Russian billionaire senator under investigation in France

Resources magnate Suleiman Kerimov was arrested in Nice on suspicion of aggravated laundering of tax fraud proceeds.

A French judge has placed the Russian businessman and senator Suleiman Kerimov, whose interests the Kremlin has pledged to defend, under formal investigation after his arrest in a tax evasion case.

The investigation, a step that often but not always leads to a trial in the French legal system, was opened on suspicion of aggravated laundering of tax fraud proceeds, a crime that carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.

The judge in Nice decided that Kerimov could be released from detention but had to turn in his passport and could not leave the immediate area. He was also ordered to post a bail of five million euros ($5.9 million) and to check in with police several times per week.

A French judicial source said the investigation centred on the purchase of several luxury residences on the French Riviera via shell companies, something that could have enabled Kerimov to reduce taxes.

The Kremlin said earlier that it would spare no effort to defend the rights of Kerimov, a 51-year-old billionaire who was arrested at Nice airport on Monday night.

Shares in Polyus, Russia’s biggest gold producer which is controlled by Kerimov’s family, fell on the news of his detention.

“We will do everything in our power to protect his lawful interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters. “Intensive work is now being undertaken by the foreign ministry.”

The prosecution had requested that Kerimov be kept in custody. A second person was also put under formal investigation.

A representative for Kerimov in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, where he sits as a lawmaker, declined to comment on the case on Wednesday when contacted by Reuters. Polyus also declined to comment.

Russia’s state-run Rossiya 24 TV station, citing an unnamed source, reported that Kerimov had denied any guilt.

In the lower house of parliament, lawmaker Rizvan Kurbanov complained that there had been no explanation about the detention from France

and hoped the Russian foreign ministry would issue a formal protest.

Originally from the mainly Muslim Russian region of Dagestan, Kerimov built his lucrative natural resources business through a combination of debt, an appetite for risk, and political connections.

He owned the football club Anzhi Makhachkala until he sold it in 2016.

Kerimov’s fortune peaked at $17.5bn in 2008 before slumping to $3bn in 2009, according to Forbes magazine, due to so-called margin calls on his assets triggered by the 2007-2009 global financial crisis.