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Corruption, fraud, and the curious case of Zhanara Akhmetova

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A conference at the Press Club, Brussels, this week heard a story of theft and corruption that, were it not for the serious harm caused to the victims, could almost be considered funny.

What appears at first glance to be a simple case of financial fraud, perpetrated against a number of banks and private citizens in Kazakhstan, becomes far more complex when the perpetrator herself is, with the help of a highly controversial and largely discredited “human-rights NGO”, reinvented not as a crook, but as a politically persecuted pro-democracy opposition politician.

The story, described at the conference as 'The curious case of Zhanara Akhmetova' relies for its credibility on the audience accepting as fact the argument that the lady at the centre of this case was persecuted and convicted by the Kazakh courts in 2009 for political activities she was to undertake only in 2017.

Zhanara Akhmetova’s modus operandi, the conference heard, was to borrow significant sums of money from individuals and banks for investing in property. There is no evidence that any monies were ever returned, and having received a seven-year prison sentence, the conference heard from one of her victims that she did not appeal the conviction.

Her sentence was deferred as she had a young son, and therefore her punishment would begin only when he reached the age of 14 years. However, as the time approached she was to flee the country and currently resides in Kyiv where she has again reinvented herself as a journalist and blogger.

In the meantime she has allied herself with the man described by the British press as “the world’s richest fraudster”, Mukhtar Ablyazov, a man with multiple convictions and outstanding arrest warrants in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. The British courts would also like to have a word with him, as he still has a two-year prison sentence to serve in that country.

Ablyazov also presents himself as a persecuted oppositionist, ignoring the fact that he also fled his home country having embezzled as much as $7.6 billion during his time at the head of the country’s BTA Bank, then Kazakhstan’s largest financial institution.

He is the leader of a political party, albeit one that appears to exist only on Facebook: the Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.

Zhanara Akhmetova is also a member of this party, which is her vehicle for the political activities she began in 2017, and for which she had already been “persecuted” back in 2009. If it were not for the economic damage inflicted on her victims, of whom there are at least 15, it would almost be funny.

Ablyazov and Akhmetova have something else in common: both have their interests represented in the institutions of the European Union and beyond by the Warsaw/Brussels based human rights NGO Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF).

In fact, ODF represents the interests of numerous “politically persecuted oppositionists”, most of whom appear to have attracted multiple criminal convictions for fraud in an impressive number of different countries, at least three continents.

Take for example Viktor Khrapunov, a former mayor of Almaty and convicted fraudster who now styles himself as “democratic Khrapunov”, and who, from the safety of his home in Geneva, rails against the land of his birth and his convictions. Also in Geneva is Khrapunov’s son, Ilyas, who just happens to be married to Mukhtar Ablyazov’s daughter. Both father and son have been implicated in the laundering of Ablyazov’s ill-gotten gains in the United States.

ODF, which has itself been associated with money-laundering in the UK, has taken up Akhmetova’s case, and has persuaded a small group of Members of the European Parliament to write to Ukraine’s President Zelensky and other leading political figures asking for Akhmetova to be granted political asylum. Her case has been considered twice in Kyiv, and after full judicial process has been rejected.

This story has its comic credentials reinforced by the fact that one of the MEPs taking up the case with Kyiv is Patrick Lars Berg, a member of Germany’s allegedly neo-Nazi Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.

Earlier this week Jörg Müller, the head of Germany's domestic intelligence agency stated that there is "sufficiently important evidence" to indicate that elements within the AfD were "striving against the free democratic order”, something that the Ukrainians should take into account considering that a representative of this extremist party is supporting Akhmetov’s political credentials. It also tells something about ODF’s choice of company.

The European Parliament might also consider the fact that a dubious organisation with murky criminal connections is permitted to stalk the corridors of power, and to manipulate its members into giving credibility to its seemingly nefarious projects. It might also consider the effect such interference might have on its relationship with the EU’s important strategic and economic partners, with whose internal affairs they are meddling.

Urgent case Akhmetova letter.pdf

Economy

Issuance of green bonds will strengthen the international role of the euro

Catherine Feore

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Eurogroup ministers discussed the international role of the euro (15 February), following the publication of the European Commission's communication of (19 January), ‘The European economic and financial system: fostering strength and resilience’.

President of the Eurogroup, Paschal Donohoe said: “The aim is to reduce our dependence on other currencies, and to strengthen our autonomy in various situations. At the same time, increased international use of our currency also implies potential trade-offs, which we will continue to monitor. During the discussion, ministers emphasized the potential of green bond issuance to enhance the use of the euro by the markets while also contributing to achieving our climate transition objective.”

The Eurogroup has discussed the issue several times in recent years since the December 2018 Euro Summit. Klaus Regling, the managing director of the European Stability Mechanism said that overreliance on the dollar contained risks, giving Latin America and the Asian crisis of the 90s as examples. He also referred obliquely to “more recent episodes” where the dollar’s dominance meant that EU companies could not continue to work with Iran in the face of US sanctions. Regling believes that the international monetary system is slowly moving towards a multi-polar system where three or four currencies will be important, including the dollar, euro and renminbi. 

European Commissioner for the Economy, Paolo Gentiloni, agreed that the euro’s role could be strengthened through the issuance of green bonds enhancing the use of the euro by the markets while also contributing to achieving our climate objectives of the Next Generation EU funds.

Ministers agreed that broad action to support the international role of the euro, encompassing progress on amongst other things, Economic and Monetary Union, Banking Union and Capital Markets Union were needed to secure the euros international role.

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EU

European human rights court backs Germany over Kunduz airstrike case

Reuters

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An investigation by Germany into a deadly 2009 airstrike near the Afghan city of Kunduz that was ordered by a German commander complied with its right-to-life obligations, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Tuesday (16 February), writes .

The ruling by the Strasbourg-based court rejects a complaint by Afghan citizen Abdul Hanan, who lost two sons in the attack, that Germany did not fulfil its obligation to effectively investigate the incident.

In September 2009, the German commander of NATO troops in Kunduz called in a U.S. fighter jet to strike two fuel trucks near the city which NATO believed had been hijacked by Taliban insurgents.

The Afghan government said at the time 99 people, including 30 civilians, were killed. Independent rights groups estimated between 60 and 70 civilians were killed.

The death toll shocked Germans and ultimately forced its defence minister to resign over accusations of covering up the number of civilian casualties in the run-up to Germany’s 2009 election.

Germany’s federal prosecutor general had found that the commander did not incur criminal liability, mainly because he was convinced when he ordered the airstrike that no civilians were present.

For him to be liable under international law, he would have had to be found to have acted with intent to cause excessive civilian casualties.

The European Court of Human Rights considered the effectiveness of Germany’s investigation, including whether it established a justification for lethal use of force. It did not consider the legality of the airstrike.

Of 9,600 NATO troops in Afghanistan, Germany has the second-largest contingent behind the United States.

A 2020 peace agreement between the Taliban and Washington calls for foreign troops to withdraw by May 1, but U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is reviewing the deal after a deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan.

Germany is preparing to extend the mandate for its military mission in Afghanistan from March 31 until the end of this year, with troop levels remaining at up to 1,300, according to a draft document seen by Reuters.

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EU

Digitalization of EU justice systems: Commission launches public consultation on cross-border judicial co-operation

EU Reporter Correspondent

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On 16 February, the European Commission launched a public consultation on the modernization of EU justice systems. The EU aims to support member states in their efforts to adapt their justice systems to the digital age and improve EU cross-border judicial co-operation. Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders (pictured) said: “The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of digitalization, including in the field of justice. Judges and lawyers need digital tools to be able to work together faster and more efficiently.

At the same time, citizens and businesses need online tools for an easier and more transparent access to justice at a lower cost. The Commission strives to push this process forward and support member states in their efforts, including as regards facilitating their cooperation in cross-border judicial procedures by using digital channels.” In December 2020, the Commission adopted a communication outlining the actions and initiatives intended to advance the digitalization of justice systems across the EU.

The public consultation will gather views on the digitalization of EU cross-border civil, commercial and criminal procedures. The results of the public consultation, in which a broad range of groups and individuals can participate and which is available here until 8 May 2021, will feed into an initiative on digitalisation of cross-border judicial cooperation expected at the end of this year as announced in the 2021 Commission's Work Programme.

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