Contract murder, theft, sexual scandal, and embezzlement on a grand scale. Add to the equation a dash of political corruption, a call to overthrow a democratically elected government in the heart of Europe and war in the east and we could be looking at the script of an old James Bond movie. But no: this is a saga that has played out on a grand stage that encompasses Central Asia, the European Union, Swiss banks, the battlegrounds of Eastern Ukraine, and the property empire of a U.S. President.
It is very difficult for a politician to refuse advances from human rights activists. This is particularly the case in the institutions of European politics, where, in the absence of hard power of their own, politicians often use humanitarian issues as a platform to engage on an international stage.
Into this morass has stepped what appears at first sight to be an innocuous human rights NGO, fronted by a photogenic and highly articulate young woman who seeks to address the wrongs that are the legacy of the Soviet Union. Ukrainian citizen Lyudmyla Kozlovska, champion of Maidan, defender of the imprisoned and the maligned, and her Open Dialogue Foundation (ODF) have become a fixture on the European human rights scene.
However, this NGO, originally founded by another Ukrainian citizen, Ivan Szerstiuk, who is reportedly currently serving an eighteen-year sentence in Ukraine for ordering a murder, in actuality serves a purpose, and indeed a master, far removed from the carefully crafted image it conveys so well.
As well as outstanding arrest warrants, multiple convictions, and considerable wealth, the key clients of the foundation, presented as politically persecuted champions of democracy, share something else in common: allegations of money laundering on a formidable scale.
French MEP Nicolas Bay, speaking during a meeting of the European Parliament’s committee on Financial crimes, tax evasion and tax avoidance earlier this year, named the controversial Kazakh fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov as being the real figure behind the ODF. “There are now very real questions about the funding of the activities of that Foundation. All too often, perpetrators of white-collar crimes are able to pass themselves off as victims”, he said, calling for a parliamentary investigation into the activities of the organisation.
Bay’s call was echoed by Romanian MEP Andi Cristea, who declared that considering “the ODF’s efforts to defend one or more controversial characters, I believe that significant resources are needed to investigate in Brussels the transparency of the ODF’s funding and the correct recording of lobbying activities in the public register. The image-washing operation that the Foundation led for Ablyazov is not a secret to officials in Brussels.”
Ablyazov, who has multiple convictions and who has served two prison sentences in the past, in Kazakhstan and France, became responsible for possibly the greatest fraud in history when he embezzled some $7.6 billion from the BTA Bank, of which he was head. He has also received a life sentence for ordering the murder of his predecessor at the bank, Yerzhan Tatishev, in 2004. The fugitive also has an outstanding 22 month jail sentence awaiting him, should he ever return to the UK, handed down to him for contempt of court. This was confirmed in recent weeks when the outstanding arrest warrant in his name was formally extended.
His crimes, however, should not be viewed in isolation: he appears to be not a lone criminal, but part of an organised crime syndicate. Brussels-based journalist and author of the book Wanted Man: the story of Mukhtar Ablyazov (2019), Gary Cartwright, stated at a Brussels press conference recently, “if you want to know who Ablyazov’s partners in crime are, simply look at ODF’s client list.”
The list includes the likes of Ablyazov’s son-in-law, Ilyas Khrapunov, wanted in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine, and named in an English court as having been involved in the laundering of Ablyazov’s cash through Donald Trump’s property enterprises. Also Khrapunov’s father, Viktor, a former mayor of Almaty, and, like his son, currently resident in Geneva is another of ODF’s so-called “persecuted oppositionists”. The former Mayor of Almaty Viktor Khrapunov, his TV-anchorwoman wife Leila, and their son Ilyas stand accused of embezzlement schemes amounting to at least $300 million — they are the subject of lawsuits in the United Kingdom and the United States. The Khrapunovs have been described in the French language press as “one of the richest families in Switzerland”.
Nail Malyutin, currently serving six-years in Russia for stealing $4 million, and who has ties to Aslan “Djako” Gagiyev, a controversial figure whose gang stands accused of orchestrating more than sixty murders is represented by ODF, as is Moldovan businessman Vyacheslav Platon, a businessman named in the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) investigation into the Russian Laundromat. Platon is currently serving eighteen-years for his part in what became known as the “theft of the century,” in which 12.5% of the nation’s GDP went missing from three banks.
ODF appears, with some success, to have created a model for its wealthy clients: the establishment of a political organisation, positioned in opposition to the government of the country or countries in which they are wanted, and then formulating a campaign for their “human rights”, carefully positioning them alongside genuine and high profile victims such as Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov.
This abuse of the human rights platform was attacked by former UK MEP Nikki Sinclaire who said “For those of us who have fought tirelessly for Human Rights, it feels like a punch in the stomach when someone uses mechanisms to slyly promote their own self interest. Such actions undermine the work of genuine Human Rights activists and deserve to be highlighted.”
Another vocal critic of ODF is one-time ally, Polish MEP Anna Fotyga, who has severed her links with the organisation stating in the European Parliament that it has “ceased to be a non-political NGO and is not a credible organisation”.
As well as undermining the work of genuine human rights activists, ODF can also be seen to be corrupting important European political institutions. An Interpol Red Notice calling for Ablyazov’s arrest was successfully lifted following successful lobbying of the European Parliament deputies by Kozlovska. There have been questions asked as to exactly how this was achieved. “The MEPs who supported the initiative by ODF were all asked if they, or their families, had received any pecuniary advantage in return for their support,” Cartwright said to the author of this article. “Whilst we have no evidence to suggest that this may be the case, it is noticeable that not one has directly denied it.”
Interpol undermined, parliamentarians possibly corrupted, this is the work that ODF does so well.
However, the organisation itself came under the spotlight when in April of this year Britain’s Sunday Times published a damning article implicating it in money laundering activities allegedly related to Ablyazov’s ill gotten gains. A company owned by Kozlovska’s husband, Bartosz Kramek, was named as having benefited from money laundering activities involving a number of Scottish based companies, to the tune of more than £1 million.
Until the Sunday Times article appeared, Kramek was mainly known for his somewhat bizarre July 2017 call to overthrow the Polish government, encouraging acts of civil disobedience such as the withholding of tax payments and teachers’ strikes. This led to increased governmental interest in Kramer, Kozlovska, and in particular ODF’s finances.
All of this is being presented by ODF as the political persecution of Kramek, thus winning over those who are opposed to the current ruling party such as Belgian Liberal Democrat MEP, Guy Verhofstadt, who personally intervened when Kozlovska was subject to an order banning her from entering the Schengen zone. Thanks largely to his efforts, in March of this year Kozlovska was granted a five year residency permit in Belgium, and the Schengen Information System (SIS), which exists to protect the security of EU citizens, was added to the list of political mechanisms and institutions undermined by the activities of ODF.