By Bradley Hope
A U.K. civil court froze up to $5 billion in assets including stakes in luxury hotels, cash in bank accounts in half a dozen countries and a Burger King franchise, as part of an international legal saga that ensnared Kazakhstan's richest businessmen, according to court documents.
The Business and Property Courts of England and Wales issued the asset freeze on Nov. 13, based on a petition from Kazakhstan's state-owned BTA Bank, which has alleged for years that its former bank chairman stole more than $6 billion and laundered it through shell companies around the world. The freeze is among the biggest granted by the court, according to lawyers who work there.
The case is part of a set of civil court disputes involving BTA in the U.S., U.K. and more than a dozen other jurisdictions. Defendants have long maintained BTA's accusations are false and based on a political vendetta that pits political and business elites against each other in Kazakhstan, an oil- and gas-rich ex-Soviet state.
Both sides have spent tens of millions of dollars on top lawyers and private investigators over more than a decade. BTA alleged that the stolen money ended up in hidden bank accounts and assets around the world including a shopping mall in Cincinnati.
A U.K. court in 2012 ruled in BTA's favor, issuing a $4.9 billion civil judgment against the former bank chairman, Mukhtar Ablyazov, and Iliyas Khrapunov, his son-in-law. Mr. Ablyazov refused to engage with the British courts, leading to him being held in contempt. He resides in France.
Messrs. Ablyazov and Khrapunov deny the allegations, according to their lawyers.
U.K. Judge Neil Calver ordered the new asset freeze based on fresh allegations from BTA. The bank said Bulat Utemuratov, a financier, former Kazakhstan government adviser and board member of the International Tennis Federation, worked with 11 other individuals and companies to help hide money stolen from the bank, the court documents showed.
Mr. Utemuratov denied the allegations. "The claim was based on false documents provided by BTA Bank JSC and its lawyers," said Olga Abdrakhmanova, spokeswoman for Mr. Utemuratov and Verny Capital, one of the defendants in the freezing order, where Mr. Utemuratov is a lead investor. "We will make an application to have this claim discharged."
A spokeswoman for BTA Bank said it welcomed the court's decision, but declined to comment further.
The new order seeks to freeze assets including bank accounts at institutions including UBS Group AG, Credit Suisse Group AG, EFG International AG and DBS Group Holdings Ltd., and companies that own stakes in the Ritz-Carlton-branded hotels in Moscow, Vienna and Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. The Burger King franchise of Kazakhstan, owned by a company controlled by Mr. Utermuratov, is also included. Representatives of the banks declined to comment.
Mr. Ablyazov took control of BTA in 2004 after his business partner died in a freak wolf-hunting accident. The bank was later taken over by the Kazakh government, which alleged he and his associates stole billions through a series of fraudulent loans.
A Facebook post under Mr. Ablyazov's name on Saturday responded to the freezing order, denying the money laundering allegations and saying that a top Kazakh intelligence official was trying to "destroy Utemuratov physically and financially."
Mr. Khrapunov, who BTA has alleged played a pivotal role in laundering money for Mr. Ablyazov, said in a statement provided by his lawyer that the new allegations were "ridiculous and fictional" and based on "fabricated documents." He said BTA Bank was bringing the case against Mr. Utemuratov to take him out as a political opponent.
"There is no better way in Kazakhstan to do so than by accusing someone of assisting the regime's enemy No. 1, Mr. Ablyazov," Mr. Khrapunov said.
BTA's focus on Mr. Utemuratov, a high-profile businessman, is the latest twist in a case that brought together powerful players in Kazakhstan's business and political spheres.
Mr. Ablyazov has said former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who left office after nearly three decades in power in 2019, persecuted him for his efforts to push democratic reforms in Kazakhstan.
The spokeswoman for Mr. Utemuratov played down local media reports that the businessman was friends with the former president, saying instead they were better described as associates.
Mr. Utemuratov is the world's 764th richest person with an estimated fortune of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes. The spokeswoman said his actual fortune was now worth $3.2 billion.
Write to Bradley Hope at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires