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By John Helmer, Moscow

In a ruling issued on June 28 and now publicly available, the Chief Magistrate of England, Emma Arbuthnot, has dismissed an application by Russian prosecutors for extradition of Andrei Votinov. He is charged in Russia with fraud against the Rosneft subsidiary, the Tuapse Oil Refinery. The 33-page judgement is a rare test in an international court of the reputation of Igor Sechin, chief executive of Rosneft.   

Arbuthnot rejected allegations by Votinov that Sechin was persecuting him or that Sechin had played an improper role in Rosneft’s audit and subsequent complaint of fraud.  She dismissed Votinov’s claim that he was being targeted by Sechin because he had “stood against Rosneft’s political support for the regime.”

The judge also rejected the claims by a British academic, Richard Sakwa, who testified on Votinov’s behalf to the court  that the case had been fabricated against him,  motivated by personal vindictiveness on Sechin’s part and by Votinov’s political views.

Nonetheless, Arbuthnot dismissed the extradition request by the Russian prosecutors and released Votinov. Because of “the prominent role of the complainant [Rosneft] in this case and the false statement given by a senior investigator [Murat Tkhakakhov] ,” Arbuthnot wrote in her judgement, “I find the facts in this case lead me to the conclusion that this is one of those exceptional cases where the defendant [Votinov] has shown there is a real risk that he will suffer a flagrant denial of justice if he were to be extradited to the Russian Federation.”

The Russian prosecution case against Votinov dates from November 2015. Before then he had been promoted by Sechin from heading the Tuapse refinery, on the Black Sea, to a seat on the Rosneft management board in Moscow where he was vice president for capital construction. A Financial Times report promoted Votinov, a military cadet and PhD in science,  as an example of the new management skills Sechin was introducing to Rosneft. 

TUAPSE REFINERY AND TERMINAL ON THE ROSNEFT MAP OF OPERATIONS


Tuapse refinery is one of the oldest in Russia, and is being modernized and its output expanded by Rosneft. It currently produces about 240,000 barrels per day from crude oil piped in from oilfields in western Siberia and southern Russia. The Tuapse terminal is one of the largest outlets for crude oil and petroleum product shipments in the Black Sea.

Exactly what happened between protégé and patron leading to Sechin’s decision to sack Votinov in April of 2015 is not clear in the court papers, nor in Russian reporting on the case. Conflict of interest between Votinov’s private construction business and his role in deciding Rosneft’s construction contracts was reported in the Russian press long before the criminal case against him was formally submitted to a local court on November 30, 2015.  Testimony in the London proceeding did not alert Arbuthnot to this.

Votinov was indicted on the charge that between August 2012 and April 2015 he and a business partner had defrauded the Tuapse refinery, and thus Rosneft,  by arranging to rent an office  building which was not completed and never used for purpose. Votinov owned the building through his sister;  a partner;  and an entity registered in the British Virgin Islands.  For the broader context of the case as reported by independent investigators in Moscow, click to read.  

The magistrate’s summary of the facts in the case is that the money paid out, and thus allegedly defrauded, was Rb156.9 million (about £1.9 million).  Votinov, according to the prosecution papers in the London court, “kn[ew] that the building was not ready for occupation yet the payments continued and the senior managers at Rosneft were defrauded as a result.” Another Rb344 million £4.1 million) was paid to Votinov’s company for leasing the land on which the office block was built.


Left to right: Chief Magistrate and Senior District Judge Emma Arbuthnot; Andrei Votinov; Igor Sechin, Chief Executive of Rosneft.

In a parallel case, in which Votinov was alleged to be implicated but which was not part of the London extradition case, a company was paid to reconstruct a mooring at the Tuapse oil terminal;  took the money; but failed to complete the job. That alleged fraud reportedly cost Rosneft Rb137.9 million (£1.7 million). A counter claim by the contractor alleged that Rosneft owed but  refused to pay Rb7 billion (£84.3 million) for work already done.

A fresh indictment of Votinov, by then in London, was opened by the prosecutors in February 2017; that was fifteen months after the original indictment. The new charge was that Votinov had arranged for the Tuapse refinery to pay his personal company Rb2.8 billion (£33.7 million) in “unsubstantiated expenses”.

The proceeding in the Westminster Magistrates’ Court included three days of hearings in March and May. As is customary in extradition cases, the evidence of the prosecution indictments was not directly tried. Instead, the court was asked to agree to extradition or to refuse, based on British and international law covering the risks of prejudicial trial in Russia or inhumane and unlawful conditions of imprisonment.

Sakwa (right) is a professor of Russian politics at the University of Kent. He was retained to give evidence for Votinov.  Sakwa is not an expert on Russian business, oil, construction, or shipping. According to Arbuthnot, “his evidence was about the general political situation and then about Mr Votinov’s position in particular.  Unfortunately his evidence that Mr Votinov was resisting the political machinations of Mr Sechin was based on a proof from the RP [Requested Person, Votinov] that was not provided either to Mr Caldwell  [lawyer for the Russian prosecution] or to the court.  I was concerned that this only became clear in cross-examination.  It meant I could give very little weight to some of [Sakwa’s] conclusions based as they were on at least one document, Mr Votinov’s instructions, that the court had not seen.” 

“The question for this court is whether the request for extradition has been made on account of Mr Votinov’s political opinions or whether he might be prejudiced at his trial on account of his political opinions.” Arbuthnot decided this point against Votinov and Sakwa. “There is evidence in this case of a close tie between big business and politics. Professor Sakwa says Mr Votinov was resisting Mr Sechin’s political machinations and that is why he is being prosecuted. In the Russian Federation it is often hard to distinguish between politics and business and therefore I find that the circumstances set out by the Professor if proved might fall within the definition of section 81 [of the Extradition Act].  I find no evidence however, sufficient to support the bar [to extradition] under either section 81(a) or (b).”

The judge’s ruling in Votinov’s favour might have gone against him, she acknowledged, noting that  Sechin’s  role in the case was far less significant than that of the principal prosecutor in the case, Major-General Murat Tkhakakhov. According to Arbuthnot, he had lied in the record of Russian court proceedings presented in London. “Trust is an important part of extradition.  On 8th February 2018, the very senior investigator, the Major-General of Justice, M A Tkhakakhov [right], the Head of Criminal Investigation of the Main Investigation Directorate of the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation for the North Caucasus Federal District misled the court… Another piece of evidence to consider when looking at the possible fairness of any trial is the 8th February 2018 document.  I received a false statement which had been written by a Major-General who was the head of criminal investigation for the Investigative Committee of the North Caucasus Federal District.  The attitude of such a senior officer of the Committee was disappointing to say the least…The Major-General’s statement is an important factor in the decision I have made.”

On Sechin, Arbuthnot’s judgement was:  “I accept that there is evidence that in the past Mr Sechin has been involved in corporate raiding as explained by the witness.  I accepted the evidence of Dr Gladyshev that ‘the ethos of achieving commercial, personal and political aims through a blatant manipulation of the Russian legal system is deeply imbued in the corporate culture of the high echelons of Rosneft’.  The way that Mr Sechin acquired the assets of Basneft [sic] in a controversial way is also covered in Dr Gladyshev’s report.  Criminal and civil cases were used against the company to gain its assets.”

Read the judgement in full here.

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