Kazakhgate Investigation Ends Conspiracy About French Interference in Chodiev Case
The new law was enacted in April 2011 but amendments were required so prosecutors decided that no cases should be settled without prior approval until the changes were made.
A committee of Belgian parliamentarians has concluded that there was no illicit political influence in the introduction of a new plea bargain law that benefited a trio of billionaires. The findings come after media speculation that Belgium’s “transaction pénale” law was introduced in 2011 after pressure from the French Government, which wanted to do a favour for Patokh Chodiev and his partners.
Chodiev, Alijan Ibragimov and Alexander Mashkevitch – an Israeli citizen – own a large mining company called ERG that has its main operations in Kazakhstan. They had been accused of financial crimes relating to the purchase of property in Belgium in the 1990s and the allegations were eventually settled in 2011 when their case became only the second to take advantage of an extension to the country’s plea bargain laws.
However, the media has speculated that the law was enacted at the behest of France, which needed help from Patokh Chodiev to secure a €2 billion helicopter deal with Kazakhstan.
A helicopter taking off. Image via Pxfuel, listed as public domain.
A Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (PIC) of 15 Belgian MPs was formed in December 2016 to look into the allegations. During the committee’s 16-month investigation 177 witnesses were called and the MPs’ findings were delivered in a 500-page report.
Claude Guéant, former chief of staff to President Nicolas Sarkozy, told the PIC investigation that the Kazakh Government had indicated it would be good for diplomatic relations if the Chodiev case were resolved. Chodiev was therefore introduced to a French lawyer, Catherine Degoul, who officials hoped might be able to assist.
“It was clear that our role was limited to suggesting to Mr Chodiev a lawyer who seemed to us to have the qualities needed to best defend his interests,” Guéant said.
Degoul put together a legal team and she secretly hired a lobbyist called Armand De Decker, a Belgian senator who used his position to arrange a meeting with the Minister of Justice to discuss the case. Chodiev only learned of De Decker’s involvement years later.
Stefaan De Clerck, the former Justice minister, told the PIC that he had refused to discuss the Chodiev case with De Decker. The PIC said that it was a conflict of interest for De Decker to be lobbying while also a senator and it found his behaviour unethical.
However, the Parliamentary investigation also concluded that De Decker had not influenced the process of introducing the plea bargain law.
Pascal Vanderveeren, senior counsel to Mr Chodiev, said: “The Belgian Parliamentary Inquiry Commission (PIC) has completed its work and found that ERG’s shareholders were completely innocent of any wrongdoing.”
Media speculation has fueled conspiracies about the so-called “Kazakhgate” scandal but no evidence was presented during the Belgian investigation to show that there had been any undue French influence.
Guéant said in testimony: “I confirm that there has been no initiative from France to amend Belgian legislation. I can say that categorically.”
The PIC also found that discussions on amending Belgium’s plea bargain law had been going on since 2006, largely driven by lobbying from the Antwerp diamond industry. The introduction of the law was therefore not related to the Chodiev case, the PIC ruled.
The decision to offer Chodiev and partners a plea deal came from Belgian prosecutors, who were concerned that they were breaching the businessman’s human rights by pursing a case that was now 15-years old.
“With the Chodiev et al case dragging on for years, and as the court sitting in chambers had concluded that the reasonable time had passed, it was ultimately on the issue of the reasonable time period that the public prosecutor based his decision to conclude and adopt the extended plea bargain,” the PIC stated.
The new law was enacted in April 2011 but amendments were required so prosecutors decided that no cases should be settled without prior approval until the changes were made. Two cases fell into this window: the Chodiev settlement and another involving alleged tax evasion by a subsidiary of the French bank Société Générale. In both cases, prosecutors had sought and received permission to complete the deals before the legal amendments came into force and the PIC endorsed both settlements.
The PIC said: “The committee considers that both in the context of the plea bargain concluded in the Société Générale-Belgimont Scrl case and in the case of Messrs Chodiev et al., the legal provisions in force were correctly applied by the public prosecutor. These deals were therefore validly concluded.”