RESEARCH. Russian oligarch Suleyman Kerimov, close to Putin and the target of European sanctions, is well known to French justice

On February 24, just hours after the war in Ukraine began, Vladimir Putin gathered 37 oligarchs in the Kremlin’s Saint Catherine Hall. These relatives of the head of state are masked, mandatory Covid, and sit wisely in chairs spaced from each other. At this meeting, Vladimir Putin recalled their “duty of solidarity” to those oligarchs who were concerned about the coming Western sanctions.

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And in fact, many of them have since seen their assets frozen or confiscated by the United States, the European Union and the United Kingdom. They are too persona non grata in these countries where they love to go with their families. Among the latest oligarchs added to the European sanctions list on March 15 are Roman Abramovich and Suleyman Kerimov.

We no longer present the first, owner of Chelsea football club. The second, however, is less known. In France, the name Kerimov surfaced during a judicial investigation opened in November 2014, in particular in the Alpes-Maritimes, for tax evasion. Justice suspects him of having acquired four prestigious villas in Cap d’Antibes through front companies. In addition, one of these properties, Villa Hier, has been officially purchased for a price of 35 million euros. His real prize was actually 127 million euros. The remaining 92 million were deposited into seller accounts in Switzerland and allegedly paid intermediaries in the form of bribes.

In November 2017, Suleyman Kerimov, unsuspectingly, was arrested when he got off his private jet in Nice. His arrest caused a stir and Moscow was officially moved by it. The French chargé d’affaires at the French embassy in Moscow are summoned. After his arrest by the police, the oligarch is charged with money laundering tax evasion and complicity in tax evasion and narrowly escapes pre-trial detention.

The four villas in question were bought between 2006 and 2010 by companies controlled by a Swiss holding company. Officially, it is a Swiss businessman, Alexander Studhalter, who is the beneficiary.

But according to legal documents available to Radio France’s investigative unit, the banks involved in these purchases (Credit Suisse, Barclays and Société Générale Private Banking in Monaco) certified to the investigating judge, with supporting documents, that it was indeed the oligarch Kerimov who was the economic beneficiary of this holding and thus the owner of the villas. Elements confirmed during the hearing by an employee of one of the banks: “while visiting the [villa] Médy Roc from Barclay’s, Mr Studhalter tells us he had to redo the kitchen three times because Mrs Kerimov didn’t like it”† The investigators also received emails proving Suleyman Kerimov’s involvement in the operation of the villas.

However, Kerimov has not been charged since January 2021. He now has assisted witness status. Because once the link has been made between him and the villas, it is difficult to link him to the 92 million euros hidden from the tax authorities. This illustrates the complexity of these studies, emphasizes Sara Brimbeuf of the NGO Transparency.

“With the evidence we have, we know exactly that this person owns three or four properties, but if we can’t prove that this person committed a predicate offense, there’s no reason to seize these assets. And it’s very complicated to prove the existence of this original offense”

In the state of the investigation, the Russian oligarch and the Swiss financier could thus escape any trial. The lawsuit no longer focuses on the sellers of the villas and many intermediaries. On the buyer side, in 2020, the judiciary signed a public interest legal agreement (CJIP) in which the Swiss holding company Swiru agrees to pay a fine of 1.4 million euros on top of the tax adjustment made on the company. But this convention does not cite Suleyman Kerimov and his alleged role in corporate control.

The lawyers of Mr. Kerimov confirm that their client “has not been charged in any proceedings in France. It is therefore not subject to any judicial review.”

“His charges were permanently dropped because there was no serious or consistent evidence of money laundering.”

The lawyers of Suleyman Kerimov,

at franceinfo

In these cases involving the real estate of the oligarchs, as evidenced by the Pandora Papers, buyers often resort to highly sophisticated schemes, causing companies and countries to multiply. The Kerimov case clearly demonstrates the difficulties facing the French and European authorities, which have started searching for the property of persons sanctioned by the European Union.