WHAT HAPPENED IN KUWAIT?
Marsha Lazareva, 44, had her successful career as CEO and vice-chairman of private equity group KGL Investment, as well as her life as a full-time single mother to her four-year-old son, abruptly put on hold after just one fateful day.
Roughly 13 years after the Wharton School graduate had relocated Kuwait to help the KGL Group reorganise its operations as the company's Strategic Director, Kuwaiti authorities arrested and detained her on November 2017 on charges of embezzling funds connected with The Port Fund, the company’s lucrative investment fund which she helped double to $380m since its inception.
Even though she was released on $30m bail in February 2018, authorities did not stop there. Ms Lazareva was reconvicted in May 2018 and sentenced to 10 years in Sulaibiya prison – one of Kuwait’s most notorious jails – without the chance to present her defence or to see her son over the course of her detainment. Her arbitrary detention in the Gulf country threatened to end 20 years of success and prestige as one of the finance industry's top performers.
But after serving a year in prison, Ms. Lazareva’s case was nullified by the Kuwaiti Court of Appeal on 5 May 2019, as new developments found that the very evidence used to convict her had been forged by a Kuwaiti official.
Mr Hamad Al Allayan, State Audit Bureau of Kuwait manager, was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison in late May by the Kuwaiti Court of Appeal for the forgeries, but later fled Kuwait to avoid facing justice.
474 days later, Ms Lazareva is a free woman after an anonymous patron donated the remaining $3.3m of her bail. But the generous contribution has allowed the businesswoman to fight only half the battle as her 23 June hearing will prove a critical test, Adam Smith-Anthony, a member of Ms Lazareva’s international defence team, said.
ADAM SMITH-ANTHONY: She was arrested and detained in November 2017 through numerous criminal charges where no credible evidence has been presented to her or the courts, yet has been convicted on one of those charges and been imprisoned for over 470 days before her release on bail last week. As a result, we think a great amount of pressure is being brought to bear domestically and internationally.
She has a new hearing on Sunday, 23 June, when, remarkably, the Court of Appeals will be trying her case afresh using the same judge who refused to hear from her witnesses and denied her the opportunity to present her legal arguments, or see the evidence against her.
So, we welcome this step in the right direction of her being released on bail and being able to see her young son, whom she has not seen for a very long time, and are carefully watching the developments from her hearing on Sunday.
SPUTNIK: Has Ms Lazareva described her experiences following her 12 June release from Sulaibiya prison? Can you give us an update on her condition and whether or not she has contacted her family?
ADAM SMITH-ANTHONY: Sulaibiya Prison is infamous for overcrowding and Marsha was detained in a cell designed for two people, but was cooped up with six other women. Her legal team has become increasingly concerned with her deteriorating physical and mental health, which I think was a direct result of the conditions of her detention but also, the arbitrariness of her treatment.
Concerns about her deteriorating wellbeing are one of the reasons we have internationalised attention on her case and brought urgent submissions to UN special mechanisms, namely the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) and Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, and we’re hoping that greater attention and scrutiny from the international community and others can help justice be done, so that Marsha can start putting her family, professional and personal lives back together.
Additionally, whilst she’s been released on bail last week, she remains under surveillance. She was followed out of prison by three cars by what appears to be members of Kuwait’s security services or other law enforcement, which was clearly designed to intimidate her. It’s very threatening behaviour and belies any notion that she’s innocent until proven guilty; a position she should currently enjoy.
SPUTNIK: Which observations could you make about Mrs Blair’s leadership role in the case? How has her guidance benefitted Omnia Strategy’s defence team, and have there been similar cases in Mrs Blair’s career?
ADAM SMITH-ANTHONY: Ms Lazareva has had formed for her a formidable team internationally. Mrs. Blair had been approached by predominantly US-based Crowell & Moring LLP, who have been working on aspects of the case for Marsha and her co-defendant, Saeed Dashti, who is still languishing in prison having suffered much of the same treatment as her.
Mrs Blair and Omnia Strategy were brought on board earlier this year to advise on the case’s merits, namely whether Kuwait has been meeting international human rights and due process standards, to which it is obliged to adhere through various treaties and basic ethics.
Early assessments led by Mrs Blair found woeful shortcomings in the processes and procedures seen in Marsha’s case, including being roughly handled going into court, and unable to speak confidentially with her lawyers or review evidence against her.
For example, she had been belatedly given some files on a USB drive, but no confidential computer access in prison. We’ve requested to see those documents, and there have been issues on translations for them, and the list goes on. So Mrs Blair’s role has been to lead in international UN human rights engagement and advocacy in support of the local team in Kuwait, who are doing everything they can under very difficult circumstances and in partnership with international colleagues and friends, particularly the US and in Russia, where there’s a great deal of interest gathering in Ms Lazareva’s and Mr Dashti’s cases.
SPUTNIK: How is this case affecting the Kuwaiti government’s position in the international community? Do you believe Ms Lazareva’s arbitrary detention trial will impact future investments in the Gulf nation?
ADAM SMITH-ANTHONY: That’s a very good question and it goes into the heart of why Kuwait is currently feeling a considerable amount of pressure, precisely because Kuwait has enjoyed and very jealously promotes its reputation as a stable economic opportunity and environment for inward investment for people to do business. It is also enjoying its presidency at the UN Security Council and its Emir was recently lauded by the World Bank for promoting humanitarian causes globally.
Yet, when you compare this carefully curated reputation to facts on the ground, there’s a huge disparity, which is garnering interest amongst diplomatic and business circles whom must re-evaluate their presumptions on what it’s like to work with Kuwait.
They understand that if a prominent businesswoman like Marsha can be so appallingly treated, maybe they should not look at doing business with Kuwait with any level of excitement, but rather with a degree of trepidation and wait until a stronger rule of law and certainty can be established.
SPUTNIK: Which political figures have gotten involved in the case and what have said? What does this say about the effectiveness of the international community when it works together?
ADAM SMITH-ANTHONY: I think there’s a great deal of interest including at high offices of state around the world, for example, this matter has been raised with US president Donald Trump. Others involved in Ms Lazareva and Mr Dashti’s case include Mr Neil Bush, George W Bush’s brother, former US judge and FBI director Louis Freeh, former US secretary of veterans affairs Jim Nicholson, former congressman Ed Royce, former Florida attorney general Pat Bundy, and the list goes on.
In the US, this shows two things: the close relationship between the US and Kuwait, historically, and obviously, the Bush family have personal reasons to be interested in Kuwait’s flourishing following the Gulf War in the early 90s.
But more broadly, there’s been a close business and military relationship between the two countries, and many influential people in the US are eager to deal with a partner in Kuwait which is reliable and respectful of international human rights standards, but also someone that can be trusted, rather than getting into such cases as those we’ve seen here.
There’s also a great deal of interest on the Russian side, and we have been in contact with Tatyana Yumasheva, daughter of Boris Yeltsin whose foundation are very concerned, interested, and are monitoring the situation effectively. We are working closely with all stakeholders, including the Russian authorities in Moscow, Kuwait and London. I know that Russian president Vladimir Putin is following this, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, is actively engaged, has sought assurances from Kuwait and is reporting back from within Russia.
In the international community, we will ask other states and actors to press Kuwait for more information, transparency, assurances, and most importantly, a fair process and just outcome. Interestingly, Kuwait will be subject to a full review of its human rights performance in January or February 2020 as part of the UN Universal Periodic Review, which will be an opportunity for states and others to ask questions and make recommendations. In our view, it would be entirely appropriate for the US, Russia and others to engage with Kuwait concerning this difficult situation.
SPUTNIK: Given that defence attorney to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, Jennifer Robinson, is also working on Ms Lazareva's case, can you offer us your thoughts on similarities or differences between the two? Why is it important to fight for the rights of those whom have been arbitrarily detained according to the guidelines of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UN-WGAD)?
ADAM SMITH-ANTHONY: We’re delighted to have Jennifer Robinson from Doughty Street Chambers as part of our legal team. We’re also working with Jonathan Worboys from Four New Square, who is a rising human rights expert. Regarding Julian Assange, Ms Robinson is a part of his legal defence team and I am not involved in his case, but I can only comment on commonalities amongst all cases of arbitrary detention regarding questions around due process, fair trial rights, human and defence rights of those detained by state forces, and the ability of the international community to monitor and supervise as well as provide guidance for states who may get this very wrong.
In Marsha and Sayeed’s cases, there are profoundly disturbing questions surrounding the adequacy of their protections in Kuwait and freedom with which the authorities and some particular individuals – judges, prosecutors, the attorney general, and others – seem to have responded to vested interests or taken decisions that are so arbitrary that they defy any attempt at a rational explanation. It does, I'm afraid, suggest some shadowy reasons why Kuwaiti authorities have acted in this way.
Given that arbitrary detention will invariably involve exercises of state coercive power, it’s completely proper and appropriate to have an international forum of experts to turn to so that such incidents don’t quickly happen quietly in areas of the world shielded from public scrutiny.
In addition to our urgent request to the UN Special Rapporteur and engagement with UNWGAD, we will also work with UN institutions and other bodies and agencies, including in Geneva this month to coincide with the 41st Session of Human Rights Council.
We hope this continued pressure will result in fairer processes and establishment of the rule of law. If this is the case, the only outcome can complete exoneration and release from jail for Ms Lazareva and Mr Dashti, with the charges dropped, and – in Marsha’s case – a removal of the travel bans, which have so far kept her in Kuwait and prevented her from renewing her US green card and British investment visa.
We hope that your readers will be interested in this and follow her story and continue to ask questions to their representatives to help shine a light on what’s going on in Kuwait.
Mr Smith-Anthony is the Head of the Business & Human Rights practice at Omnia Strategy and spoke about the developments surrounding her case. He is a prominent and qualified UK solicitor whom has advised state entities in international criminal and humanitarian law and has acted as lead negotiator and infrastructure deals with Eastern European states, among many others.