As of April 13, 2022, France had frozen nearly €24 billion in Russian property and financial assets on its territory. Paradoxically, this seemingly significant figure is a kind of admission of impotence by the French authorities. In fact, the majority of the 33 luxury villas and apartments targeted are among those rare properties whose owners are not hidden. But what about the oligarchs whose fortunes are hidden behind cascades of offshore companies owned by front men?
Russian oligarchs particularly value these montages, as evidenced by documents from several data leaks (Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Fincen Files, Pandora Papers) uncovered in recent years by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), whose Cellule Investigation de Radio France is a partner. This data allowed us to partially reconstruct the map of financial empires hidden from tax authorities. And in that respect the example of Suleyman Kerimov is a textbook case. His name never appears directly or publicly, even in the confidential records of offshore companies. To carry out his operations, he seeks protection from trusted men based in Switzerland and his relatives (children and nephews).
For years, his entourage has been multiplying offshore companies in tax havens (British Virgin Islands, Cyprus) thanks to the company Trident Trust, which takes care of their registration in the main tax havens of the planet. These empty shells, created in minutes, have been used to transfer hundreds of millions of euros around Mr. Kerimov, thanks to opaque transactions whose aim seems to be to verify the origin and destination of these funds, as well as authenticity obscure beneficiaries of these operations.
Since the early 2000s and until recently, at the center of these montages we find a Swiss businessman, Alexander Studhalter. The Swiru Holding (for “Switzerland and Russia”) he claims to own has managed several dozen companies in tax havens, often linked to Suleyman Kerimov.
First observation: The shareholders of these financial envelopes change very regularly. Most often these are different companies stacked on top of each other. There are sometimes people who show up but serve as nominees. The companies managed by Swiru are current and former employees of Alexander Studhalter, clients of his trust company or, even more surprisingly, ordinary Swiss whose profile is amazing. For example, a tattoo artist from Lucerne, the city where Mr. Studhalter is located, is listed as a shareholder in Fletcher Ventures, based in the British Virgin Islands and managed by Swiru Holding.
In 2013, Fletcher Ventures transferred $100 million from his bank account at AS Expobank in Riga, Latvia to LT Trading’s Swiss bank account, also registered in the British Virgin Islands. That same year, Fletcher Ventures transferred $202 million to Moscow-based LLC Gilia. In both cases, the money went to companies associated with Suleyman Kerimov. The first of them belongs to Nariman Gadzhiev, the nephew of the Russian oligarch. The address of the second is identical to that of Suleyman Kerimov’s Millennium Group.
The tattoo artist, official beneficial owner of Fletcher Ventures according to documents in the Pandora Papers, who was met by our colleagues from Tamedia in Switzerland, refused to answer their questions and referred them to… Alexander Studhalter. The latter denies that the tattoo artist was the real owner of the offshore company. He told us that “The transaction took place nearly 10 years ago and Fletcher Ventures was liquidated. We are no longer able to provide information on the matter.”. The businessman told us that anyway “All dealings on own account, in part using nominee shareholders and managers under a trust arrangement, complied with anti-money laundering laws and fully complied with all other requirements.”. Before adding: “The identity of the beneficial owner was known to the authorities, offices and banks concerned, namely Mr. Alexander Studhalter.”
The ease with which these financial flows circulate and flow through major Western banks raises questions. In 2013, one of the banking institutions through which these transfers went made a fuss about the amounts and the profile of the companies involved. But the Bank of New York Mellon’s report to the American authorities was incomplete and confused the company LT Trading based in the British Virgin Islands with a company of the same name in Great Britain!
Other companies managed by Swiru Holding are involved in much larger financial deals. In a July 2017 deal signed between Russian banks and gold giant Polyus Gold, long controlled by Suleyman Kerimov, an addendum lists existing loans between companies affiliated with M. Kerimov and others managed by Alexander Studhalter will. And almost all of them are recorded in the British Virgin Islands.
So we find out that Wandle Holding, which owns Suleyman Kerimov’s stake in Polyus Gold, received more than $7 billion in loans from shells in tax havens managed by Swiru between 2012 and 2017. And here, too, the purpose of his operations seems difficult to understand. Alexander Studhalter repeats that he “had several offshore companies – for himself. He was the beneficial owner of those companies. So he went about his own business.”. Suleyman Kerimov did not answer our questions on this topic.
These strange financial transactions also took place in France, more precisely in Cap d’Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. Because the same Swiru Holding was at the center of a bitter legal dispute.
In summary, the judiciary accused the Swiss holding of having spent 127 million euros to acquire the villa called “Hier”, while the official sale price communicated to the tax office was only 35 million euros. In total, Swiru acquired four villas in Cap d’Antibes between 2006 and 2010. Alexander Studhalter and Suleyman Kerimov have already been charged and remanded in custody, but the charges against them were eventually dropped. However, the elements gathered by the investigating judge show that Swiru Holding, although officially owned by Alexander Studhalter, was actually owned by the Russian oligarch. What the two men are still arguing about.
According to court documents viewed by Radio France’s investigative unit, the banks involved in the purchases of the villas (Credit Suisse, Barclays and Société Générale Private Banking in Monaco) have in fact certified to the investigating magistrate that the oligarch Kerimov and/or his nephew Nariman Gadzhiev were the economic beneficiaries of this holding, and therefore the owners of the villas. In particular, a declaration of trust signed by Alexander Studhalter is mentioned, certifying that he holds the shares of Swiru on behalf of the Russian oligarch and/or his nephew. According to bank records, the latter also signed deeds as beneficiaries of the companies.
These elements were confirmed during a hearing by an employee of one of the banks: “When visiting the [villa] Médy Roc from Barclays, Mr Studhalter tells us that he had to redo the kitchen three times because Mrs Kerimov didn’t like it.”. Investigators also got their hands on emails showing the involvement of Suleyman Kerimov, dubbed “the boss” by staff, in the operation of the villas.
Alexander Studhalter alleges that Barclays and Société Générale documents were forged by an employee who worked at both banks. He argues that this fraud would have been recognized by the French judiciary. However, judicial sources have told the investigative unit that the Court of Appeal, which overturned the charges against Suleyman Kerimov and Alexander Studhalter, did not deal with the issue and has never ruled on the possible fraudulent nature of these bank documents.
Mr. Studhalter did not comment on the other bank documents, including those from Credit Suisse, which identify Suleyman Kerimov’s nephew as the beneficial owner of the Hier villa. In one of his answers, he simply states that he has not done business with Suleyman Kerimov since 2013 and that the mansions have been sold. Furthermore, the Trade and Companies Register, as well as the Register of Beneficial Owners, names Gulnara Kerimova, Suleyman Kerimov’s daughter, as the owner of the companies owning the villas, a disturbing coincidence.
According to Trident Trust documents, Gulnara Kerimova is also no stranger to the world of offshore companies. In late 2015, she joined her brother Said as a shareholder in a British Virgin Islands company, Millennium Executive Ltd. At that time, the managing director of offshore shell construction was … Alexander Studhalter. “I haven’t had any contact with Said Kerimov and Gulnara Kerimova for several years”however, the Swiss entrepreneur specifies.
More recently, in January 2018, the name Philipp Studhalter (Alexander’s brother) appears again in connection with Gulnara Kerimova and Said Kerimov. A lawyer by profession, he authenticated the passports of the two Russian citizens with his signature. He also sent a letter of recommendation to Trident Trust for Suleyman Kerimov’s two children. “We [cabinet d’avocats] We are pleased to confirm that our long-time client, Ms. Gulnara Kerimova, is a highly respected person of integrity.”he wrote.
Finally, in January 2018, VP Bank Vaduz in Lichtenstein sent a “strictly confidential” letter to Trident Trust: “At the request of our client, we confirm that Ms. Gulnara Kerimova […] has had a business relationship with our bank since November 2016”. A business relationship that caused some turbulence, as in 2016 several transfers from the VP Bank account to the company Definition Services Inc in the British Virgin Islands were reported by Deutsche Bank to the American authorities. According to the German bank that interviewed VP Bank, “Definition Services’ beneficial owners are Russian citizens Said Kerimov and Gulnara Kerimova, the children of Russian oligarch Suleyman Kerimov.” These suspicious transactions amount to 143 million euros and are estimated by Deutsche Bank to be “With no apparent economic or commercial purpose”.
We tried in vain to reach Gulnara Kerimova. Philipp Studhalter, who introduced himself as his lawyer in the letter of recommendation, answered us “No contact with her and her brother for years”, and unable to convey our questions to them. The managers of the companies based in France and Switzerland, of which Mrs. Kerimova appears as a beneficiary, refused to answer our questions.