France Probes Russian Billionaire for Tax Evasion

A French judge has put Russian businessman and lawmaker Suleiman Kerimov under formal investigation after police arrested him this week at Nice airport for alleged tax evasion, media reported Thursday.

telechargement 37Suleiman Kerimov (Photo: Hlebushek, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The 51-year-old oligarch is one of Russia's richest people but is suspected of having bought several properties on the French Riviera via offshore companies, this way avoiding to pay millions in taxes.

French police arrested Kerimov on Monday. He was then taken to court on Wednesday evening and placed under formal investigation. He faces 10 years in prison.

His French helper was also indicted and three other individuals will be presented later to the judge, according to French newspaper Le Point.

Karimov’s arrest is the result of a three year-long investigation which started after French authorities noticed suspicious cash movements by the French tax lawyer Philippe Chiaverini's secretary. This led to raids and seizures, including the seizure of one villa called “Hier” (“Yesterday”) in cap d'Antibes last September which is believed to belong to Kerimov. Chiaverini and two Swiss businessmen were also indicted.

Kerimov was subsequently released from detention under the strict conditions that he hands over his passport to the authorities and checks in with police several times per week. His bail was set at US$ 5.9 million.

Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24 TV station, citing an unnamed source, reported that Kerimov denies any wrongdoing, according to news agency Reuters.

Kerimov's arrest has sparked strong protests from the Russian government.

"We will apply all efforts, maximum of efforts, to defend his legal interests," a Kremlin spokesman said, British news broadcaster The BBC reported.

The Russian foreign ministry argued that as a high-ranking official Kerimov has immunity from prosecution abroad.

But state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Kerimov had entered France on his private passport, which would likely prevent him from claiming diplomatic immunity, according to newspaper The Telegraph.

French authorities stressed that foreign officials are only immune in relation to acts committed in the performance of their official duties and that Kerimov's activities fell outside of that case.

In Russia, the businessmen, with an estimated net worth of US$ 6.3 billion, is known for his lavish lifestyle and love of fast cars.

Until last year, he owned the football club, Anzhi Makhachkala, which became famous for signing off stars including the Cameroonian striker, Samuel Eto'o.

In March, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Kerimov the state award “For Services to the Fatherland, second class” for his contribution to Russian parliamentary life.