Marsha Lazareva, a Russian citizen with a Wharton MBA whose efforts to clear her name in a pair of Kuwaiti fraud cases has been endorsed by a handful of conservative Republican members of Congress and U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean (D., Pa.), was convicted Sunday of two charges and sentenced to 15 years in prison plus fines, her lawyers said.
UPDATE 11/12: Lazareva has taken shelter in the Russian embassy in Kuwait amid “high-level diplomatic conversations,” according to a post by Andrew Cave, a former reporter for the UK-based Daily Telegraph who has posted stories sympathetic to Lazareva at Forbes.com.
EARLIER: A brief account of the verdict was posted by the Al Erem news site in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, citing the Arabic-language Al Rai newspaper in Kuwait.
Lazareva’s legal team, based in Washington, “of course plans to appeal and to work with the U.S. government and the UN to put additional pressure on Kuwait,” according to an emailed statement from Crowell & Moring.
Lazareva’s supporters have called on Kuwait to throw out what they say are trumped-up charges so she can move to a house that she owns in Bryn Mawr with her preschool-aged son, Yvan, and her elderly mother, Lydia, who has had cancer. But others have questioned why Americans should get involved in the court machinations of a U.S. ally.
KGL Investment, the fund Lazareva set up after working for the Dashtis, spent money freely, and amassed an extraordinary collection of lobbyists in attempts to free Lazareva and her former boss, Saeed Dashti. Cherie Blair, barrister and wife of former U.K. prime minister Tony Blair, and former FBI Director Louis Freeh are among the American and British lobbyists paid by her employer to advocate for her release. Former President George W. Bush’s brother, Neil, is a paid adviser who has penned articles in Lazareva’s defense and written to Kuwaiti officials on her behalf. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign ministry have questioned her prosecution and called on Kuwait’s ruling emir to order Lazareva’s release.
“This was done despite her clear innocence,” Freeh complained in a statement Sunday.
The “false conviction,” said Neil Bush, “may leave the United States government no choice but to intervene and hold those responsible to account.”
Lazareva and Dashti, whose family owns the Kuwait & Gulf Link Transport Co. (KGL) and related investment and shipping businesses, were accused by Kuwaiti prosecutors of charging the government’s port authority for services they didn’t provide. That case is still pending.
In the case decided Sunday, the pair were convicted of failing to deliver all the cash that Kuwaiti government investors said they were due from the sale of property at a former U.S. air base in the Philippines to a Filipino-Chinese investment group. In both cases, Lazareva and Dashti deny wrongdoing.
KGL has won billion-dollar contracts to supply food and other civilian items to U.S. occupation forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.
Their business rivals include the Sultan Al Essa clan, who run Kuwait’s Agility group of warehouse and shipping contractors, which compete with KGL for U.S Defense and Logistics Agency contracts. Once the largest supplier of food to U.S. forces in the Middle East, Agility was suspended from U.S. contracts from 2009 to 2017 after it was accused of fraud. It was finally reinstated after a $95 million fine and a promise not to pursue larger claims against the government.
KGL partisans have suggested that government officials sympathetic to Agility have been able to influence Kuwaiti courts against people connected with KGL. A Pennsylvania appeals court judge in August rejected a separate KGL defamation claim against Agility that predated the charges against Dashti and Lazareva.
Rep. Dean and U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar (R., Ariz.) and Steve Chabot (R., Ohio), and Gus M. Bilirakis (R., Fla.), and U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker (R., Miss.) asked U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin last summer to consider an investigation of Lazareva’s case under the Magnitsky Act.
Under that law, if U.S. officials find that Kuwait violated the defendants’ rights in a corrupt legal process, they could act to restrict Kuwaiti companies from doing business with the U.S. That would mark a huge shift, coming 28 years after a U.S. invasion freed that Persian Gulf country from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army and made it a center for U.S. military supply in the Middle East.
A spokesman for Dean said last summer that the congresswoman had supported Lazareva’s cause because she had been a resident of her congressional district.
The office of U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D., Pa.) refused to go along with the campaign to pressure the Treasury Department on Lazareva’s behalf. “We looked into it and declined to get involved,” John Rizzo, a spokesman for Casey, said before the verdict.
Another staffer for a member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, speaking on condition of anonymity, called it “highly unusual for a person who is a prisoner in another country to have a phalanx of lobbyists at their disposal,” and noted that it was paid lobbyists, not human rights groups, who have led the campaign challenging Kuwait, a U.S. ally, on Lazareva’s behalf.