LONDON Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive Kazakh oligarch accused of masterminding one of the largest frauds to be tried in Britain, has asked the Supreme Court to overturn a decision that his lawyer says denies him a fair trial.
Ablyazov, who went into hiding after a UK judge attempted to jail him in February for contempt of court, has instructed his lawyers to launch a last-ditch attempt to defend him against claims that top $5 billion (3.1 billion pounds).
London law firm Addleshaw Goddard, which has also represented Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, on Tuesday sought permission from the Supreme Court to appeal against a debarring order it calls an extreme measure in British law.
"The sanction (of debarring someone from a defence at trial) is too extreme," his lawyer Richard Leedham said. "It conflicts with the fundamental right we all have to a fair trial."
London, with its tradition-bound courts and a justice system globally respected for impartiality and integrity, remains the venue of choice for the warring wealthy, attracting so-called legal tourists from around the globe.
The drawn-out case between BTA Bank, once one of Kazakhstan's top banks, and its former chairman has been one of the largest fought in the UK in terms of the number of lawyers involved.
BRITISH JAIL FEARS
BTA, creditors of which include RBS, Barclays, Standard Chartered and HSBC, has now brought a total of 11 fraud charges against Ablyazov and his allies since the bank was nationalised and declared insolvent in 2009.
The bank, which is controlled by Kazakhstan's powerful sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna, accuses Ablyazov of using fraudulent loans and shell companies to line his and his lieutenants' pockets.
Ablyazov, 49, a former theoretical physics graduate, entrepreneur and Kazakh government minister, denies the allegations. He says that they are designed to rob him and eliminate him as an opponent to Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
Ablyazov fled the oil-rich state after BTA was taken over, saying his life was in danger. He was granted political asylum in Britain in 2011, but he says his security remains at risk.
If he manages to overturn the debarring order, Ablyazov wants to defend himself without disclosing his whereabouts.
"If he surrenders, he genuinely fears for his life in a British prison," said Leedham, who will not attempt another appeal of the 22-month jail sentence. "That's why he has not surrendered."
BTA declined to comment on Tuesday.
The latest attempt to derail proceedings against him comes after a High Court judge last month approved BTA's request to claim an initial $2.1 billion in damages from Ablyazov.
Because he is not expected to pay up, BTA is poised to begin the process of selling some of his more opulent UK properties, held under a worldwide freezing order. These include his nine-bedroom former home in London and a 100-acre (40-hectare) country estate.
The bank's efforts to start liquidating assets it says belong to Ablyazov are complicated because many are controlled via a chain of companies using trusted nominees and holding companies often registered in offshore jurisdictions.
The least contentious assets, however, include Carlton House on north London's "billionaire's row", The Bishops Avenue, where Ablyazov lived with his wife and three of his four children before he is believed to have boarded a coach bound for France.
With a 50ft ballroom, mosaic swimming pool, 12-person Turkish bath and car lift, it has been valued by estate agents at about 17 million pounds ($27 million).
Oaklands Park - a vast estate in southeast England that was once owned by U.S. computer billionaire Michael Dell - could come on the block next, with its carp and trout lakes, arboretum, polo facilities and large indoor pool.
In the meantime, the trial of the remaining defendants accused of conspiring with Ablyazov to defraud the bank continues in London. Should the Supreme Court allow an appeal and then rule in Ablyazov's favour, a re-trial will be called. ($1 = 0.6213 British pounds)
(Editing by David Goodman)