Russian Court Orders Release of Michael Calvey, American Businessman

MOSCOW — A court in Moscow on Thursday released from pretrial detention one of the most prominent American businessmen working in Russia, whose arrest earlier this year had spooked foreign investors.

The arrest was all the more alarming as Michael Calvey, the founder and chief executive of the private equity company Baring Vostok, had been a consistent advocate for investment in Russia — even as many firms have retreated from the country, driven away by its struggling economy and worsening relationship with the West.

Mr. Calvey’s advocacy for investment continued despite two decades of government takeovers of companies, ruble devaluations and politically hued arrests, including that of Sergei L. Magnitsky, who died in pretrial detention and had been working as a lawyer for another prominent investor.

Yet Mr. Calvey, even in detention, continued to speak out in favor of the investment case for Russia, reading a statement to that effect on Thursday from inside the aquarium-like glass box where defendants are placed in Russian courts. In his remarks, he said the case against him was prompted by a business dispute.

“Despite this corporate conflict, which spilled over into a criminal prosecution,” Mr. Calvey said, “I would like to underscore what I’ve always said: I still believe in the investment potential of Russia.”

He read the statement in the Basmanny District Court of Moscow while asking for release from pretrial detention, making it unclear whether he was seeking to curry favor or argue that his continued business in Russia reduced his flight risk.

Mr. Calvey founded Baring Vostok soon after the collapse of Communism to bring investors into Russia’s newly capitalist economy. Over its roughly 25 years in business, the company had attracted $3.7 billion in private equity capital to Russia for companies like Yandex, a search engine that competes locally with Google, and Ozon, an online retailer.

The police arrested Mr. Calvey, 51, and four colleagues in February amid a dispute with business partners over an investment in a Russian bank. That set off alarms for American companies worried that their executives might be similarly arrested in a climate of tense relations between Russia and the United States.

After the arrest, American businessmen considered boycotting an annual Russian investment conference planned for June in St. Petersburg. In this way, paradoxically, the arrest caused the same sort of harm to Russia’s economy as American sanctions, which restrict some investment.

Government prosecutors asked the court to release Mr. Calvey pending trial, citing support for him in Russian business circles and new information that seemed to diminish his flight risk.

Among the Russians who have spoken in support of Mr. Calvey was Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a government investment fund who is seen as close to President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Dmitriev issued a statement this week supporting Mr. Calvey’s release pending trial.

The court remanded Mr. Calvey to house arrest. The four other defendants remain in pretrial detention.

Mr. Calvey, who speaks Russian, told the judge that his business rivals had abused the Russian justice system to press a case in criminal court that should have been decided in commercial arbitration. “Our opponents abused the law,” he said.

Western diplomats have debated whether Mr. Calvey’s arrest stemmed from a political decision in Russia to target American businessmen or from low-level corruption that plagues much of Russia’s business community.

Mr. Dmitriev’s statement, made shortly before Mr. Calvey’s release, suggested that the Kremlin does not want the case to slow investment or spiral into an international scandal, as happened after the death in pretrial detention of Mr. Magnitsky, a lawyer for the financier William F. Browder. Mr. Browder successfully lobbied the United States and other countries to impose sanctions on Russia.

Russian entrepreneurs are frequent targets of shakedowns and shadowy schemes to steal assets, Russia’s own business ombudsman has said.

Arrests in such disputes are so common that today about one of every 10 prisoners in Russia’s penal colony system, the network of razor-wire and barrack camps that is the successor to the gulag, is serving time for an economic crime.

So many white-collar convicts are in these camps that in 2013, amid an economic slump, Mr. Putin announced in a speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum that he would offer amnesty to thousands of them to help stimulate the economy.

Few were released. And changes in law intended to limit arrests for economic crimes hardly addressed the problem, according to Russia Behind Bars, a support group for families of imprisoned businessmen. In Russia, the police often profit from arrests by soliciting bribes to remove competition or resolve business disputes, the anticorruption group Transparency International has said.

If convicted, Mr. Calvey faces up to 10 years in the often violent penal colony system, known as “the zone.”

Follow Andrew E. Kramer on Twitter: @AndrewKramerNYT.

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