French authorities have dropped tax fraud charges against the Russian billionaire Suleyman Kerimov, who was accused of illegally using middlemen to buy luxury villas on the Cote d’Azur.
“The legal arguments which we raised for dropping the charges against Mr Kerimov were accepted and the indictment for laundering the proceeds of tax evasion was cancelled,” lawyers Jacqueline Laffont, Nikita Sichov and Pierre Haik said in a statement.
Moscow had responded angrily when the oligarch, who denied wrongdoing, was arrested in November, prompting the Russian government to summon France’s deputy ambassador.
But a court in the southern French city of Aix-en-Provence has ordered the charges dropped.
Kerimov had in December been ordered to post bail of 40 million euros ($47 million) and to hand over his passport, but authorities had already relaxed the pre-trial restrictions, allowing him to travel back and forth to Russia.
His defence team said they had managed to convince the court that the allegations against Kerimov did not qualify as money-laundering.
“The allegations, which are contested, are those of tax fraud and not laundering,” they said.
Swiss banker Alexander Studhalter, who had been accused of helping Kerimov to buy properties illicitly, also saw his charges dropped.
Investigators had suspected Kerimov of using huge amounts of undeclared cash, drawn from accounts in Switzerland and Monaco and transferred to a shell company, to buy five luxury villas on the exclusive Cap d’Antibes peninsula.
The case signalled prosecutors’ willingness to pursue alleged money laundering and tax evasion in the top-end property market in the south of France, long a favourite destination for the rich and famous.
Listed by Forbes magazine as Russia’s 21st richest person with an estimated net worth of $6.3 billion, Kerimov made his money from the privatisations that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Known as one of Russia’s most eligible bachelors, the flamboyant but media-shy Kerimov has hired the likes of Beyonce to entertain friends in Cap d’Antibes, even in the midst of the 2008 global financial crisis — in which he lost billions.
Originally from Russia’s North Caucasus region of Dagestan where he began his working life at a Soviet transistor factory, Kerimov has owned stakes at various times in Russian energy, banking and mining giants such as Gazprom, Sberbank and potash producer Uralkali.
He once controlled Dagestan’s Anzhi Makhachkala football club, which at one point topped the Russian league when he poured millions into buying players like Roberto Carlos and Samuel Eto’o.
But after losing a significant part of his fortune, he sold most of his shares in the club.
His family now controls Russia’s largest gold producer, Polyus.
In 2006, he crashed his Ferrari Enzo while speeding along Nice’s seafront, sustaining severe burns.