Fears shell company supergrass killed

Last updated 13:58 03/12/2012

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Police in Britain have reportedly stepped-up their investigation into the mysterious death of a Russian businessman who exposed the role of New Zealand shell companies in laundering stolen Russian money.

Material supplied by Alexander Perepilichnyy, 44, featured in revelations published in May last year showing how New Zealand shell companies were used by criminal groups including the Russian Mafia and Mexican drug rings.

Perepilichnyy's was the fourth mysterious death associated the case and while it was regarded as unexplained initially, the Daily Telegraph said the UK police's Major Crimes Unit had now become involved.

The newspaper said one theory being explored was that he could have been poisoned in a similar fashion to Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent who died in London in 2006 after being contaminated with radioactive Polonium 210.

Detectives were awaiting the results of toxicology tests but had warned that they could take several months to complete.

Fairfax Media has received a file based on Perepilichnyy's information that has led to an investigation by Swiss authorities.

The saga began on Christmas Eve, 2007, when a group of men arrived at Moscow Tax Office Number 28, claiming to represent the London-based global investment advisory firm Hermitage Capital Management. They filed a false tax return calling for a $245 million refund.

The head of the office, Olga Stepanova, wrote out the cheque, and the men disappeared.

Hermitage founder and chief executive Bill Browder provided the file, which showed that the illicit proceeds were transferred into accounts of a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, Quartell Trading.

The information showed that a month after the theft, its Credit Suisse accountant received two million Euros (NZ$3.2 million) from Queen Street, Auckland, registered Bristoll Export Ltd (now struck off).

Bristoll had just 100 shares and a single director, in Vanuatu.

"The involvement of this company in other criminal activity is yet another reason for one to suspect that the transaction may involve a high risk of money laundering," the complaint to Swiss authorities said.

"There is no public evidence of legitimate commercial activity of any form involving Bristoll…."

The complaint also showed a payment of US$498,955 (NZ$610,000) from Bristoll's Latvian bank to a British shell company.

The complaint alleged the money ultimately went to Stepanova and others.

At the time Mr Browder hired lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, 37, to find out what happened to the money. When Magnitsky went to the Russian police with evidence of a Tax Office scam, they arrested him and imprisoned him in Butyrka Prison, where he died in 2009, allegedly after being tortured.

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Two other men who were believed to be embroiled in the scandal, Octai Gasanov and Valery Kurochkin, were found dead in mysterious and unexplained circumstances in Russia and Ukraine.

Perepilichnyy sought sanctuary in the UK in 2009 after agreeing to expose a sophisticated network of corrupt Moscow businessmen suspected of involvement in a massive tax fraud.

Browder said his lawyers had written to police on a number of occasions to urge them to carry out a specialist post-mortem on Perepilichnyy.

"They contacted Surrey police multiple times to make sure they were treating this seriously, but were brushed off entirely."

- Stuff

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