Russian Billionaire Kerimov Beats French Laundering Charges

(Bloomberg) -- Russian Senator Suleyman Kerimov won a ruling that struck down money-laundering charges against him in France, allowing the billionaire to leave the country and dealing a setback to French prosecutors in a high-profile political case.

“It ends the charges against Kerimov,” Jacqueline Laffont, one of his lawyers, said by telephone. “This is great news for Kerimov and a great legal victory.”

French prosecutors had accused him of laundering money obtained through tax fraud in deals to buy four villas on the Riviera worth hundreds of millions of euros. The high-profile case had sparked fears in Russia of a “witch hunt” in the West against wealthy Kremlin-connected tycoons and was cited in the April decision by the U.S. Treasury to impose sweeping financial sanctions on Kerimov.

Nice prosecutor Jean-Michel Pretre admitted that the rulings came as “a surprise” but refused to elaborate, saying each decision needs to be carefully analyzed. The ruling from a court in Aix-en-Provence, which isn’t public, can be appealed to France’s top court.

Shares in Polyus PJSC, the big Russian gold miner that is controlled by Kerimov’s college-age son, jumped by as much as 7.6 percent -- the most in nearly three months -- and were up 6.8 percent at 4,145 rubles at 5:11 p.m. in Moscow.

Detained as he stepped off his private jet in Nice in November, Kerimov denied any wrongdoing but was ordered to remain in France and put up 40 million euros ($46 million) bail.

Laffont, who worked with Pierre Haik and Nikita Sichov to defend Kerimov, said the Aix court of appeals decision is “justified from a legal perspective.”

The court also struck down charges against Alexander Studhalter, the Swiss businessman that French prosecutors alleged was the front-man for Kerimov in the villa deals. “He faces no more accusations,” his lawyer, Bruno Quentin, said.

“This cancellation will restore Alexander Studhalter’s reputation,” Quentin said of his client, who had been held in pre-trial detention for 50 days earlier this year.

The ruling was reminiscent of a case more than a decade ago in which French police jailed another Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov, on suspicion of pimping, only to see the allegations dropped. Prokhorov later won an apology from the French government and the country’s highest award.

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