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Contract Killings


Thursday, 7 August 2008

150 contract killings in the country since 1997, according to the country’s interior ministry, and only a handful have been solved.

Bulgaria’s troubles with corruption, organized crime, theft of economic assets and an ineffectual judicial system are testing the EU’s ability to keep absorbing new countries. Now 27 members strong, the political bloc is looking next at taking in Croatia, Macedonia and Turkey, and then Serbia — each of which brings its own challenges. But Bulgaria’s example could give ammunition to opponents who say the EU already has brought too many difficult cases inside its borders.
There have been more than 150 contract killings in the country since 1997, according to the country’s interior ministry, and only a handful have been solved. Bulgaria’s interior minister resigned over contacts with suspected organized-crime bosses earlier this year. The clogged court system can take years to resolve even flagrant breaches of property rights. Opinion polls show Bulgarians view the judiciary as the country’s second most corrupt profession, after customs officials.
Union workers at the giant, troubled steel plant here recently held managers as virtual prisoners to force them to sign a contract. An ex-wrestler who allegedly amassed wealth by squeezing the plant for cash was shot dead by a sniper. Suppliers are suing the factory to force it into bankruptcy as two steel magnates compete to gain control of it.In Russia and Central Asia, such sagas of companies in chaotic power struggles have become familiar. But the Kremikovtzi steel plant is in the European Union. Last year it accounted for about 7% of the exports of Bulgaria, one of the EU’s two newest members. Now a Bulgarian court is about to decide what to do about the debt-ridden steel firm’s imminent collapse after years of stripped assets and neglect, even as thieves plunder the site.The EU’s executive arm took the unprecedented step July 23 of suspending about $780 million in scheduled aid payments to Bulgaria, criticizing it for slow progress in improving the courts, corruption and crime. European governments are increasingly concerned about Bulgaria’s becoming part of the EU’s borderless zone, within which residents can move about among countries without passports. The move, targeted for 2011, would make Bulgaria responsible for part of the shared external border of as many as 29 countries.Bulgaria already is a highway for smuggling people, drugs, counterfeit money and Chinese pirated goods such as CDs into Europe, according to a March report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The majority of heroin on Europe’s streets comes via Bulgaria, from Afghanistan, the report says.EU leaders knew Bulgaria had lingering problems when it was admitted to the bloc in January. They attached extra conditions to EU aid to both Bulgaria and Romania, which joined at the same time. Bulgaria says the country’s difficulties are exaggerated by the media, and points to progress: Since 2004, Bulgaria’s economy, the EU’s poorest, has been growing at more than 6%. The country has set up new agencies to oversee the judiciary and investigate corruption and organized crime, adopted new legal codes and proposed law-enforcement reform, but the EU says those moves haven’t produced enough results.
Kremikovtzi’s issues alone make up a major caseload. Prosecutors are investigating whether a recently fired Kremikovtzi chief executive embezzled funds that were transferred from the plant to Bulgaria’s top soccer club, where he was the chairman until last month. The plant, now running at half-capacity, this year has repeatedly failed to pay its workers or its suppliers.A court in the Bulgarian capital is due to rule by next week on the fate of the plant, where a work force that once numbered 20,000 has fallen to 6,000. The current principal owner is Pramod Mittal, brother of Lakshmi Mittal, who controls ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steel firm. ArcelorMittal hopes to buy the plant after bankruptcy proceedings, and signed a contract last month to restore supplies to the plant, but is waiting to see if the Bulgarian government backs its takeover bid before making deliveries.
Workers are fighting a sale to ArcelorMittal, worried that it could cost them even more jobs. Konstantin Trenchev, head of the Podkrepa union confederation that represents thousands of workers at the Kremikovtzi plant, says he prefers a rival bidder: a Ukrainian firm owned by 34-year-old billionaire Kostyantin Zhevago. On July 10 thousands of workers surrounded Kremikovtzi’s shabby office tower for 10 hours, refusing to let executives leave until they had also signed a supply agreement with the Zhevago firm.One Kremikovtzi board member found an unguarded back door and ran away from the crowds across some fields. As night fell, hungry managers ordered sandwiches from outside caterers; workers seized and ate the delivery. The board caved in shortly before midnight and signed the supply contract with the Ukrainians.Mr. Zhevago also controls one of the suppliers suing to place the factory in bankruptcy. “We want to see the money repaid,” says Mr. Zhevago’s representative in Bulgaria, Vyctor Demianiyk. “For that, the plant must stay in operation.”
The sprawling Kremikovtzi plant — which occupies an entire suburb of Sofia — has borne the brunt of Bulgaria’s Wild East brand of capitalism ever since the fall of Communist dictator Todor Zhivkov in 1989. “You can write the history of capitalism in Bulgaria just on the basis of Kremikovtzi,” says Ivan Krastev, head of the Center for Liberal Strategies, a Sofia think tank. It shows, he says, how “Bulgaria has been deindustrialized by interest groups who extracted state assets like oil states extract the oil in their ground.”
When Communism fell, many former officers of Bulgaria’s feared security services — like those in some other former Eastern bloc states — formed shady business conglomerates whose activities included milking former state industries, running extortion and protection rackets, and bankrolling and occasionally assassinating politicians, as the U.N. report notes. They hired many former wrestlers and weightlifters, who were pampered heroes under Communism, as enforcers. Thick-necked former athletes still cruise Sofia streets in luxury sports cars and SUVs, flaunting wealth gained in the transition years. Now a generation of politicians who rose to the top in those troubled years is in charge of cleaning up the mess.Kremikovtzi’s troubles started in the early 1990s, when the state-owned steel company fell under the sway of Ilya Pavlov, a former wrestler who had married the daughter of a Communist-era secret-service chief. Mr. Pavlov persuaded Kremikovtzi’s managers to buy raw materials from a company he chose, at higher prices, and then sell finished steel to him at a discount, says Bogomil Bonev, who investigated Mr. Pavlov as Bulgaria’s interior minister in the late 1990s.Mr. Pavlov’s involvement “is the main reason why Kremikovtzi is bankrupt today,” says Mr. Bonev. He tried in vain to bring down Mr. Pavlov’s empire, which he said used legal businesses as a cover for organized crime and was protected by corrupt prosecutors and judges.
Mr. Pavlov became one of Bulgaria’s richest businessmen. Then a sniper shot him in the back as he and his bodyguards walked out of his offices in downtown Sofia in 2003. The killer was never found. Mr. Pavlov’s funeral was a “Who’s Who” of Bulgaria, presided over by the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, and attended by the bosses of the most important local oil companies and banks and by two former Miss Bulgarias. A government minister read out a message from the then-prime minister, praising Mr. Pavlov for creating jobs.
The steel plant, meanwhile, was starved of cash. The state privatized it in 1999, selling 71% to previously little-known businessman Valentin Zahariev for one dollar and a promise to rehabilitate the plant.The government says Mr. Zahariev didn’t meet his obligations to invest in the company, and has spent years suing him in the country’s slow-moving courts. Union leaders say he used cash squeezed from Kremikovtzi to buy more steel plants, in Serbia and Kosovo.
Mr. Zahariev, in an interview, denied both accusations, and he is contesting the government’s claims. In 2005, he sold Kremikovtzi for $110 million to Pramod Mittal. By then, the plant was badly in need of major investment, to modernize its equipment to both make it commercially viable and to meet EU pollution standards. The haze of pollution belched by the plant’s furnaces often blots out the view of the mountains that rise around Sofia.
In 2006, the plant borrowed €325 million ($506 million) on the international bond market, at a high interest rate, 12%. But those funds didn’t produce notable upgrades of the plant. “Nobody knows where most of the money went,” says Mr. Trenchev, of the union confederation. An association of the bondholders, led by U.S. and U.K.-based hedge funds QVT Financial LP, Mars Capital Group and York Capital Management LLC, says the same.A spokesman for Pramod Mittal’s company, Global Steel Holding Ltd., says funds were used to repay other debts — including to Mr. Mittal. That “certainly reduced” the funds available for investment in the plant, the spokesman acknowledged.
In recent years Mr. Mittal has tried to construct a world-wide steel group by buying or building plants in far-flung and sometimes troubled places, including Nigeria, Bosnia, the Philippines and Libya besides Bulgaria, but his group remains much smaller than the huge steel empire controlled by his older brother Lakshmi Mittal.
Last August, Pramod Mittal hired a controversial figure, former Bulgarian politician Alexander Tomov, as chief executive to stop the bleeding. Mr. Tomov was a senior Communist-era official whose more recent roles include deputy prime minister, leader of four different political parties and chairman of Bulgaria’s top soccer club, CSKA Sofia.
He drew vehement criticism in all those roles. In June, police had to shield Mr. Tomov from attacks by furious CSKA fans: The club had lost its license to play in Europe’s top soccer competition after allegations of unpaid taxes and duties.
Bulgarian prosecutors last month indicted Mr. Tomov over millions of euros that they say were transferred from cash-starved Kremikovtzi to the soccer club, and then to offshore companies controlled by Mr. Tomov.
Meanwhile, bondholders and union officials have criticized Mr. Tomov for selling a string of Kremikovtzi assets, principally plots of land at the steel mill’s vast site, for what union leaders say was a fraction of their value. One contract signed by Mr. Tomov last October, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, sold 1.7 million square meters (about 420 acres) of land for €6.3 million, or about €3.7 per square meter. Surrounding land has been sold for anywhere from €40 to €130 per square meter.

Russian court sentenced Nevzlin to life in prison for allegedly ordering four contract killings of business rivals

Leonid Nevzlin, a former Khodorkovsky colleague who, after absconding to Israel, was tried — in absentia — for murder. On Friday, a Russian court sentenced Nevzlin to life in prison for allegedly ordering four contract killings of business rivals. The verdict, according to AFP, said that shootings and bomb attacks had been paid for by Nevzlin, a former Yukos executive, and Alexei Pichugin, the jailed former head of security at Yukos.“We will appeal. This sentence is groundless. . .My client has always said this trial is politically motivated,” said Nevzlin’s lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov.The trial comes just days before a court in Siberia is to hold a parole hearing for Khodorkovsky himself, who’s halfway through an eight-year jail term in Penal Colony No. 10 — located six time zones east of Moscow — for alleged financial crimes involving Yukos. As we noted last month, Khodorkovsky’s lawyers filed a request for his early parole, hoping to take advantage, they said, of the Kremlin’s “course towards guaranteeing real independent courts.”In 1980, Stewart reports, Amsterdam and a friend set up a legal practice specializing in business disputes in emerging markets. In Nigeria, where Amsterdam represented a Canadian telecom company, 30 government-backed men with AK-47 assault rifles tried to break up a shareholders meeting at which Amsterdam was making a presentation. “I’ve lost track of the number of times my life has been threatened,” he says.

Vladimir Barsukov (a.k.a Kumarin), reportedly one of the former leaders of the Tambov criminal group.

Vladimir Barsukov (a.k.a Kumarin), reportedly one of the former leaders of the Tambov criminal group, who is facing charges of orchestrating and carrying out a series of raids on large St. Petersburg companies and organizations, and other crimes, has been sent to the Vasileostrovsky District Court, the Prosecutor General’s press office said on Monday.According to a statement posted on Russia’s General Prosecutor’s Office website, Viktor Grin, Russia’s Deputy Prosecutor General, has authorized a summing-up of the case that involves “a string of illegal raids on St. Petersburg enterprises and properties between 2004 and 2006 committed by an organized gang formed by Vladimir Barsukov (Kumarin).”Barsukov, who changed his last name from Kumarin in the 1990s, was arrested on Aug. 22, 2007, during a special raid carried out by a joint team of law enforcement officers from Moscow and St. Petersburg, prosecutors said. The businessman was then transferred to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, where he is still being held.In the 1990s, Barsukov was alleged to be the head of the Tambov gang, one of the most feared criminal syndicates in St. Petersburg at the time. In October 1999, Viktor Novosyolov, the controversial then-vice-speaker of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, who was believed to be the Tambov group’s lobbyist in parliament and known to maintain close ties to Barsukov, was murdered and the powerful Tambov group was suspected in a series of killings of local businessmen. Vladimir Markin, an official representative of the Investigative Committee of the General Prosecutor’s Office, told reporters in Moscow on Monday that an investigation continues into Barsukov’s possible involvement in a series of other crimes, including forming a criminal gang, murder and attempted execution-style contract killing.The prosecutors are probing Barsukov’s possible links to, in particular, an attempt to organize a contract killing aimed at eventually seizing ownership of the St. Petersburg oil terminal.
The Prosecutor’s Office website said that Barsukov has been charged in forming a criminal gang, money laundering and swindling.
The investigators believe the gang illegally seized a total of 13 local commercial enterprises. The cost of these properties amounts to 5 billion rubles ($213 million).
“At present, the Committee has established that in 2005-2006 Barsukov, with the assistance of seven other individuals — who are currently under arrest — formed a criminal gang, seized ownership of the Peterburgsky Ugolok restaurant and the Magazin Smolninsky store, and then sold these illegally acquired properties to a third party,” Markin said.
According to the investigation, Barsukov and his accomplices bribed officials at the St. Petersburg branch of the Federal Tax Service to alter the unified state database where the properties were listed, and to withdraw several sets of key documents related to the properties’ original ownership.
“In order to deprive the original owners of a chance to return the properties, the gang accomplished a chain of fictitious sales of properties until they were purchased by the businessmen under the gang’s full control,” reads the prosecution’s conclusion.
The Tambov Gang case has prompted a series of corruption investigations involving neglect of professional duties by certain members of law enforcement agencies and high-ranking civil servants.
Prosecutor General Yury Chaika said the Tambov Gang investigation exposed powerful corrupt networks involving law enforcement officers as well as state executives and the prosecutor’s own staff. Barsukov, who has continually denied being a leader in the criminal community, has won several cases against Russian journalists who directly accused him of criminal connections in their publications.
However, Chaika has repeatedly stated that the Tambov criminal syndicate “has been exposed” having launched an investigation into a series of seizures that the prosecutors believe the gang was responsible for.
To strengthen his point, Chaika said more than 40 people had been charged in connection with the Tambov gang investigation prior to Barsukov’s arrest.
The Barsukov case is one of eight criminal cases regarding severe crimes committed by St. Petersburg-based criminal gangs that are currently being investigated or supervised by the General Prosecutor’s Office.Over the past decade, a string of Western media outlets, including Le Monde and Newsweek, linked Kumarin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin through Vladimir Smirnov, the former head of St. Petersburg operations of SPAG, an agency that had been set up to invest in the city’s real estate, and an old associate of Putin.
In 1994, as a deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, Putin awarded the St. Petersburg Fuel Company, or PTK, the monopoly for supplying gasoline to the city.
At the time, Smirnov was a major shareholder inthe Petersburg Fuel Company and local media reported that the company was controlled by the Tambov.
In the mid-1990s the high-profile contract killings of major players in the fuel market rocked the city, contributing to its reputation as Russia’s criminal capital, or “Banditsky Petersburg.” In 1998, Smirnov took over PTK and appointed Barsukov as his deputy.

Manoj and Inderpal Singh accused of contract killings, two gangsters cut through the grill of heavily guarded lock up at Ghaziabad

Accused of contract killings, two gangsters cut through the grill of heavily guarded lock up at Ghaziabad.Taking the police by surprise, two alleged contract-killers, who were taken to the Ghaziabad District court for a hearing, escaped from the lock-up after cutting through the window grills on Tuesday.The two ‘killers’ —Manoj and Inderpal Singh—accused of serial killings, fled after cutting through the grill of the heavily guarded lock-up at the Ghaziabad court, the police said.
Both these men are accused of murdering four women at Noorpur in Ghaziabad in 2006.
The iron-grills were restored immediately after the incident. Later, Ghaziabad SSP Deepak Ratan and SP (City) Vijay Bhushan visited the lock-up and enquired about the incident from the police officers on duty.SP (City) Vijay Bhushan confirmed the incident and said that a hunt was on for the two men. “The police are questioning family members of the two dreaded killers and hopeful to get them back soon,” said Bhushan.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Leonid Nevzlin, a former deputy chairman of Yukos, ‘has been sentenced to life in a high-security prison,

Moscow court on Friday sentenced a former partner of jailed Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky in absentia to life in prison for ordering four contract killings, a court official told Agence France-Presse.Leonid Nevzlin, a former deputy chairman of Yukos, ‘has been sentenced to life in a high-security prison,’ said a spokeswoman for the Moscow City Court.A Russian court on Friday found an Israel-based partner of jailed Yukos oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky guilty of ordering four contract killings in a case dismissed by the defence as a farce.In a gruesome account of Russia's wild capitalism years, judge Valery Novikov at the Moscow City Court said Leonid Nevzlin had organised four murders of business rivals and officials while working for Khodorkovsky."The court has established that the accused, Nevzlin, organised the execution of several especially serious crimes," said Novikov, reading from a lengthy official verdict.
The shootings and bombings were paid for by Nevzlin, the judge said.The trial comes just days before a court in Siberia is due to hold a parole hearing for Khodorkovsky, who is serving out an eight-year jail term for financial crimes involving his now defunct Yukos oil empire.Nevzlin, a former deputy chairman of Yukos, fled to Israel in 2003 when the investigations began. He now has Israeli citizenship and Israel has refused to extradite him.Though the defendant's cell stood empty during the trial, Nevzlin was represented by his lawyer, Dmitry Kharitonov, who insisted on his client's innocence. "Nevzlin is not guilty," Kharitonov told AFP."There is absolutely no basis to consider this trial fair. From the very beginning, Nevzlin and his defence have been denied almost all their lawful rights," Kharitonov told Radio Free Europe in an interview last month.
Speaking outside the court, Farida Islamova, the widow of one of Nevzlin's victims, the mayor of an oil town in Siberia, said: "I am fully satisfied with the verdict. My husband was killed for doing his job."Islamova's husband Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, was gunned down in 1998. His widow alleged that Khodorkovsky had threatened him a month before his death and that there had been threats against her own life."The leadership of Yukos, and Khodorkovsky himself, constantly threatened him. After Khodorkovsky was arrested, I was constantly threatened, followed and bugged because I was a witness," Islamova said.
In a series of inquiries since 2003, Khodorkovsky has been found guilty on multiple counts of tax evasion and embezzlement and has been charged with money laundering. He has never been formally accused of murder.The Yukos investigations have been seen by analysts as a political campaign to destroy the power of Yukos, which was once Russia's biggest oil company, and of Khodorkovsky, formerly the richest man in the country.Khodorkovsky also incurred the wrath of President Vladimir Putin, now the country's prime minister, by funding opposition parties and proposing plans to build a privately-funded pipeline to pump Yukos oil to China, analysts said.
Yukos has been declared bankrupt and its assets sold off in a process that has benefited state-controlled Rosneft, which is chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and has become Russia's biggest producer.

Curtis E. Scharer IV advised the informant he is looking for someone "to wack" the woman

Curtis E. Scharer IV thought a fellow Westmoreland County Prison inmate was dialing a hit man Thursday. However, Scharer, 34, of 324 South Spring St., Greensburg, appeared stunned this morning before Hempfield District Judge Mark Mansour when he learned the telephone call was a ruse and he had actually arranged a contract killing of an ex-girlfriend and her boyfriend with county detective Anthony Marcocci.
The disclosure came moments before Scharer's scheduled preliminary hearing before Mansour on kidnapping, rape and aggravated assault charges stemming from a June 27 attack on the woman at a home in Hempfield Township. Yesterday, instead of a hearing, Scharer was arraigned on charges of attempted homicide and retaliating against a witness. Scharer's former girlfriend is not being identified by the Tribune-Review because of the nature of the charges. "I learned about this Wednesday that (Scharer) wanted this done before his former girlfriend and her boyfriend could testify against him at today's preliminary hearing. The confidential informant telephoned us about 6 p.m. (Thursday) from the prison and then put Curtis on the telephone and he thought he was arranging a contract killing," Marcocci said.'
According to the arrest affidavit Marcocci filed, Scharer is accused of offering Marcocci $4,000, plus his 1969 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, plus another $2,000 to pay an assistant to help with the killings. Marcocci reported that Scharer promised payment once he was released from jail. Marcocci said the informant at the prison told detectives that Scharer had approached him Tuesday saying "he needed to get rid of an ex-girlfriend, because she has him jammed "Scharer advised the informant he is looking for someone "to wack" the woman," Marcocci wrote in the affidavit of probable cause
During conversations with the informant, Scharer provided him his girlfriend's address and both her and her boyfriend's work schedules.
As a result of yesterday's charges, Scharer decided to continue his scheduled hearing until Aug. 8 when a hearing will be held on both complaints. He was returned to the county prison yesterday on $400,000 bond.
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