Monday 18 November 2019

Former football club owner faces extradition on fraud charges

File photos dated of the Russian former owner of Portsmouth Football Club Vladimir Antonov (left) and his Lithuanian business partner Raimondas Baranauskas. Photo read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
File photos dated of the Russian former owner of Portsmouth Football Club Vladimir Antonov (left) and his Lithuanian business partner Raimondas Baranauskas. Photo read: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

By John Aston

The Russian former owner of Portsmouth Football Club has lost his High Court bid to block extradition to Lithuania where he faces £400 million fraud charges.

Vladimir Antonov, 39, and his Lithuanian business partner, Raimondas Baranauskas, 57, are both wanted to stand trial but say they are being used as "scapegoats" following the controversial nationalisation of Snoras, a leading Lithuanian bank they controlled.

They argue that the extradition request was made in bad faith and was "politically motivated" by the Lithuanian government's desire to end criticism from a newspaper owned by the bank.

But two High Court judges in London dismissed their challenge and said there was no evidence to support their claims.

Lord Justice Aikens and Mr Justice Simon dismissed all grounds of challenge to extradition, including that Antonov was being prosecuted because of his Russian nationality and political opinions.

The judges agreed with the Prosecutor General's Office of Lithuania that the decision to issue the European arrest warrants (EAWs) was valid and justified.

The judges ruled: "There is simply no evidence, direct or indirect, from which it can be established, directly or by inference, that there was a causal link between the issue of the EAW to prosecute Vladimir Antonov and his Russian nationality."

Antonov was chairman of the bank's board of observers and also a substantial shareholder. Baranauskas was chief executive and chairman of the board until the bank was nationalised by the Lithuanian government in November 2011.

The pair are accused of stripping €470m and 10 million US dollars-worth (£6 million) of assets and funds from Snoras.

Both men are also alleged to have submitted false documents to the Lithuanian central bank to conceal their systematic plundering of Snoras, involving 33 transfers to Swiss and other offshore accounts controlled by them, between 2008 and 2011.

Lithuanian prosecutors issued an EAW for them in November 2011 after naming them as the main suspects in a pre-trial investigation.

Antonov was forced to quit Portsmouth FC that year because of the case against him.

He and Baranauskas challenged a ruling by District Judge John Zani, sitting at Westminster Magistrates' Court, that extradition could go ahead.

Judge Zani concluded in January last year that they would receive a fair trial on the fraud charges and rejected claims that extradition would breach their human rights.

At a recent High Court hearing, John Jones QC accused Judge Zani of "failing to engage with the significant quantity of evidence" proving the extradition request was politically tainted.

Mr Jones, for Baranauskas, said the evidence showed that "the president and then government of Lithuania for political reasons decided to destroy Snoras bank".

A key reason for nationalising the bank was the government's desire to end criticism from Lieutuvos Rytas, the Lithuanian morning daily newspaper owned by the bank, said Mr Jones.

He said: "They used the central bank to achieve that aim and it became necessary for the figureheads of the bank to be scapegoated by being subjected to criminal charges."

He said "sufficient political pressure" was brought to bear on the Lithuanian prosecutor general's office to issue the arrest warrants without first being given an opportunity to investigate the case more carefully.

But the High Court ruled the case "wholly without merit" on all grounds of challenge.

These included the claim there was a serious possibility that both men would be prejudiced in their trial, or subjected to violence because of "uncontrolled inmate violence" in Lithuanian prisons.

Attempts to remove Antonov and Baranauskas to Lithuania currently remain on hold while their lawyers consider a possible further appeal to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

Karen Todner, of Kaim Todner Solicitors, who are representing Antonov, said: "It is very likely that we will lodge a point for certification to the Supreme Court."

The last-ditch move would involve asking for the case to be certified as one raising a point of law of public importance fit for consideration by Supreme Court judges.

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