Judicial probe widens to French secret services' role in 'Kazakhgate' deal

The finan­cial crime branch of France’s pub­lic pros­e­cu­tion ser­vices has widened the remit of a judi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion into sus­pect­ed cor­rup­tion in a sale of French heli­copters to Kazakhstan to include the sus­pect­ed involve­ment of France’s intel­li­gence ser­vices in a plan to pro­tect a busi­ness­man close to the Kazakh pres­i­dent from pros­e­cu­tion in Belgium. The move fol­lows rev­e­la­tions by Mediapart and Belgian dai­ly Le Soir of evi­dence sug­gest­ing the intel­li­gence ser­vices were manip­u­lat­ed by offi­cials of the French pres­i­den­cy under Nicolas Sarkozy in order to seal the deal worth a total of 2 bil­lion euros. Yann Philippin reports in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Mediapart’s Belgian press part­ners in this inves­ti­ga­tion, Alain Lallemand (Le Soir), Thierry Denoel (Le Vif) and Mark Eeckhaut (De Standaard).

Mediapart has learnt that the French pros­e­cu­tion ser­vices have widened an inves­ti­ga­tion into sus­pect­ed cor­rup­tion, notably bribery of for­eign offi­cials and a sys­tem of secret kick­back pay­ments made in France, in con­nec­tion with a 2‑bil­lion-euro con­tract for the sale of French heli­copters and trains to Kazakhstan under the pres­i­den­cy of Nicolas Sarkozy, to include prob­ing the pos­si­ble involve­ment of the French intel­li­gence ser­vices in help­ing to secure the deal.

The pros­e­cu­tion ser­vices’ finan­cial crime branch, the Parquet nation­al financier, or PNF, made the move on April 25th this year, six days after the pub­li­ca­tion by Mediapart and Belgian dai­ly Le Soir of evi­dence sug­gest­ing the manip­u­la­tion of the French domes­tic intel­li­gence agency and its Belgian coun­ter­part in a plan hatched by French offi­cials to help a key inter­me­di­ary in the lucra­tive deal escape pros­e­cu­tion in Belgium.

The terms of the pub­lic pros­e­cu­tors’ brief for sup­ple­men­tary inves­ti­ga­tions, seen by Mediapart and its Belgian press part­ners in this joint inves­ti­ga­tion, with Le Soir, Le Vif and De Standaard, also rec­om­mends the exam­in­ing mag­is­trates study the infor­ma­tion col­lect­ed by the hear­ings ear­li­er this year of a Belgian par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sion of enquiry into the so-called “Kazakhgate” scan­dal, in which it is sus­pect­ed that apart of Belgium’s crim­i­nal law was mod­i­fied express­ly to pro­tect three Central Asian busi­ness­men close to the Kazakh regime from pros­e­cu­tion on cor­rup­tion charges.

The PNF also rec­om­mends that the mag­is­trates ques­tion a num­ber of indi­vid­u­als impli­cat­ed in the sus­pect­ed plot, nclud­ing Claude Gueant, the for­mer chief of staff of the Elysee Palace, the French pres­i­den­tial office, and lat­er nte­ri­or min­is­ter, and the for­mer French nation­al intel­li­gence ser­vices coor­di­na­tor Ange Mancini, both of whom served under the pres­i­den­cy of Nicolas Sarkozy.

The so-called “Kazakhgate” affair cen­tres on the sale by France to Kazakhstan of 45 heli­copters built by Eurocopter (now Airbus Helicopters) and also trains in a deal worth a total of about 2 bil­lion euros, which was announced by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev dur­ing a vis­it to Paris in 2010 when Nicolas Sarkozy was president.

A judi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion into the cir­cum­stances of the deal was ini­tial­ly opened in France in ear­ly 2012, cit­ing sus­pect­ed “bribery of for­eign pub­lic offi­cials” and “mon­ey laun­der­ing”, prompt­ed by a mys­te­ri­ous pay­ment of 300,000 euros to a for­mer pre­fect and advi­sor to Sarkozy, Jean-Francois Etienne des Rosaies. But the case soon widened to include alleged inter­fer­ence by French offi­cials to help an Uzbek busi­ness­man with close ties to the Kazakh gov­ern­ment, Patokh Chodiev, and two of his busi­ness asso­ciates, escape crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings against them for cor­rup­tion in Belgium. lt is sus­pect­ed that Nazarbayev had made secur­ing Chodiev’s pro­tec­tion from crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tion a con­di­tion for the com­ple­tion of the 2010 deal.

It is alleged that Chodiev act­ed as a key inter­me­di­ary in seal­ing the con­tract, which would include the pay­ment by Eurocopter (then part of EADS, now Airbus), of a bung of 12 mil­lion euros for the then Kazakh prime min­is­ter Karim Massimov, with a fur­ther 5 mil­lion euros from the deal tobe secret­ly returned in kick­backs paid in France.

Chodiev, Mashkevich and Ibragimov

Chodiev and his asso­ciates, Kazakh nation­als Alexander Mashkevich and Alijan Ibragimov, nick­named “the Trio”, faced pros­e­cu­tion in Belgium for money­laun­der­ing. The three, who made their for­tune from acqui­si­tions in Central Asia fol­low­ing the fall of the Soviet Union, own vast min­ing resources around the world and have close polit­i­cal ties with the Nazarbayev regime. lt is alleged that the then vice-pres­i­dent of the Belgian sen­ate, Armand De Decker, was helped with the plan for the three to escape pros­e­cu­tion in Belgium through a reform of that coun­try’s crim­i­nal law, pushed through by the upper house and enact­ed in April 2011 , which allowed indi­vid­u­als accused of finan­cial crimes o nego­ti­ate an out-of- court settlement.

In the case of Chodiev, Mashkevich and Ibragimov, who were until then fac­ing pros­e­cu­tion for con­spir­ing with crim­i­nals and mon­ey laun­der­ing in con­nec­tion with prop­er­ty deals in the coun­try, they set­tled the case before it went to court with a pay­ment of 23 mil­lion euros.

Claude Guéant, Elysée Palace chief of staff, and lat­er inte­ri­or min­is­ter, under the 2007–2012 pres­i­den­cy of Nicolas Sarkozy. © Reuters

On February 27th 2011, Claude Gueant, who until then was Sarkozy ‘s chief-of-staff at the Elysee Palace, was appoint­ed as French inte­ri­or min­is­ter. He took up his new post the fol­low­ing day, when he also host­ed a lunch with sev­er­al peo­ple who were key to the deal with Kazakhstan; Damien Loras, Sarkozy’s advi­sor on Central Asian affairs, Jean-Frarncois Etienne des Rosaies, a for­mer pre­fect and advi­sor to Sarkozy, a French Iawyer and coun­sel for Chodiev, Catherine Degoul, and Armand De Decker, who besides being vice-pres­i­dent of the Belgian sen­ate (after twice serv­ing as its pres­i­dent) was also a lawyer and lob­by­ist for Chodiev in Belgium.

Questioned in May this year by a Belgian par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sion of enquiry into the affair, Gueant admit­ted that dur­ing the February 28th 2011 lunch meet­ing, the legal pro­ceed­ings in Belgium which he said “inter­est­ed Mr Chodiev and his friends” were dis­cussed, but added that his mem­o­ry of the dis­cus­sions was hazy. However, in an email dat­ed March 17th 2011, and revealed since by Belgian week­ly mag­a­zine Le Vif, Etienne des Rosaies detailed: “President [sie] De Decker came to lunch in Paris with Claude Gueant. He hand­ed over, on behalf ofthe Belgian Surete d’Etat [State secu­ri­ty ser­vices] a note con­cern­ing the per­son ‘V’ [and] wish­ing to estab­lish the col­lab­o­ra­tion of the DCRI [the then French inter­nal intel­li­gence agency, now the DGSI].” The email end­ed with the obser­va­tion: “The affair is under­way between the French and Belgian services.”

In fact, ‘V’ was a Belgian busi­ness­man and lob­by­ist Eric Van de Weghe, weil known to intel­li­gence cir­cles. At the time he had advised one of Chodiev’s asso­ciates to change the lawyer rep­re­sent­ing him in the cor­rup­tion case and to dis­tance him­self from the team set up by the French pres­i­den­cy — sev­er­al of whom were present at the February 28th 2011 lunch with Gueant. lt is sus­pect­ed that a deci­sion was tak­en to dis­cred­it Van de Weghe, although who was behind the move is unclear.

Armand De Decker, for­mer pres­i­dent and lat­er vice-pres­i­dent of the Belgian Senate, who was also a lawyer for Patokh Chodiev. © D.R.

The sub­se­quent devel­op­ments were detailed in a report by the Belgian par­lia­men­t’s “R” com­mit­tee whose brief is to mon­i­tor the actions of the coun­try’s intel­li­gence ser­vices. The report was pre­sent­ed to par­lia­ment in a closed-door session.

In an inter­nal email cor­re­spon­dence with­in the Belgian state secu­ri­ty ser­vice, the Surete d’Etat, also known as the VSSE, it is report­ed that “in the first days of the month of March” 2011, fol­low­ing the February 28th lunch host­ed by Gueant, Armand De Decker vis­it­ed the offices of France’s nation­al intel­li­gence ser­vices coor­di­na­tor Ange Mancini. According to the email account, Mancini, who is direct­ly answer­able to the French pres­i­dent, was absent, and De Decker was met by one of his close col­lab­o­ra­tors. “The mes­sage from the sen­a­tor was that the VSSE would like to col­lab­o­rate with the DCRI con­cern­ing Eric Van de Weghe,” the email read.

Contacted by Mediapart, Mancini, who now works in the pri­vate sec­tor for the Bollore group, said he was “in no way con­cerned by this affair”. Meanwhile, a Belgian state secu­ri­ty ser­vice doc­u­ment reports that fol­low­ing De Decker’s vis­it to Mancini’s office, the French inter­nal intel­li­gence ser­vice, the DCRI, received a mes­sage “from the CNR” — a ref­er­ence to Mancini’s depart­ment — “to which it must now reply”.

The DCRI went about research­ing infor­ma­tion about Van de Weghe, in con­cert with its Belgian coun­ter­part, trawl­ing back through its archives to 1997, but report­ed it had found no recent results of inter­est . Records show that, short­ly after, a Belgian state secu­ri­ty offi­cer announced his inten­tion of pass­ing on a ver­bal mes­sage to the French about De Decker’s ini­tia­tive, “so that the DCRI can reas­sure the Elysee, because there was in fact some­thing embar­rass­ing about this move”. The offi­cer added: “If the infor­ma­tion that the DCRI has giv­en us is reli­able, then the inter­ven­tion n Paris into the ‘V’ file sug­gests a con­flict of inter­est.” A sep­a­rate report writ­ten by a Belgian state secu­ri­ty offi­cer observed: “The note about the inter­ven­tion in Paris by the Senate pres­i­dent [sie) sug­gests an attempt­ed manip­u­la­tion of State Security via the DCRI, the Elysee (CNR) or De Decker himself.”

In 2016, the legal ser­vices of the Belgian state secu­ri­ty agency car­ried out a detailed study of De Decker’s inter­ven­tion in Paris. The result­ing report not­ed that if the infor­ma­tion from the DCRI was exact, De Decker could be pros­e­cut­ed, notably for cor­rup­tion, for act­ing “with­out any man­date”, and also faced dis­ci­pli­nary mea­sures from the Belgian bar.

The ques­tion remains that if De Decker did hand Claude Gueant a report on Van de Weghe who had giv­en it to him? To all appear­ances, the doc­u­ment was con­fi­den­tial and should not have been in De Decker’s possession.

During a hear­ing by the Belgian par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sion of enquiry it emerged that between January 1st 201land April 19th 201lthe file on Van de Weghe had been con­sult­ed 23 times by 15 dif­fer­ent peo­ple between, includ­ing the hen head of the Belgian state secu­ri­ty ser­vices, Alain Winants, who was a close con­tact of De Decker’s. Winants con­sult­ed the file five times in all, four ofwhich were between February 23rd and 24th 2011, just days before the unch in Paris host­ed by Guea nt.

Meanwhile, the Belgian jus­tice sys­tem has shown lit­tle enthu­si­asm in pur­su­ing the mat­ter. On October 14th 2014, he state secu­ri­ty ser­vices com­plet­ed a report on the case, and which the then Belgian jus­tice min­is­ter was informed of, but no sub­se­quent action was tak­en. In 2016, fol­low­ing the state secu­ri­ty legal affairs depart­men­t’s appraisal of the case, the agency passed on its con­clu­sions to the Brussels pub­lic pros­e­cu­tor’s office, but again no action was aken. lt is unclear whether the three mag­is­trates in charge of the case in France — Judges Aude Buresi, Serge Tournaire and Claire Thepaut — have begun enquiries into the events sur­round­ing De Decker. What is estab­lished is that they have not yet sub­mit­ted a request to the Belgian par­lia­men­t’s com­mis­sion of enquiry to receive the details of its findings.

The French ver­sion of this report can be found here


Judicial probe widens to French secret ser­vices’ role in ‘Kazakhgate’ deal

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