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

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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

BY YANN PHILIPPIN AND ALAIN LALLEMAND (LE SOIR), THIERRY DENOËL (LE VIF) ET
MARK EECKHAUT (DE STANDAARD)

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

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