Boris Berezovsky inquest: Exiled Russian oligarch 'was suicidal' after losing legal battle with Roman Abramovich
Oligarch said he was 'the poorest man in the world'
The exiled Russian tycoon and political fixer, Boris Berezovsky, was plunged into deep depression and talked openly about killing himself after losing a high-profile £3.7 billion legal battle with his business rival Roman Abramovich, an inquest heard yesterday.
Mr Berezovsky – once said to be worth £1.8 billion before he fled from Russia in 2000 – was forced to settle a litany of legal disputes on unfavourable terms after a judge made a scathing assessment of his honesty in a damning ruling at the end of the so-called Battle of the Oligarchs in 2012.
The life of the one-time king maker in his native Russia unravelled dramatically in the final months of his life with colleagues saying that he was depressed at the loss of his reputation and felt that he was “not in the game any more” after a series of business and personal setbacks.
Mr Berezovsky, who was found dead at his ex-wife’s home with a ligature around his neck in March last year, was involved in a major financial dispute with another former partner and had been spending more time with his bodyguard than any member of his family, the inquest at Windsor was told yesterday.
The court case was a stunning low for a man who exploited his position within Boris Yeltsin’s inner circle to buy state assets at knockdown prices in the chaotic post-Soviet period in the 1990s.
He helped promote Vladimir Putin’s rise to the presidency before the pair fell out and the businessman became a vociferous critic of the regime from abroad. Mr Berezovsky, 67, told doctors that he had been mentally damaged and everything had collapsed after the court defeat.
Berezovksy lost a court case with Roman Abramovich last year The inquest heard that Mr Berezovsky had been the subject of two assassination attempts but told a psychiatrist that he had been so “destroyed” by the case against Mr Abramovich, the billionaire owner of Chelsea Football Club, that he no longer felt at risk of attack, the inquest heard.
Mr Berezovsky had claimed that Mr Abramovich cheated him out of his stakes in the oil group Sibneft, arguing that he blackmailed him into selling the stakes vastly beneath their true worth after he fell out of favour with Mr Putin. The judge threw out the case in August 2012, ruling that Berezovsky was a dishonest and unreliable witness, leaving him with legal bills of at least £35 million.
He went abroad to Israel after the loss of his case, but was encouraged back to Britain by his ex-wife Galina and he stayed at her home in Titness Park in Ascot, Berkshire.
But his trappings of wealth had been scaled back: his 24-hour security team and dedicated drivers became one former special forces serviceman whose jobs included being butler and cook. The bodyguard was told that he might lose his job at the end of the month because of the financial crisis, the inquest heard.
“He told me he was not a billionaire, he was the poorest man in the world,” said the bodyguard, Avi Navama. Mr Berezovsky went on anti-depressants and took to spending hours in his room. He told Dr Saeed Islam, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory clinic, that he could not see a way out of his troubles with eight on-going legal cases against him. “He had a very clear view that his enemies abroad will not leave him alone,” the psychiatrist told the inquest.
But he said that Mr Berezovsky was not considering suicide and cited his religious faith, the effect on his family and that he had been “too afraid” to act on his feelings.
Mr Navama, however, said that the oligarch spoke with many people about his plans to kill himself. He once held up a steak knife and asked where he should cut, said Mr Navama. He talked about it so often to himself and others that people ended up not taking him seriously, the bodyguard said.
Mr Navama kicked down the door and found the body on 23 March last year in the ensuite bathroom of the house. The businessman was found on his back with a black pashmina ligature around his neck with fragments on a shower rail. One mark found in the bathroom had not been identified despite inquiries through Interpol and the FBI.
The tycoon was closely linked to ex-KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, another Kremlin critic, who died after ingesting polonium in his tea at a London hotel in 2006. The inquest heard that a radiation meter carried by the first paramedic on the scene was set off sparking a major alert – but police now believe that the alarm was caused by a fault with the battery and believe he took his own life.
The inquest heard that Mr Berezovsky had been the subject of two assassination attempts including a bomb on his car in Russia in 2004 that killed his driver in an attack linked to the Russian mafia, the inquest heard. His personal assistant, Michael Cotlick, told the inquest that Scotland Yard had warned the tycoon in 2007 that he should go abroad because of intelligence of a planned hit.
Mr Cotlick said that he did not believe the businessman was a target for assassination at the time of his death as he was more useful alive as a scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Russia.
He said that he took the court defeat against Mr Abramovich very personally but said he was not broke. He said in their final conversation, he told Mr Berezovsky that he could rebuild his finances with a year of hard work to become a well-off man, albeit not a billionaire. “I don’t know whether he believed it. But what I’m sure of is the prospect of hard work for a year he didn’t like,” Mr Cotlick said.
He said that the oligarch’s mental health deteriorated when he became embroiled in a financial dispute with his former partner of 22 years, and mother of two of his children, Yelena Gorbunova. The dispute was behind several attempts to change his will, which happened nine days before he died, the court heard.
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