How Sarkozy's former spy chief worked on behalf of Kazakhstan

By

On Wednesday March 4th, France’s top appeal court ruled that billionaire Kazakh opposition politician and former banker Mukhtar Ablyazov could be extradited over an alleged six-billion-euro fraud. Meanwhile, behind the scenes in this complex affair, a mysterious website has revealed a mass of emails hacked from Kazakhstan leaders. They reveal that Bernard Squarcini, who was the head of France's domestic intelligence agency under President Nicolas Sarkozy, has worked as a consultant on behalf of the Kazakh authorities in relation to the Ablyazov affair. Talking to Mediapart, Squarcini admits the Kazakh government is a client of the firm he works for and that he has worked on the case, but denies claims that he tried to “infiltrate” Ablyazov's team of lawyers and supporters. Agathe Duparc reports on this murky affair.

This article is freely available. Check out our subscription offers. Subscribe

Nicolas Sarkozy's former spy chief has been working on behalf of the Kazakhstan government in its bitter battle against one of that country's leading political opponents, Mediapart can reveal. Bernard Squarcini, who headed France's domestic intelligence agency, the Direction centrale du renseignement intérieur (DCRI), from 2007 to 2012, is a senior advisor for a global intelligence agency hired by the Kazak authorities to help in the so-called Ablyazov affair. This involves attempts by Kazakhstan's allies Russia and Ukraine to seek the extradition from France of former banker and billionaire Kazakh opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov over an alleged banking fraud.

Squarcini, whose brief including advising the Kazakhstan government on the French extradition process, helped fix meetings with key figures in France for a Kazahh delegation that came to the country in 2014, Mediapart can reveal. But the former spy chief denies claims that he was involved in an attempt to “infiltrate” the dissident Ablyazov's entourage.

The Ablyazov case is a vast and complex  affair, a titanic battle that is being fought out between the Kazakh capital Astana, London, Paris and Geneva through battalions of lawyers, private detectives, hackers, PR consultants and lobbyists of all kinds. A potentially crucial stage in the saga occured on Wednesday March 4th, when France's top appeal court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that Ablyazov could be extradited from France. He was arrested at Mouans-Sartoux, north of Cannes in the south of France on July 31st, 2013. Russia and the Ukraine are seeking his extradition, claiming he embezzled up to six billion euros from the Kazakh BTA Bank of which he was chairman from 2005 to 2009. On October 24th, 2014, the appeal court in Lyon had also ruled that the Kazakh businessman could be sent abroad for trial. However, even after the Court of Cassation's ruling, extradition is not automatic; it has to be approved by a decree by the French government.

Ablyazov and his supporters say that the extradition claims by those countries is just a ruse and that they are in effect acting as puppets for Kazakhstan which does not have an extradition treaty with France and whose dictator, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is Ablyazov's sworn enemy. They insist the entire affair has been orchestrated at the highest levels by the Kazakh authorities and that Western justice systems are being used. Ablyazov's team say the extradition attempt is an act of vengeance by Nazarbayev's supportersagainst the one person able to eclipse the dictator, and claim his entourage will stop at nothing, including buying well-placed supporters in France itself.   

Mukhtar Abliazov © Reuters Mukhtar Abliazov © Reuters

Meanwhile a WikiLeaks-style website called Kazaword has been publishing a mass of documentation - 69 gigabytes of it – relating to the background of the Ablyazov affair. In particular the website, which first appeared in August 2014, has revealed details of tens of thousands of emails hacked from the accounts of senior political and judicial figures in Kazakhstan. The leaked emails reveal the names in France, and elsewhere, of senior figures who have been hired to bring down the billionaire banker. And among these figures is Bernard Squarcini.

In April 2014 Squarcini was convicted and fined 8,000 euros for checking the phone records of journalists from Le Monde to try to find the source of a leak that could have embarrassed Sarkozy. He has now retired from public service and in June 2013 he began working as a “senior advisor” for the company Arcanum AG. Arcanum is a 'strategic global intelligence firm' based in Zurich in Switzerland and a subsidiary of the American investment group RJI Capital Holding, founded by Bangladesh-born American Ron Wahib. It specialises in economic and strategic intelligence for governments and also employs a former director of Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, Meir Dagan, and the American general and former deputy head of the US special operations command, Joseph DiBartolomeo.

One of the firm's most high-profile clients is the Kazakhstan government. Among the many documents released by Kazaword, Mediapart has found hundreds of emails showing that Arcanum AG was part of the war machine put in place by the authorities in the Kazakh capital Astana against Mukhtar Ablyazov, alongside the large law firms also appointed by the Kazakh justice system. It appears from the emails that the company regularly sent “investigation reports” to the judicial authorities in Astana, for which they were handsomely paid. However the contents of these reports themselves cannot be accessed, as they were stored on a secure server.

According to Mediapart's information, Bernard Squarcini's role was to inform the Kazakh authorities on the progress of the Ablyatov legal proceedings and to lobby certain figures in France. Several emails found on Kazaword show that the former head of the DCRI carried out some of the groundwork in France for the visit of a Kazakh delegation to Paris from June 25th to 27th, 2014. Four people took part in that trip: former prime minister, former mayor of Astana and current defence minister Imangali Tasmagambetov; Kenes Rakishev, chairman of the board at BTA Bank; Marat Beketayev, deputy minister for justice; and his former advisor Nourlan Nourgabylov, who is now head of the legal department at BTA Bank. The last two are in charge of the country's legal proceedings against Ablyazov.

Bernard Squarcini © Reuters Bernard Squarcini © Reuters

An email exchange between Marat Beketayev and Nourlan Nourgabylov, on the eve of this “essentially private” visit, says that their main point of contact will be Bernard Squarcini, who is described as “the head of the French secret services under N. Sarkozy and now working with Arcanum”. His role was to supply “information concerning the state of the proceedings” involving Ablyazov, and also to make “strategic recommendations, including on the meetings” in Paris. One of the staff at Arcanum told Marat Beketayev that the meeting would take place on June 25th “at a time that suits you”. He then adds, astonishingly: “Please find attached the biographies of JD, LO and XB who work for BC [Bernard Squarcini] behind the scenes.”

These initials refer to Julien Dray, a senior figure in the Socialist Party who is currently a councillor on the Paris region council, Laurent Obadia, a former public relations advisor to L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt and currently director of communications at French multinational company Veolia Environnement, and Xavier Boucobza, a law professor and consultant at international law firm Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. These biographical notes, prepared by Arcanum, outline their education and training and their careers but also scandals, rumours, worrying connections or issues with the law, if any. For the most part it concerns information already in the public domain.

Extend your reading on Mediapart Unlimited access to the Journal free contribution in the Club Subscribe

This story was updated on March 4th, 2015, to reflect the ruling of the Court of Cassation on Mukhtar Ablyazov's extradition.