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Kuwaiti authorities must free Marsha Lazareva

Imprisoned on false charges and denied fair treatment, businesswoman Marsha Lazareva must be released, says Henry Windsor.

For the legal team working to free Marsha Lazareva from Kuwaiti prison, the recusal of the sitting judge was out of the blue. Even more surprising was his decision to withdraw his request to step down.

On Easter Sunday, at the third hearing for the Russian businesswoman accused of embezzlement, the judge disqualified himself without warning, once again putting a potential reprieve for Lazareva at a distance. He later withdraw his request to recuse himself and will continue as the sitting judge. It was only the latest frustration in a human rights case that has animated high-profile officials, groups and private citizens the world over.

Before her arrest, Lazareva was working as the CEO and vice-chairman of KGL Investment, a private equity and venture capital firm she had led since its launch in 2007. KGLI, oversaw The Port Fund, a financial house which counted two Kuwaiti government agencies among its investors and poured money into development projects around the world. Before Lazareva's arrest, the Fund had concluded the $500-million sale of a real estate project in the Philippines. She was charged soon after with fraud.

But independent experts have concluded that the claims made against Lazareva—namely that she illegally took Kuwaiti Port Authority monies—have no grounding in fact. And the intervention of political heavyweights like the former GOP Rep. Ed Royce, former FBI director Louis Freeh and Neil Bush, son of George H. W., reflects the profound sense of injustice the case has elicited worldwide. Lazareva's senior counsel, Lord Carlile of Berriew, CBE QC, points out that the expert auditor (on whose claims the bulk of the evidence relies) has himself been charged with the forgery of the three documents relevant to Lazareva's case. By charging that auditor the prosecutor has, in effect, admitted the evidence was false.

This begs the question of why Lazareva has yet to be released. The situation is nuanced by Kuwait's dealings with the US, with which it has strong ties, and the UK, whose government it is asking to ratify an extradition treaty. These relations are 'threatening to darken', Neil Bush says—and the foreign direct investment the Kuwaiti authorities are seeking may not flow into the country so readily if they do. Though the legal systems in all three countries have much in common, the interpretation and execution of the law appears to differ substantially. Lazareva's lawyers were reportedly given a single week to examine 18,000 pages of allegations before the trial; she was denied full access to her accusatory documents and refused witnesses.

And yet the presiding judge in her May 2018 trial will be the sitting judge at her next trial hearing, which takes place this coming Sunday. According to Lazareva he 'made many racist comments toward me during the case and singled me out as a woman'. Sources in the court say that Lazareva was also refused permission to excuse herself after telling the judge she was sick. She was reportedly told to 'vomit in the corner at the back of the room'. Significant attention, then, will surely be paid to the way in which the court upholds the Rule of Law more than a year after Lazareva was first imprisoned. It now seems clear that these standards were not met in the first instance, and indeed that the evidence which underpins her 10-year sentence to hard labour is demonstrably false.

The voices calling for the release of Marsha Lazareva are gathering in number and volume. There is a feeling that in continuing to hold Lazareva Kuwaiti officials are acting in contravention of international law. There is also deep concern over her wellbeing and the wellbeing of her four-year-old son, a US citizen living in Kuwait. And there are murmurings that what was once a highly attractive place for investors may no longer be so.

Henry Windsor is a freelance journalist reporting from Kuwait City. He writes for English language publications based in Kuwait, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. He covers business and political news across the Middle East, with a particular focus on trade and diplomatic relations.
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