As of April 13, 2022, France had frozen nearly €24 billion of Russian real estate and financial assets on its territory. This figure, important at first glance, is paradoxically a kind acknowledgment of impotence by the French authorities. In fact, most of the 33 luxury villa and apartment properties in question are among the rare properties whose owners’ identities are not hidden. But what about the oligarchs whose assets are hidden behind cascades of offshore companies owned by figureheads?
Russian oligarchs are especially fond of these setups, as evidenced by documents from various data leaks (Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Fincen Files, Pandora Papers) revealed in recent years by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) whose Cellule Investigation de Radio France is a partner. These data allowed us to partially reconstruct the map of the financial empires hidden from the tax authorities. And as such, the Suleyman Kerimov example is a textbook case. His name never appears directly, or publicly, not even in the confidential data of offshore companies. To carry out his operations, he takes refuge behind trusted men based in Switzerland and his relatives (children and nephew).
For years its environment has multiplied offshore companies in tax havens (British Virgin Islands, Cyprus) thanks to the Cabinet Trident Trust who is in charge of its registration in the main tax havens of the planet. These empty shells, created in a few minutes, were used to move hundreds of millions of euros around Mr. Kerimov thanks to opaque transactions whose objective seems to be to hide the origin and destination of these funds, as well as the true beneficiary of these operations.
From the early 2000s until recently, we find at the center of these montages a Swiss businessman, Alexander Studhalter. The Swiru (for “Switzerland and Russia”) holding company, which he claims to own, has managed several dozen companies in tax havens, often linked to Suleyman Kerimov.
First observation: the shareholders of these financial shells change very regularly. In most cases, these are multiple companies stacked on top of each other. Sometimes there are people who appear, but to serve as nominees. In the case of the companies managed by Swiru, there are current and former employees of Alexander Studhalter, clients of his trust company or, more surprisingly, simple Swiss citizens whose profile is staggering. This is how a tattoo artist based in Lucerne, the city that houses the offices of Mr. Studhalter, is listed as a shareholder in the company Fletcher Ventures, based in the British Virgin Islands and managed by Swiru Holding.
In 2013, Fletcher Ventures transferred $100 million from its AS Expobank-based bank account in Riga, Latvia, to LT Trading’s Swiss bank account, also registered in the British Virgin Islands. That same year, Fletcher Ventures sent $202 million to Moscow-based LLC Gilia. In both cases, the money benefited companies linked to Suleyman Kerimov. The first of them is owned by Nariman Gadzhiev, the Russian oligarch’s nephew. The address of the second is identical to that of Suleyman Kerimov’s Millennium Group.
Known to our colleagues at Tamedia in Switzerland, the tattoo artist, official beneficial owner of Fletcher Ventures according to Pandora Papers documents, refused to answer their questions and referred them to… Alexander Studhalter. The latter denies that the tattoo artist was the true owner of the offshore company. he let us know that “The transaction took place almost 10 years ago and Fletcher Ventures has been liquidated. We can no longer provide information on this matter.”. However, the businessman told us that “all transactions for my own account, in part using nominee shareholders and managers under a fiduciary agreement, 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 banking establishment in question, namely Mr. Alexander Studhalter.”
The ease with which these financial flows circulate, passing through the big Western banks, raises questions. In 2013, one of the banking establishments through which these transfers passed made a big scandal due to the amounts and the profile of the companies involved. But the report made by the Bank of New York Mellon to the US 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 the Swiru holding company are involved in much larger financial operations. In a contract signed in July 2017 between Russian banks and gold giant Polyus Gold, long controlled by Suleyman Kerimov, an addendum lists existing loans between companies linked to M Kerimov and others managed by Alexander Studhalter. And almost all of them are registered in the British Virgin Islands.
We thus discovered that the company Wandle Holding, which owns Suleyman Kerimov’s shares in Polyus Gold, received more than seven billion dollars in loans between 2012 and 2017 from ghosts in tax havens managed by Swiru. And here again, the purpose of their operations seems difficult to understand. Alexander Studhalter repeats that he “He had several companies abroad, for himself. He was the final beneficiary of these companies. So he was making his own deals”. As for Suleyman Kerimov, he did not answer our questions on this topic.
These strange financial operations also took place in France, and more precisely in Cap d’Antibes on the Côte d’Azur. Because the Swiru farm itself was at the center of a high-profile court case.
In summary, the justice criticized the Swiss holding company for having disbursed 127 million euros for the acquisition of the Villa called “Hier”, while the official sale price transmitted to the tax services was only 35 million euros. In total, Swiru bought four villas in Cap d’Antibes between 2006 and 2010. Once indicted and remanded in custody, Alexander Studhalter and Suleyman Kerimov eventually saw the charges against them dropped. But the elements collected by the investigating judge show that the Swiru holding company, although officially owned by Alexander Studhalter, was actually owned by the Russian oligarch. What the two men still dispute.
According to court documents consulted by the investigative unit of Radio France, the banks involved in the purchase of the villas (Credit Suisse, Barclays and Société Générale Private Banking in Monaco) have certified to the investigating judge, documents in the support, that the El oligarch Kerimov and/or his nephew Nariman Gadzhiev were the financial beneficiaries of this property and thus the owners of the villas. In particular, there is mention of a statement of trust signed by Alexander Studhalter certifying that he owns Swiru’s shares on behalf of the Russian oligarch and/or his nephew’s. The latter have also signed, according to bank documents, certificates as beneficiaries of the companies.
These elements were confirmed during a hearing by an employee of one of the banks: “During a visit to the [villa] Médy Roc of Barclays, Mr. Studhalter tells us that he had to remodel the kitchen three times because Ms. Kerimov disliked it.”. Investigators also obtained emails showing the involvement of Suleyman Kerimov, referred to by employees as “the boss,” in the operation of the villas.
Alexander Studhalter claims that the 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 French justice. However, judicial sources have specified to the Investigation Unit that the Court of Appeal, which annulled the accusations of Suleyman Kerimov and Alexander Studhalter, did not deal with this matter, and that it 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, showing Suleyman Kerimov’s nephew as the beneficial owner of Villa Hier. In one of his responses, he simply specifies that he has no business with Suleyman Kerimov since 2013 and that the villas have been sold. In addition, the Register of Commerce and Companies, like the Register of Beneficial Owners, designates Gulnara Kerimova, the daughter of Suleyman Kerimov, as the owner of the companies holding the villas, a disturbing coincidence.
Gulnara Kerimova is also no stranger to the world of offshore companies according to documents from the Trident Trust firm. At the end of 2015 she appeared herself, alongside her brother Said de Ella, as a shareholder in a British Virgin Islands company, Millennium Executive Ltd. At the time, the manager of the offshore shell was… Alexander Studhalter. “I have not been in contact with Said Kerimov and Gulnara Kerimova for a few years”specifies however the Swiss businessman.
More recently, in January 2018, the name of Philipp Studhalter (Alexander’s brother) appears again, in relation to Gulnara Kerimova and Said Kerimov. A lawyer by profession, he affixed his signature to certify the passports of the two Russian citizens. He also sent a letter of recommendation to the Trident Trust for Suleyman Kerimov’s two sons. “Us [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, still in January 2018, the VP Bank of Vaduz in Lichtenstein sent a “strictly confidential” letter to the firm Trident Trust: “At the request of our client, we confirm that Ms. Gulnara Kerimova […] has had a commercial relationship with our bank since November 2016”. A commercial relationship that generated a certain stir, since several transfers made in 2016, from the VP Bank account to the Definition Services Inc company in the British Virgin Islands, were reported to the US authorities by Deutsche Bank. According to the German bank that interviewed VP Bank, “The ultimate beneficiaries of Definition Services are Russian citizens, Said Kerimov and Gulnara Kerimova, the sons of Russian oligarch Suleyman Kerimov.” These suspicious transactions amount to 143 million euros, and are judged by the German bank as “without apparent economic or commercial purpose”.
We tried to reach Gulnara Kerimova, in vain. Introducing herself as his lawyer in the letter of recommendation, Philipp Studhalter replied to us “no longer be in contact with her and her brother for years”, and not being able to convey our questions to them. The administrators of the companies domiciled in France and Switzerland, of which Ms. Kerimova is listed as the beneficiary, refused to answer our questions.