From March 3 throughout March 7, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Russia, Sergey Lavrov, visited Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. In the development of a strategic dialogue between Russia and the countries of the Persian Gulf, one particular “private” issue may interfere in the agenda: the fate of Russian citizen Maria Lazareva, sentenced to 10 years and being held in the Kuwaiti prison.
Novye Izvestiya decided to investigate the Lazareva case. We studied hundreds of pages of documents (the lawyers say the case contains 30 thousand pages!), met with Maria’s relatives and colleagues and even spoke to international business experts... From interactions with Maria's defenders, it became clear that it was too early to publish many details of this story: the publicity itself could harm Lazareva. But the general conclusion is unequivocal: Russian citizen Maria Lazareva should be rescued from the prison in Kuwait. If three courts of appeal uphold the sentence, she will be transferred to a maximum security penal colony for ten years. At stake, in the greater scheme of things, is the honour and influence of the country that "does not leave its own behind".
Who is Maria Lazareva
Incidentally, if the analogy of the lead character from the "Brother 2" film comes to mind, then it is not relevant in our situation. Maria Lazareva is now 45 years old and has a brilliant career in business behind her.
A graduate of Moscow State University (graduating in sociology and marketing), Maria also received a master's degree in strategic management and finance from the University of Pennsylvania, from the elite Wharton business school. Judging by the biographical note of the Bloomberg agency, "Ms. Lazareva has over 20 years of experience in direct investment, investment banking, finance, and consulting in many countries around the world. She specialises in emerging markets, mergers and acquisitions, repurchases involving borrowed funds ...".
Lazareva's track record includes positions of business development and marketing executive in Russia (Eastern Europe) at AWT/Creditanstalt Banking Group, managing director of Cheshire Group Inc., vice chairwoman of KSCC holding and a board member of two famous charitable foundations. In total, she has spent 23 years in business.
But this is what Lazareva said about herself during an interview with Business FM radio:
“I graduated from the Moscow State University in Russia. It was the mid-90s. My mother was a doctor and my father was an engineer. I began to travel and work in various countries. I knew what I wanted to do. Have you ever seen the film "Pretty Woman" with Richard Gere? My favourite part of this film is when Richard Gere wanted to buy a company, break it up and sell it, and then, under the influence of love, he decided to help this company grow, invest more and turn it into a stronger company. This is what I've always wanted to do. I worked in America and graduated from the University of Wharton. I've worked in Europe and the countries in Asia. I've only ever had Russian citizenship, I've not had any other residence permits".
In 2006, Lazareva founded (accented by us, - editors) KGL Investments in Kuwait, which eventually changed from an investment company into a logistics hub with a turnover of hundreds of millions of dollars. One of the experts in big business, to whom the Novye Izvestiya reporter spoke, noted that Lazareva was by no means a fake "face of the company", was not anyone's protégé, behind whom the figures of real "corporate leaders" were hiding. Besides,
Maria was the only female head of a large company in Kuwait. Knowing the religious and gender traditions of the Arab world, it can be argued that this fact is absolutely unique in its own right!
Maria spoke on an equal footing with the Sheikhs and Princes of the countries of the Persian Gulf, and the photographs show that she did without a hijab, widely required for women.
Maria talked on an equal footing with the sheikhs and princes of the countries of the Persian Gulf. Left - The Emir of Kuwait Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah
It's true that the success of a Russian compatriot was hardly known in Russia. Lazareva only appeared in her homeland media space after her arrest and trial in Kuwait. Judging by some comments on web forums, this fact influenced Lazareva's image inside Russia and gave rise to all sorts of offensive and in fact incorrect interpretations.
Investigation and Trial Errors
It is impossible to provide a detailed due diligence of a criminal case in just one article. However, we singled out fundamental aspects that allow the Russian authorities to doubt the objectivity of the investigation and the sentence and request the release of Masha Lazareva.
It should be reminded that the case against the Russian citizen began in 2011, when the former KGL employee, Mona Abdul Wahab, (Egyptian citizen), who had worked for Lazareva as an assistant, was detained for stealing $500,000 from her boss. After the arrest, Wahab made false statements that Lazareva "participated in espionage and intelligence data collecting on behalf of a foreign state."
In April 2017, Maria was charged with embezzlement, and in November she was arrested. The Russian citizen spent seven weeks in prison, then released on bail of $30 million, contributed by her company. Lazareva also faced a ban on leaving the country.
At the same time, the prosecutors did not take into account the fact that Maria herself had come to Kuwait for the court hearings.
“When I was charged in April 2017, I immediately returned to Kuwait from a business trip to Europe to clear my good name and reputation,” Lazareva said in an interview with Forbes.
Incidentally, the court did not take any decisions on espionage charges, although they became the basis for the first ban on leaving the country. The status of this accusation remains unknown, but later a new accusation was filed, that of facilitating the embezzlement of public funds in the period from April 2006 throughout March 2013, which the court passed on May 6, 2018. During the trial, the main principles of justice were violated:
Firstly, an irrefutable fact is that the defendant, Lazareva, could not even get acquainted with the materials of her criminal case - from more than 30 thousand pages allegedly stored on a “memory card - flash drive” 20 thousand pages had not been even translated into English or Russian.
Secondly, the court, having appointed only 15 day-break between each hearing, did not allow the lawyers to present convincing arguments for the defence, which is unprecedented in the judicial practice of the courts of Kuwait and any other country.
Thirdly, the court forbade questions being asked to the witness of the prosecution, conduct its cross-examination and did not even ensure the attendance of the main witness (this, we recall, is a thief who stole 500 thousand dollars).
- Maria has spent a year in the prison, the appeal regarding this case has already been filed and the second case has been launched. But can you imagine that during all this time the accused and her defence have never been provided with any documents for review? Neither the statement of charge, nor the evidence of her crime. Why? It seems that there is absolutely no accusation evidence in any of these documents! The accusation matter is only referred to and it is mentioned that it exists somewhere on the prosecutor's memory stick. They are simply afraid to reveal it, apparently realising that there is no crime evidence there, and at most that there is a relationship between business entities that should be considered in arbitration,” says Maria Lazareva's Russian lawyer, Ekaterina Dukhina.
On May 6, 2018, the court sentenced the Russian citizen to 10 years in prison. She must return $36 million and pay a fine of $72.8 million and, according to the court's judgment, may be deported to her homeland Russia after serving her sentence only. In the case of the embezzlement of funds of the Kuwaiti Port Fund, 7 more top managers of the company were convicted.
At the same time, the judges did not take into account that Maria Lazareva’s activities did not cause any damage to Kuwait and its business structures.
After 14 months, the funds ($496 million) frozen in accounts at Noor Bank, Dubai at the request of the Prosecutor of Kuwait were unfrozen and returned to investors, including Kuwaiti government investors - the Kuwait Port Authority and the Kuwait Pension Fund. They received 100 percent of the return on invested capital.
Many experts in the field of international law and the protection of human rights, Kuwaiti and international lawyers have concluded that the abovementioned numerous violations of laws actually took place.
As leading international human rights lawyer Lord Carlile (Great Britain) noted, “the prison term was appointed without taking into account the rule of law, and we are witnessing a shocking example of a judicial error, as a result of which a woman is deprived of her freedom”.
"We simply tell her son that his mom is on a business trip"
It is known that prisons in Arab countries are not anything like the Norwegian "holiday homes" for prisoners. And this is today one of the main reasons why the Russian authorities should hurry and save Maria Lazareva.
"I was thrown into a temporary prison, where for two weeks I slept on the floor and had to cover myself with, excuse me for this, vomit-soaked blankets. After that, I was transferred to the central prison, and the judge didn’t release me for almost three more months." - Maria said in an interview with Radio Business FM in June 2018. And there lay a revealing fact: After her arrest, Lazareva suffered badly with her blood pressure, the doctor recommended her hospitalisation, to which the officer answered: “Let her die there in the corner”...
For a year, Maria's father, Vladimir Lazarev, went around dozens of agencies in Moscow in search of protection for his daughter. Maria's mother, Lydia Lazareva, moved to Kuwait to look after her grandson following the arrest of her daughter. Otherwise, Maria would have been forced to take her four-year-old son with her to prison.
Maria Lazareva's parents live with their grandson, Ivan
- Prison conditions, what else can be said? I think Maria will conceal many things from us to have mercy on our loving hearts. The labels "Russian thief", "infidel" were hung on her right away. Even the judge couldn't refrain from using racist statements against her," the mother of the imprisoned businesswoman, Lydia Lazareva, told the Novye Izvestiya reporter.
We can add that her daughter is meanwhile sitting in a cramped cell, where in a space of just 10 square metres sit 7 other women convicted of serious crimes. They say that for everything, even for a piece of soap, you have to fight.
Her mother adds that after several attempts to tell the media about the terrible conditions, the prison administration entered into an agreement with Maria: the prisoner no longer transmits any “excessive” information at will, and those, in turn, shall not further worsen her life.
Twice a week, the Russian woman is permitted to make calls from the prison to relatives. Meetings are allowed, but the procedure for obtaining them is overly bureaucratic and time consuming. In addition, Maria herself does not want to meet her family in such surroundings.
- "We simply tell her son that his mom is on a business trip. We are not taking him to the prison, because we simply do not know how to explain what his mother is doing there and when she will be released. The boy misses her, of course, he constantly asks why the trip is taking so long", continues Lydia Lazareva.
Separation from her son and the difficulties of prison life all occur against the background of periodic slander in the local media.
“I'm constantly witch-hunted in newspapers. Do you know what they call me here? They call me “that Russian” with a negative intonation. Competitors control the mass media, they write lies about me all the time. I've filed lawsuits against them many times. The court cases go on for two or three years, and then they write in small, fine print on something like page 27 that they apologise,” says Maria.
The return of funds to depositors of the Kuwaiti investment fund The Port Fund, for the theft of which they accuse Maria Lazareva, forced opponents to start a massive information campaign in Kuwaiti media and social networks in order to destroy her reputation.
“Propaganda itself is not so scary, since it is overshadowed by the return of the investors' funds. We are more concerned about the reaction of the radicals, who in response posts propose to literally, “tear her head off,” said Vladimir Platonov, President of the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
“She is sitting in a cell where there are seven more people who have committed thefts and murders. Given the appeals on Twitter, other social networks, as well as the general degree of the case, the worst cannot be ruled out”, he added.
Who "targeted" Maria Lazareva
Experts with whom Novye Izvestiya spoke, admit that this huge story with Maria Lazareva did not just come out of thin air. It's most likely to do with unfair competition.
- At one point, a competing company in Kuwait, which is headed by an influential Sunni family, took Maria out of the market. It was convenient to do so, because no one was backing Maria up. There is no evidence of embezzlement and misappropriation. All acts of acceptance of contracts with KGLI have been signed and no complaints have every risen from anyone. And suddenly...- says Vladimir Lazarev.
The Director General of the Centre for Political Information, political scientist Alexey Mukhin suggests that the real reason for the persecution of Maria Lazareva was the competition between KGL (the parent company of KGLI) and another large company, Agility.
Competition is exacerbated by religious differences, Mukhin said. Behind KGL is the Shiite family, and Agility is under the control of the Sunni clan. In a country where Sunni Muslims make up a majority (2/3 of the population) this can play a decisive role.
"Maria Lazareva was a very easy and attractive prey: A Russian, a citizen of Russia, the only foreign woman who heads such a large company in an Islamic country. It is not surprising that it was through her that someone wanted to remove a competitor from the market and access the assets of the group,” Mukhin concludes.
According to the Novye Izvestiya source, Lazareva’s case could have been organised by Sheikh Yusef Alabdallah, head of the Kuwait Port Authority, and also by his elder brother, Sheikh Khaled Alabdallah, head of the Emir of Kuwait’s office, - he has been in the Emir of Kuwait's close circle for more than 30 years, being the Chief of the Protocol. It is possible that these people may be associated with a competitor of KGL. However, the question is how their efforts are in Kuwait’s best interests?
Lazareva Protection: from Moscow to Washington
It is known that the small state of Kuwait is not indifferent to its international reputation and investment attractiveness on the part of foreign and global companies. And in this aspect the Lazareva case acts as a huge dent in the country's image.
Since the defendant Lazarev has not pleaded guilty, her defenders sent a lawsuit to the International Court of Arbitration of the United Nations, demanding the immediate release of the Russian citizen. According to the lawyers, Kuwait did not only condemn a foreign citizen without proven grounds, but also violated a bilateral agreement with Russia on the promotion and mutual protection of investments, and law enforcement agencies and the court organised a “campaign to destroy the reputation and a collapse in investment costs” against Lazareva's business.
Acquaintances and partners of Lazareva argue that the struggle against Kuwait’s main competitor in 2011, Agility, has become aggravated after firms related to Maria began to win multi-billion-dollar tenders from the Ministry of Defence (Pentagon) for logistics services.
The “Maria Lazareva case” may very soon become a platform for an unprecedented alliance of three parties: America, Europe and Russia in the history of negotiations with the countries of the Persian Gulf. The new "Union" - "Apollo" - became a joke in the circles of the Russian political elite.
Well-known politicians and public opinion leaders from Great Britain, Russia, and the United States, including the son of former President George W. Bush, businessman Neil Bush, have spoken out in defence of Lazareva.
A member of the House of Lords of Great Britain, a well-known human rights activist and lawyer Lord Carlile has repeatedly held talks in Kuwait with the head of the panel of judges and the Prosecutor General on the “Lazereva Case”, and based on the results he prepared a report on violations in this criminal case. In his speeches in the London press, he expressed an opinion on the fabrication and political coloration of the trial of a Russian citizen. A petition was sent from England to Kuwait in defence of the businesswoman.
According to the British guarantors, Kuwait has made a mistake, and this mistake must be corrected, otherwise in their understanding the deplorable judicial faux pas automatically develops into the category of a collusion in the emirate government.
The son of former United States President George W. Bush, entrepreneur Neil Bush, wanted to visit Lazareva in prison, but he was politely declined. Former director of the FBI Louis Freeh, together with special agent Daniel Gill prepared a report on violations in the criminal case against the entrepreneur (this report was mentioned by Western media). The citizens of the United States came to the Port Fund investment fund and the protection of their financial rights became for the American side a case of the effectiveness of the law.
“In Kuwait, there is a lot of American money from bona fide investors and no one can take it away just like that,” was the position taken by the Americans.
In Russia, the Moscow Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and personally its President, Vladimir Platonov, who initiated an independent legal assessment of the charges against Maria Lazareva, actively came forward in support of the entrepreneur. According to Novye Izvestiya sources, one of the former heads of the FSB of Russia is currently involved in negotiations on the possibility of preparing their own analytical notice to be included in the case in court
Observers also note that the likelihood of this issue being included on the official agenda of the meeting between Sergey Lavrov and the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, is very high. It cannot be ruled out that the case may even go as far as Vladimir Putin, whose principled position with regard to Russian citizens persecuted for political and business reasons is well known. The president persistently protects compatriots. The question is whether a demonstrative step is needed to free Maria Lazareva; for example, a public refusal to visit Kuwait - or the issue will be resolved through diplomatic negotiations.
By midday on March 4, it became known that the Russian Foreign Ministry was actively involved in the fate of Maria Lazareva. According to the press secretary of the Russian President, Dmitry Peskov, President Vladimir Putin is also aware of this situation.
Peskov, responding to a question from RBK about whether the Kremlin is in talks with the leadership of Kuwait on the death penalty facing the Russian woman, answered: "No, there is no involvement from the Kremlin." This, he said, is being handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.