A sensational dispute between Moscow billionaires with a storyline that rivals Hollywood has spilled across international borders: Surveillance photographs showed a fugitive Russian lawmaker living in Beverly Hills, Calif. Someone tried to hack into computers at his London law firm. And he filed a federal lawsuit in New York accusing his business rivals of trying to force him to return home.
Ashot Egiazaryan (Ah-shawt Yeh-gee-ah-zar-ee-AHN), who said he could be killed if he is forced to return to Russia, is fighting to remain in the United States despite a request by Interpol to have him arrested and deported. He came to the U.S. in early September and quickly filed a lawsuit in Cyprus and another in an arbitration court of appeal in London claiming that a politically connected group of Russian tycoons extorted him into surrendering his major stake in the historic Moskva Hotel. The multibillion dollar property sits a few steps from Red Square.
Since then, and after a published interview with The Associated Press in February, Egiazaryan said in court papers he has been subjected to continuing surveillance and a public relations smear campaign. Scotland Yard is currently investigating a report that someone tried to plant sophisticated spyware on a computer that belongs to one of his lawyers, according to a person briefed on the investigation.
Egiazaryan said the lucrative Moskva project was wrested from him in 2009 by prominent Russians including mining magnate Suleiman Kerimov, a billionaire and a member of the Russian senate, and Arkady Rotenberg, a wealthy businessman and the longtime judo partner of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. At Egiazaryan's urging, the Cyprus court temporarily froze about $8 billion in stock owned by two of Kerimov's Cyprus-based companies, OAO Polyus Gold and fertilizer maker OAO Uralkali, one of the world's leading producers of potash. The freeze came at an awkward time for Kerimov, who was in the midst of efforts to build one of the world's largest mining empires.
The court rescinded the asset freeze earlier this year, saying Egiazaryan had waited too long after surrendering his interest in the hotel before filing his lawsuit.
Kerimov's lawyers and representatives have said the hotel deal was a routine, legitimate business transaction and disputed Egiazaryan's allegations.
After Egiazaryan filed his lawsuit in Cyprus, Russian law enforcement officials charged him with defrauding an investor in a posh Moscow shopping mall of $51 million, and Russia's lower house of parliament voted to strip him of his parliamentary immunity. At Russia's request, Interpol on May 6 issued a "red notice" seeking help in arresting him and returning him to Russia.
A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington said that Moscow has turned over documents to the U.S. seeking Egiazaryan's extradition. But the U.S. and Russia have no extradition treaty, and U.S. officials must weigh the request against the lawmaker's claims that he risks losing his life and liberty if he returns to Russia.
The dispute is made for Hollywood, with an international hacker investigation and secret surveillance photos of Egiazaryan that he claims amount to harassment. Several photographs entered as evidence in a related federal court case to prove the 45-year-old lawmaker was living in the U.S. included pictures of him in his brother's back yard and a photo of him with a woman who isn't his wife.
In a hearing in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in November, one of Egiazaryan's attorneys, Maurice Suh, said Egiazaryan's wife had received anonymous warnings that her husband's relationships with other women would be disclosed if he fought an effort to depose him in a Cyprus corporate lawsuit.
"The fact that we have a picture of Ashot Egiazaryan with a woman not his wife has caused significant harm to their marriage," Maurice Suh told the judge.
A spokeswoman for Akin Gump, the law firm that sought Egiazaryan's deposition, said the photographs were intended to prove that Egiazaryan was living in the United States and under jurisdiction of U.S. law.
Since then, the AP has learned, Scotland Yard is investigating a computer break-in at the offices of Egiazaryan's London barristers. An official briefed on the investigation confirmed the probe but would not provide details. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about an ongoing investigation.
Egiazaryan has fought back. He has filed an unusual federal lawsuit accusing a New York human rights activist of falsely portraying him as anti-American and anti-Semitic. The activist, Peter Zalmayev, declined to speak with The Associated Press. But his attorney, Mark Cymrot, said the lawsuit "does not appear to be a credible libel case" and seemed to be an attempt to intimidate his client. Cymrot said of Egiazaryan: "He's got other battles and somehow this fits within his strategy to shut Peter up."
In a magazine article, Zalmayev wrote that the lawmaker is fleeing prosecution rather than persecution. He also questioned Egiazaryan's decade-long association with an ultranationalist Russian political party whose flamboyant leader is well-known for his anti-American and anti-Semitic statements.
Zalmayev, who studied at Columbia University's School of International Affairs and Public Policy, is described on his organization's website as an expert on human rights in the former Soviet Union. He has written for the Huffington Post, among other publications, and appeared in interviews on CNN, BBC and other networks.
After Zalmayev contacted them, several other rights activists in the U.S. and Russia also wrote letters opposing granting Egiazaryan asylum. They later withdrew their letters after personal appeals from Egiazaryan's friends in Moscow, saying they didn't have all the information in the case.
Representatives of three U.S. rights groups have also signed letters opposing asylum for Egiazaryan to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and the State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.
Egiazaryan's immigration status is not clear. He told the AP months ago that he was considering applying for asylum in the U.S., but his lawyers have declined to say whether he has ever done so. The U.S. government is prohibited by law from disclosing whether it has received an asylum request.
Associated Press writer Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report.