LONDON (Reuters) - Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive oligarch accused of embezzling more than $5 billion, was labeled “devious” and “cynical” by judges on Tuesday as his former Kazakh bank BTA prepared to pounce on his assets.
On the eve of a vast UK fraud trial, England’s Court of Appeal threw out Ablyazov’s attempts in absentia to overturn a 22-month jail sentence and a ruling barring him from defending himself unless he turns himself in and fully discloses his assets.
“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,” said Justice Maurice Kay in a sharply-worded judgment handed down by three senior judges.
Justice Bernard Rix said: “Mr Ablyazov, emboldened perhaps by the wealth at his disposal, which enables him to travel, hide and still instruct lawyers on a prodigious scale, continues to obstruct justice with an attempt at impunity for the consequences of this litigation.”
The mammoth trial of Ablyazov, a former Kazakh government minister who denies allegations he says are politically motivated - but who has vanished since the jail sentence was announced in February - is due to kick off on Wednesday.
It is scheduled to last around 14 weeks.
But as Ablyazov has told his legal team he will neither attend the trial and risk arrest nor defend his case, it is likely to be a sideshow played out by his lieutenants.
His former bank BTA, meanwhile, will prepare to seize his assets.
In a series of lawsuits that lawyers on both sides describe as extraordinary, BTA - declared insolvent and nationalized in 2009 - has brought nine separate fraud cases against its former chairman and his allies.
Led by Kazakhstan’s powerful sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, BTA accuses Ablyazov of bleeding dry what was once one of the country’s largest banks with a series of fraudulent loans and deals that helped line his and his allies’ pockets.
The latest Court of Appeal ruling allows BTA, whose long-suffering creditors include RBS, Barclays and HSBC, to start the process of appropriating assets and recouping cash from as soon as next week, while pursuing the remaining defendants in the trial.
“BTA Bank intends to press ahead with its enforcement process against Mr Ablyazov’s assets as soon as the order debarring him from defending takes effect next week,” said Chris Hardman, a partner at Hogan Lovells, the UK law firm representing BTA.
“The bank and its creditors have had to be patient whilst this very significant litigation was progressed, but are finally in a position where recoveries can start to be made from the former chairman.”
The bank has already clinched a worldwide freezing order on some of Ablyazov’s assets, which it now values at around $6 billion. These include 10 UK properties worth around $100 million.
Ablyazov has denied allegations he says are an attempt to rob him of his assets and silence him as an opponent to Kazakhstan’s strongman President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
A theoretical physics graduate who built a fortune by snapping up banking and media assets in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, Ablyazov says he fell out with Nazarbayev after campaigning for regime change at home.
He fled to Britain in 2009 after he says BTA was forcibly seized by the government. Having already once been imprisoned by Nazarbayev, he said he would be persecuted again if he returned home. He was granted political asylum in Britain in 2011.
But his disappearance earlier this year flustered his British lawyers and media machine and various attempts to win an advantage in the legal proceedings have failed to date.
His attempts to have Wednesday’s trial adjourned and unseat one of the main judges, on the grounds of potential bias against him, floundered last week.
Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; editing by Andrew Roche