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Are European officials working at the direction of a criminal fugitive?

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Human rights is the noblest concept and a core pillar of our modern societies, including within the European Union (EU). Chipping away at its legitimacy and sanctity shakes the very foundation of democracy. Sadly, criminals and corrupt officials have learned that they can gain political leverage over governments by misrepresenting domestic legal due processes as human rights violations. Making matters worse, the EU’s recent Qatargate scandal has revealed the role of NGOs, even those seemingly promoting human rights, in facilitating collusion between controversial outside actors and European officials, including MEPs, writes Lukasz Michalski (Poland), international ​relations expert.

A persistent example of this situation in the EU is the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov and his criminal network. It was discovered in 2009 that Ablyazov and his cohorts stole over $5 billion from Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank. They have since argued that the charges brought against him by Kazakhstani authorities are politically motivated. Unfortunately for them, the courts in the United Kingdom and United States have also since passed hefty judgments exceeding $5 billion against Ablyazov and his organization. In the past year, a jury trial in the Southern District of New York confirmed that Ablyazov and his accomplices had, in fact, committed fraud and money laundering. Facing criminal charges in the United Kingdom, including three 22-month jail sentences, Ablyazov had fled to France and claimed to be a political refugee, but French authorities recently rejected his refugee status.

To influence foreign officials and fake his political refugee credentials, Ablyazov has been utilizing NGOs such as the Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF), which lobbies for him and others associated with notorious financial crimes. This NGO, which is itself linked to funding from individuals associated with a sanctioned entity in Crimea and has lobbied for at least one Western-sanctioned individual, has an outsized influence on the EU’s human rights agenda for Kazakhstan.

It is not hard to assess why Ablyazov and his criminal accomplices desperately try to pick fights with the new Kazakhstan government to preserve their “political asylum” status and to protect their stolen funds from asset recovery efforts. What is hard to digest is the fact that a group of European officials, who have been open-handedly supporting a known criminal and his associates, are also the ones furthering his personal political agenda through reputational attacks on the country he fled after swindling billions of dollars from its people.

Among the several prominent supporters of Ablyazov and the ODF in the European Parliament (EP) are two MEPs from Renew Europe, Petras Auštrevičius and Róża Thun und Hohenstein, and one MEP from Greens/EFA, Viola von Cramon-Taubadel. In addition to promoting letters and backing motions and resolutions against the government of Kazakhstan over the past few years, these officials have also hosted and/or attended numerous ODF events, promoted ODF’s agenda on social media, and met with Ablyazov as well as his family and associates.

Auštrevičius, Thun and von Cramon have backed various motions and resolutions criticizing Kazakhstan in the EP, including in 2019, 2021 and 2022. The ODF lobbied for the 2022 resolution, together with the Freedom Kazakhstan NGO, which is linked to Ablyazov’s associate and staunch supporter Barlyk Mendygaziyev.

Worrying signs of their collusion include the regurgitation of almost exact wording from ODF reports in EP motions and resolutions pertaining to Kazakhstan. For instance, the January 2022 Renew Europe motion promoted by Róża Thun und Hohenstein and Petras Auštrevičius in part copied ODF’s report from 14 January 2022. Moreover, in his speech during a February 2021 EP debate on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan (of which Róża Thun and Viola von Cramon were also a part), Auštrevičius’ reference to the deaths of political activists included direct language from ODF’s report dated 1 December 2020.

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It is further troubling that European officials’ support for the letters, motions and resolutions against Kazakhstan appear to be rooted primarily in ODF’s own sources, which in many cases link to social media posts associated with the NGO itself or with its affiliates, without providing substantive evidence for their claims against the Kazakhstani authorities.

These MEPs have also lobbied on behalf of other ODF-supported figures (such as Auštrevičius’s backing of Russian Nail Malyutin) and Ablyazov’s network.  For instance, both Auštrevičius and Thun were signatories to a June 2021 appeal on behalf of the above-mentioned Barlyk Mendygaziyev.  Both MEPs have also supported Zhanara Akhmetova, a leader of Ablyazov’s “Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan” (DVK) party, who was convicted of fraud in Kazakhstan in 2009, years prior to her becoming a “human rights activist”. Auštrevičius signed a June 2018 open letter lobbying one behalf of several other confirmed DVK supporters. As another example, in 2015, Thun advocated for the release of Ablyazov’s former colleague, Muratbek Ketebayev.

It was shortly after attending an ODF-affiliated event in Brussels in February 2019 – chaired by the now-disgraced former Italian MEP Antonio Panzeri and attended by Ablyazov’s former colleague and associate, Botagoz Jardemalie – that Roza Thun tabled the joint motion in EP for a resolution on the human rights situation in Kazakhstan, which predictably emphasised the case of Jardemalie. Thun met her again in February 2020. She has also been promoting ODF’s president Lyudmyla Kozlovska as well as her husband Bartosz Kramek, whose company is being investigated by Polish authorities for money laundering.

Viola von Cramon-Taubadel, credited for drafting the EP’s 2021 resolution on Kazakhstan that advocated for Ablyazov and Jardemalie, had campaigned against the extradition of Mukhtar Ablyazov from France when she was still a member of Germany’s Parliament. 

These MEPs, alongside others, personally interacted with Ablyazov and ODF many times. For instance, Auštrevičius met with Ablyazov and ODF representatives in Strasbourg in February 2017, and has attended or hosted several other ODF events, including via social media, with the attendance of Ablyazov’s associates and members of his DVK party.  Thun participated in and/or co-hosted several ODF-affiliated events. Von Cramon, who tabled the 2021 and 2022 joint motions on Kazakhstan, had participated in ODF’s educational projects in 2016, co-organised a November 2019 ODF event with Auštrevičius at the EP (where ODF leader Lydmyla Kozlovska was a panelist) and participated in another ODF event in Strasbourg in December 2019.

The need to question the outsized role these MEPs have played in promoting the interests of a convicted fraudster and his network of associates is of strategic importance to keep the integrity of human rights agenda and save its noblest mission in our modern societies.  Criminals should not be above the law by virtue of proclaiming to be human rights activists and/or political opposition figures. Blind support for such assertions correlates human rights with criminality and undermines the EU’s sincerity in the eyes of the people.

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