New details have emerged about the shadowy life of Alexander Perepilichnyy, the Russian fugitive who dropped dead while jogging outside his luxury home in Surrey last month.
The supergrass, who provided documents that allegedly implicate a number of Russian officials and businessmen in a huge tax rebate scam, himself appears to have been deeply submerged in the murky world of semi-legal Russian money, and feared for his life if he returned to his home country.
“He was worried about the situation he had in Russia,” Andrei Pavlov, a Moscow-based lawyer who met Mr Perepilichnyy twice during his self-imposed exile in the UK,told The Independent in a rare interview. Mr Perepilichnyy, who was 44, had no reported health issues when he collapsed. Two autopsies proved inconclusive and toxicology tests are now being carried out on his body.
Sources describe Mr Perepilichnyy as a “private banker” who took money from wealthy Russians and invested it abroad for them. Such services are popular with Russians who have made money either legally or illegally at home and want to move it out of the country. Mr Perepilichnyy apparently fled Russia in 2009 after a dispute with business partners, and later became the source for documents handed to Swiss prosecutors that showed details of money transfers allegedly related to a huge theft of Russian tax revenue. The alleged fraud was carried out by a corrupt group of officials and discovered by the lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail after being tortured.
Most notably, Mr Perepilichnyy passed documents relating to the financial transactions of his former business partner, Vladlen Stepanov. Mr Stepanov was implicated in the fraud that Mr Magnitsky uncovered; his wife was in charge of the tax office that granted the rebate, and both appeared to make huge property purchases in the immediate aftermath. In an interview to a Russian newspaper last year, Mr Stepanov called Mr Perepilichnyy “a physics and maths genius who had started financial activities”, and managed all of his financial transactions before disappearing.
Court documents from a Moscow case last year describe Mr Perepilichnyy as “living outside the Russian Federation because he fears for his life”. Mr Pavlov says Mr Perepilichnyy contacted him in 2010 through a mutual acquaintance and asked for a meeting in Zurich because he was scared of travelling to Russia. Mr Perepilichnyy asked Mr Pavlov to mediate the dispute with Mr Stepanov. Mr Pavlov refused, telling Mr Perepilichnyy to contact Mr Stepanov directly.
The pair’s second and final meeting took place several months later, in a café on the upper floor of Heathrow Terminal 5. “He asked for a meeting, and I was transitting through Heathrow,” recalls Mr Pavlov. Mr Perepilichnyy told him he had spoken to Mr Stepanov and all was in order, although in his interview a year later, Mr Stepanov claimed Mr Perepilichnyy “is in hiding… and doesn’t answer calls”. Mr Pavlov says after the Heathrow meeting, Mr Perepilichnyy went dark. “I didn’t have his contact details, just his Skype account, and he disappeared from Skype.”
In a possible strange twist, Mr Pavlov claims that Mr Perepilichnyy managed to implicate himself in the fraud, causing Swiss prosecutors to freeze his own accounts as well as Mr Stepanov’s. “He handed over documents relating to his own company,” said Mr Pavlov. “He ended up having a lot of his own money frozen in Switzerland. This was a very negative effect for him.” Swiss prosecutors did not respond to requests for comment.
Hermitage, the investment fund that fell victim to the tax rebate scandal, claims that Mr Stepanov, Ms Stepanova and Mr Pavlov are all linked to a criminal group run by Dmitry Klyuev, a Russian businessman. “In our opinion, Andrei Pavlov provided legal support in a number of court proceedings used to perpetrate fraud against Hermitage and the Russian budget,” said a spokesman for Hermitage yesterday.
The Russian government has not opened an investigation against any of those whom Hermitage says is responsible for the rebate; instead it has opened a posthumous case against Mr Magnitsky, claiming he himself carried out the fraud. One of the most surprising turns of events in the saga came during a hearing of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Monaco in July. Hermitage’s CEO, Bill Browder, was presenting a film detailing his allegations about Mr Klyuev and his associates, when the man himself, accompanied by Mr Pavlov, arrived at the session venue.
A source on Capitol Hill who has been involved in the Magnitsky legislation said the American delegation to the OSCE was “blown away” when the pair showed up. “Senator [John} McCain had publicly written to the President calling on him to proscribe these guys in the same way you would a terrorist group. And when he goes to Monaco they turn up,” said the source. “It would be like making a presentation on why you should ban al-Qa’ida only for a member to turn up at the meeting.”
Mr Pavlov says the pair’s appearance was simply an attempt to get their side of the story heard. “We decided to go and say, hello, this is us, maybe you could ask us [about the allegations] first, but they didn’t let us in,” he says. “We found the Russian delegation and asked them to let us in, but they said they couldn’t help us.” Mr Pavlov says the delegates were shocked and told them to speak with Mr Browder directly. “But Browder had already left.”
Mr Pavlov described the furore over Mr Perepilichnyy’s death as “much ado about nothing”, and said he thought that news coverage of the event was part of a sinister campaign against him and others.