Marsha Lazareva, a US-educated, Russian-born businesswoman and her 5-year-old son, a US citizen, have been kept prisoner in Kuwait for more than a year on dubious charges. The mystery is: Why?
Lazareva, the CEO of KGL Investment in Kuwait, was arrested in November 2017 on charges of wasting public funds and embezzlement, sentenced to 10 years of hard labor and ordered to pay a $72 million fine. But her conviction was bogus — and later overturned. Indeed, the sole witness presenting evidence against her, a Kuwaiti government auditor, was later found guilty of forging the very documents used to condemn her.
After serving 470 days behind bars, Lazareva was freed last May on bail. Trouble is, she still can’t leave the country. The verdict in the case is expected in November.
Meanwhile, Sunday, Lazareva faces a hearing on other charges accusing her of billing the Kuwait Port Authority for consulting services that were never provided.
In that case, too, say an impressive group of supporters — including Neil Bush, President George H.W. Bush’s son — the evidence proves the services were indeed provided. They say she was convicted in an earlier trial without being allowed to call even one witness to her defense, which is why that verdict, too, was later nullified.
The trouble for Lazareva, a graduate of the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, began after she created the Port Fund, rising to the highest levels of financial management in the Middle East. Among its investors, the fund counted the Kuwait Port Authority and the Kuwait Public Institution for Social Security.
After her firm inked a large real estate deal in the Philippines, earning her investors nearly half a billion dollars in 2017, the Kuwaiti government froze the funds and, her backers say, framed Lazareva for embezzlement. Though the funds were released in February, Lazareva’s embezzlement charges remain.
For now, she — and her young son — remain stuck in Kuwait. As a result of her detention, she lost her US green card: It expired when she was unable to return to the United States to renew it.
At least her son is now in the same country as his mother: He was sent to Kuwait to be with her after more than a year of being separated. But the situation is untenable for both.
“From a female perspective, it’s a terrible tragedy to be wrongly accused and separated from your son,” Cherie Blair, barrister and former first lady of the United Kingdom, who is representing Lazareva on human rights grounds, tells me.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect a first-class, corruption-free, US-style legal system in a country like Kuwait, but Lazareva is being subjected to a gross injustice, one Americans should speak out against on behalf of a fellow US resident in trouble.
“Marsha’s unjust and arbitrary detention, and her experience of Kuwait’s legal system, raises fundamental concerns about the treatment of foreign investors in Kuwait and the broader environment for foreign investment,” Blair has said.
Neil Bush, who notes that his dad liberated Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s claws in 1991, is particularly outraged. In a Washington Times op-ed this year, he brought up the specter of applying the Global Magnitsky Act, which “gives the US government sweeping powers to sanction individuals involved in serious human rights abuses or corruption,” to Kuwaiti officials.
US officials, he argued, “should use it to punish those responsible for Marsha’s incarceration by freezing their accounts and assets, and block them from engaging in transactions with US persons.”
Bush is joined by a host of others, including Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Az.) and Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), who have asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to investigate her case under the Act. Even former FBI director Louis Freeh has gotten involved, filing an affidavit on her behalf.
Kuwait is supposed to be a US ally. And, as Bush notes, it has a reputation for its humanitarian efforts. Kuwaiti officials have a duty to expedite this case and free this woman and her son. Washington should exert maximum pressure until they do.