss judiciary’s interest in the case is far from exhausted. Despite the favourable order to close the case, the Khrapounov are indeed going to appeal. In a written response, they claim that, « it is not admissable that the public prosecutor allows any credit to the sentence inflicted on us by the Kazakh dictatorship. » Their reasoning follows the decision made by the Federal Office for Justice to deny mutual assistance to Kazakhstan, because « it is a notoriously rogue state. »
The Khrapounovs are demanding more than 3 million Francs in damages from the Swiss Confederation for the seven-year-long criminal investigation. Viktor and Leila Khrapounov are asking for CHF 728,000 to cover lawyer’s fees. Their son Ilyas is asking for CHF 260,000 fro the same reasons, to which CHF 2,3 millions are added for the commercial damages they consider to have suffered. It is as of yet unknown whether the Kazakh party will also appeal. “No comment,” their Geneva-based lawyer told us. The Kazakh diplomatic mission in Bern also declined to comment.
« A Tom Clancy »
While the Swiss judicary tries to send the Khrapounov case to the archives, a new Kazakh affair is shaking Belgium. The Belgian public prosecutor talks « of a case in which reality surpasses fiction. It looks like a scenario straight out of a John Le Carré or Tom Clancy novel. »
At the centre of this new case is the Kazakh Botagoz Jardemalie, a Harvardeducated lawyer specialised in human rights who enjoys refugee status in Belgium since 2013. She too is accused of embezzling funds. Over the last weeks, public opinion has discovered the existence of several incidents during which Kazakh agents did not hesitate to enter into direct contact with Botagoz Jardemalie – on Belgian territory.
A trial against three men took place on 21 October in Brussels, two of whom are former agents of the Stasi. The public prosecutor accuses them of spying on Botagoz Jardemalie since 2013, and even of attempting to kidnap her. The public prosecutor has requested a four-year-sentence for each of the men; a verdict is awaited for 29 November.
A few days later, the newspaper Le Soir revealed that at the crack of dawn on 1 October 2019, police searched Botagoz Jardemalie’s apartment while she was away. According to accounts in the media, Kazakh officers accompanied Belgian ones and were allowed to freely consult certain of the lawyer’s folders, despite her refugee status. The search took place following a Kazakh demand of mutual assistance to which the Belgian government consented. The incident now animates Belgian politics and puts the Belgian Minister for Justice in an uncomfortable position.