By Shane McGinley, Bernd Debusmann Jr, Alicia Buller, Lubna Hamdan and Samer Batter
At a time of constant media reports of Russian interference in US elections and a frostiness between Moscow and Washington, the extraordinary case of Marsha Lazareva - the Russian businesswoman jailed in Kuwait on embezzlement charges - is one of the few incidents where the two superpowers have united to achieve a common goal of combating injustice
Marsha Lazareva last week sat in the front row of a court room in Kuwait’s Palace of Justice.
Clad in an abaya, she looked tired but seemed in surprisingly good spirits, chatting to her Kuwaiti lawyer as he translated proceedings. She took the time to thank the members of the press – including some representing Russian television – who had attended to cover the headline-grabbing hearing, in addition to some of her high profile supporters who were among those in the packed room on the sixth floor.
Widely regarded as one of Kuwait’s most successful and prominent businesswomen, she could be forgiven for being cynical as she has been here multiple times before, having only recently won bail of nearly $40m after spending around 470 days in Kuwait’s notorious Sulaibiya prison, where she shared a cell with around six other women.
An employee of KGL Investment Company in Kuwait, Lazareva was accused of embezzlement and sentenced to ten years hard labour imprisonment in May 2018. Her story has more twists and turns than the average John Grisham novel, with her conviction successfully appealed in May this year after it was found that the evidence against her was fake and the funds of nearly half a billion dollars she was accused of embezzling were actually frozen in a Dubai bank.
In addition to the courtroom dramatics, her case has attracted some of the most prominent international legal minds and political supporters in the world.
Attending the court hearing last week to give evidence on Lazareva’s behalf was Louis Freeh, an American attorney and former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) between 1993 and 2001. Freeh presented a four-page affidavit in which he outlined new evidence that had emerged in the last six months, which he said has yet to be considered by the court or Kuwait’s attorney general.
Among the new pieces of evidence are two forensic accounting reports compiled by former FBI agent Dan Gill, which determined that “there is no evidence of indicia that KGLI or Lazareva engaged in any fraudulent conduct”.
“[The evidence] rejects the charges,” Freeh tells Arabian Business in a video interview. “The facts are very compelling. I’ve been doing this as a judge, a prosecutor and head of the FBI for over 40 years, and I don’t see any evidence in this case that would justify a charge, let alone a conviction.”
Freeh certainly isn’t the only prominent public figure lending support to Lazareva’s case. Just two days after the former FBI director took the stand in Kuwait, over 4,000 km away in Geneva, Cherie Blair, the world-renowned human rights lawyer and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, highlighted Lazareva’s case during a discussion moderated by the BBC News world affairs editor John Simpson and staged to coincide with the latest UN Human Rights Council meeting in the Swiss city.
Blair is among Lazareva’s UK-based legal team and in early June filed a Request for Urgent Appeal with the United Nations, raising concerns about the independence and impartiality of certain judges, prosecutors and lawyers in the case.
“The rule of law, the proper administration of justice and due process depends on an independent and impartial judiciary, as well as the ability for defence counsel vigorously to defend their clients without improper interference or reprisals by the State. Sadly these principles have not been observed in Marsha’s case,” Blair said.
A Russian citizen, Lazareva graduated from the prestigious Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 2003, previously held a valid US green card before her imprisonment in Kuwait and is the mother of a four year-old son who is an American citizen and was born in Philadelphia.
Her links to both the US and Russia have helped her attract some big name figures from both superpowers, including Ed Royce, the former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; James Nicholson, the former Ambassador to the Vatican and former Secretary of Veterans Affairs; Pam Bondi, the former Attorney General for the State of Florida; Sergey Lavrov, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation and Tatyana Yumasheva, daughter of former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and co-founder of the Yeltsin Centre.
Russia “will continue to closely follow the situation around Maria Lazareva and efforts to provide a thorough and objective investigation of her case, as well as respect of the legitimate rights and interests of the Russia citizen, including rights to judicial protection and qualified medical care,” Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Arabian Business in a statement.
The case is certainly on Russia’s radar. In March, Russian Minister Lavrov raised the issue during a meeting in Kuwait with Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah, Kuwait’s deputy leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs.
At the same time, the head of the Kuwaiti parliament, Marzouk Al Ghanim also spoke to the Russian speaker of the Chamber of Regions, Valentina Matvienko, about the case in April, according to media reports. Matvienko reportedly said she believed there was no sufficient grounds for Lazareva to remain in jail, but said that Russia could not interfere in a foreign legal case.
Kuwait in June took over the monthly revolving presidency of the United Nations Security Council and the Lazareva case was raised by Russian media at a press briefing on June 3 by Ambassador Mansour Al Otaibi, Permanent Representative of Kuwait to the UN. The Kuwaiti ambassador declined to comment on the issue, however.
On the American side, Politico magazine reports that KGL Investment Company and the Port Fund, an investment fund it manages, spent around $2.5m in the first quarter of 2019 hiring Washington DC-based lobbyists to help try and secure Lazareva’s release. In addition to Freeh, some of the high profile Americans working on the case include Brian Ballard, a top fundraiser for President Donald Trump’s campaign, and Neil Bush, the son of former President George H.W. Bush.
Bush took an interest in the case early on, has travelled to Kuwait for court hearings on multiple times, appeared in several videos highlighting Lazareva’s incarceration and wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Times on the history of the case.
In an interview with Arabian Business in Kuwait on June 9, Bush said President Donald Trump’s administration has taken an active interest in the case and the fact that the campaign to win Lazareva’s release has brought together senior supporters from Washington and Moscow offers “a little bit of hope” for improved bilateral relations between the two rival superpowers.
“It’s hard to find a place in the world, except maybe the space programme, where the United States and Russia have unified at least to come up with a common goal… In this environment today, where the allegations of Russian involvement in US elections, and the Mueller report just came out, [and] all these things, the implications and the challenges that that’s created for our bilateral relationship.
“She’s a Russian citizen, that’s for sure, but she had a green card that was revoked because of the travel ban placed on her, but it’s going to be renewed quickly. Her citizenship to the US is going to be fast tracked, I’m convinced. Her son was born in Philadelphia, is a citizen of the United States. So yeah there’s that, there are clear American interests in this and in Russian interests. To see these countries working together, you know, kind of gives us a little bit of hope in these crazy times,” he added.
While President Trump has not tweeted or commented publicly on the case so far, Bush says he has been in contact with senior members of the Trump administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Lawrence R. Silverman, US ambassador to Kuwait, and the case is on their radar.
“I don’t know why [Trump] hasn’t [commented], but I can assure you the State Department is very interested in this case. The ambassador here on the ground is paying close attention to it. We’ve met with other leaders, including Pompeo in Washington. It’s definitely on their radar screen, there’s an active interest, and a growing interest, in this case from the State Department perspective,” Bush said.
At the Geneva event last week, American lawyer Randa Fahmy, told Arabian Business she has “personally briefed” the details of the case to President Trump. “He was very engaged, put it that way,” she said.
The Lazareva case certainly has plenty of plot twists. Her legal challenges started in 2017 when a former KGLI employee filed a complaint accusing her of being a spy for a foreign country.
“When I was accused in April 2017, I immediately returned to Kuwait from a business trip to Europe to clear my good name and reputation,” she told Forbes in an interview two years ago.
As a top legal team from London prepared to fly out to Kuwait to defend the spying charges, new cases of embezzlement relating to the period between April 2006 and March 2013 were raised against her.
Although she was sentenced to ten years hard labour in May 2018, it was later discovered that the documents used against her had been fakes submitted as part of testimony by a Kuwaiti government auditor, who has since been found guilty of forging evidence and has reportedly fled the country.
In addition, the $496m which is alleged to have been part of the money she embezzled was later found to be frozen in a bank account in Dubai and only released a year later in early 2019. Bush was very outspoken in the year-long attempt to secure the unfreezing of the near half a billion dollars.
Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, orchestrated the liberation of Kuwait in February 1991 following the Gulf state’s invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces during the Gulf War.
The 64 year-old Texan businessman said he took up the Lazareva case as he wanted to protect his father’s legacy and see Kuwait succeed, but he feared the negative publicity surrounding the case would discourage international investors from engaging with the Gulf state.
“The more I dug into the case, the more I realised there’s a real injustice… [Marsha] graduated from Wharton School of Business, has been separated from her four year-old son for over a year now for charges that were totally bogus, and you could tell from the very beginning that they were bogus.
“And truthfully, you know, part of my dad’s legacy, he passed away last year everyone knows, one of his great historical legacies was the fact that he put together, along with an amazing team, a coalition of forces that liberated Kuwait from the evil invasion of Saddam Hussein.
“And so, you know, Kuwait’s been on a good path of humanitarian rights, a judicial system that’s independent and relatively successful for this region. And as a Bush family member trying to protect my dad’s legacy, I want to see Kuwait succeed in this way. And so I’ve intervened because of the human rights issue, the clear abuse of human rights, the lack of due process, and because I do, I really do, care about Kuwait and I want to see Kuwait succeed.
“For [Marsha Lazareva] to be thrown in jail sends a signal to the rest of the world… Maybe I should think twice about coming to Kuwait, maybe I should think twice about investing in Kuwait, maybe I should think twice and working with Kuwaiti investors if what’s going to happen is those funds will be frozen or I’m going to be thrown in jail, which is exactly what’s happening.”
Lazareva was released on bail in mid-June, her KD1m ($3.29m) bail having been paid by an unnamed Kuwaiti supporter, in addition to the KD11m ($36.3m) previously paid by her supporters. Another employee of KGL, Saeed Dashti – whose embezzlement convictions were also lifted – remains in jail as he was unable to raise his bail money.
“What I would like to see happen, and what justice and fairness would require here, would be for this court to confirm that the conviction should be reversed and stay reversed, that the defendants should be released and that their bail, which is very high, $35m in cash, be returned to them and they should be allowed to go on with their lives and not have this terrible charge ruining their reputation,” Freeh told Arabian Business outside the court last week.
Arabian Business has attempted to contact the Kuwait Courts and Kuwait Attorney General for comment on the case but, at the time of publication, had not yet received any response.
At the latest hearing on June 23, the judge did not deny a request for the release of the defendants, although he did not rule on the matter. A new hearing has been set for September 15.
Whatever happens at the next hearing, one thing is sure – it is likely to go down as one of the most fascinating and compelling legal cases in the Middle East for some time.
For ongoing coverage of the Marsha Lazareva case, click here
The 64 year-old Texan businessman is the fourth of six children of former U.American President George H. W. Bush and also the brother of former US President George W. Bush. He has travelled to Kuwait multiple times, appeared in several videos about Lazareva and wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Times on the history of the case.
An American attorney and former judge who served as the fifth director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from September 1993 to June 2001.
He was contracted to examine evidence in the Lazareva case.
An American politician who served as a member of the US House of Representatives from California from 1993 to 2019. A member of the Republican Party, Royce served as Chairman of the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs from 2013 to 2019.
An attorney, real estate developer, and a former Republican Party Chairman. He was the US Secretary of Veterans Affairs from January 26, 2005, until October 1, 2007 and a former Ambassador to the Vatican.
Named among the top lobbyists in Washington, DC, Ballard was involved in fundraising for Trump’s election campaign. He served as Vice Chairman of the Trump Inaugural Committee and as a member of the Presidential Transition Finance Committee.
Former Attorney General for the State of Florida, she travelled to Kuwait for the hearings and appeared on Fox News to publicise the case.
Randa Fahmy Hudome
Head of a Washington DC-based strategic consulting firm, she is an internationally recognised expert in energy policy and the Middle East market.
A British barrister, lecturer and writer, she is the wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Blair’s Omnia Strategy is a part of the global legal team representing Lazareva.
Lord Alex Carlile
A cross-bench member at Britain’s House of Lords and founder of business strategy firm SC Consultancy along with Sir John Scarlett, the former chief of MI5 – the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency. He acted from 2001 to 2011 as the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation and in 2002 defended the Princess of Wales’s butler, Paul Burrell, in a high profile theft case.
An Australian human rights lawyer and barrister, she is working on the Lazareva case alongside Omnia Strategy. Robinson has also advised Julian Assange and WikiLeaks since October 2010.
The Russian Foreign Minister in March raised the issue during a meeting in Kuwait with Sheikh Sabah Al Khalid Al Sabah, Kuwait’s deputy leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs. “We dealt with this subject in accordance with Kuwait law and international conventions,” Lavrov told reporters.
Tatyana Yumasheva (Yeltsina)
Founder of the Yeltsin Centre. Media reports said she was “very concerned, interested, and [is] monitoring the situation effectively”.
President of Moscow Chamber of Commerce. “I myself worked in prosecution for more than eight years, and I cannot imagine any judge signing off on an indictment like this,” he said of the case.