Fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, accused of embezzling at least $5.0 billion (3.2 billion pounds) from his former Kazakh bank BTA, is believed to have fled Britain on a coach bound for France to escape a jail sentence for contempt of court, a legal filing showed Friday.
BTA, now controlled by Kazakh sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna and which has launched nine fraud claims against Ablyazov, called on the High Court to order him to turn himself in within two weeks or remove his right to defend himself against all allegations.
In a move that underlined the determination with which BTA's legal team is pursuing Ablyazov, the bank urged judge Nigel Teare to order Ablyazov to give himself up by 4pm on March 2 and fully divulge his assets by 4 pm on March 9.
To use a football metaphor, it is a yellow card not a red card, Stephen Smith, BTA's counsel, told the Court, adding Ablyazov was playing a game of catch me if you can. He noted it looked like Ablyazov's legal team didn't know the whereabouts of their client either.
The bank's enquiry agents have been trying to find Mr Ablyazov or, failing that, to pick up his trail ... Suffice to say for present purposes that the bank currently understands Mr Ablyazov has left this jurisdiction and has travelled to France, BTA's lawyer Christopher Hardman said in a court document. It is not known whether he remains in France.
The case was adjourned to next week.
ON THE RUN
Ablyazov, who fled to Britain after BTA was declared insolvent and nationalised in 2009, was sentenced to 22 months in jail last week for contempt of court in what was expected to be a sideshow to the main fraud claims due to be heard in court from November.
But the 48-year-old billionaire, who denies the charges he says are all designed to rob him of his assets and silence him as an opponent to Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev, failed to attend court last week.
His London-based spokesman, who has said he has been unable to reach Ablyazov since last week's hearing, declined comment.
Ablyazov's counsel has argued that BTA has long attempted to knock out their client, who was granted political asylum in Britain in 2011 and says he has received a death threat and hate mail while here.
BTA's claims against Ablyazov and his associates range from allegations that bank loans were diverted into shell companies for Ablyazov's benefit to the purchase of a non-existent oil platform.
Ablyazov, who was sentenced to jail for dealing with assets in breach of a worldwide freezing order, failing to disclose his interest in a British Virgin Islands company and for lying on oath about his ownership of UK properties and other offshore companies, may be again attempting to transfer assets, BTA said.
CHAIN OF COMPANIES
The bank said it understood that documents had been filed on February 14 with Ukrainian authorities seeking to re-register ownership of shares in Ukrainian companies, through which Ablyazov indirectly holds his stakes in BTA Ukraine, in the names of newly-incorporated Belize companies.
Judge Teare has said Ablyazov appears to control his assets via a chain of companies using trusted nominees and holding companies often registered in offshore jurisdictions.
Ablyazov, a former Kazakh government minister and one of the country's richest businessmen, has argued that the elaborate way in which he holds his assets has been necessary to protect him from his enemies.
He was imprisoned in Kazakhstan 2002, a year after his increasing disenchantment with Nazarbayev's authoritarian rule prompted him to found the pro-business opposition party Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan.
Pardoned a year later, he spent two years in exile in Russia before returning to Kazakhstan under an amnesty with Nazarbayev to lead BTA from 2005 until 2009, when he fled to London after Samruk-Kazyna took control.
The nationalisation triggered a clause in the bank's debt contracts allowing creditors to ask for early repayment. BTA then defaulted on around $12 billion of debt.
Creditors such as RBS, Barclays, Standard Chartered and HSBC as well as a host of international peers and bondholders were forced to write down around $7.0 billion in a high-profile restructuring in 2010.
But last month, just 18 months after the 66 percent debt haircut, the bank defaulted again -- this time on a $160 million coupon payment.
The move enraged bondholders, who were expecting sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, which controls assets worth $80 billion, to back the bank and sparked warnings that the reputation of Kazakhstan would be damaged in the eyes of foreign investors.
Nazabayev has imposed bold market reforms and attracted at least $120 billion in foreign investment during his 20-year rule. The country, confident enough to put forward central bank head Grigory Marchenko as a candidate to lead the IMF last year, counts former British premier Tony Blair among its advisers.
But deadly clashes in the western oil region of Mangistau -- Kazakhstan's most violent unrest in decades -- have cast a shadow over an officially cultivated image of stability in a country in which dissent is treated harshly.
(Editing by David Holmes)