International Policy Digest

World News /18 Oct 2019

Marsha Lazareva’s Legal Saga in Kuwait has High International Stakes

Kuwait’s Sabah Ahmad al-Sabah has long had a reputation as one of the more passionate defenders of human decency in the Gulf region. He was honored in 2014 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for his efforts to support individuals impacted by conflicts in Syria and Iraq and is also credited with many human rights improvements for Kuwait’s migrant workers. Under his leadership, Kuwait has also established itself as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member-state that stands strongest in defense of Palestinian rights.

Yet in recent months Kuwait has received international criticism over the ongoing case of a prominent businesswoman, Marsha Lazareva. She is a Russian national, a former U.S. green card holder, and the mother of a five-year-old U.S. citizen.

After Lazareva operated a successful investment firm out of Kuwait for more than a decade, Kuwaiti officials accused her of embezzlement. She was convicted without being allowed to present a defense, based on the testimony of a single witness and documents that have since been confirmed as forgeries.

Lazareva was sentenced to ten years of hard labor and spent 474 days in a crowded cell at Sulaibiya prison before her conviction was overturned by an appeals court. However, she remains prohibited from leaving Kuwait and returning to the U.S. with her young son, and the charges against her have not yet been dropped despite the overwhelming evidence of her innocence.

During her incarceration, high-profile public figures came to Lazareva’s defense, including Neil Bush, whose family is widely respected in Kuwait for his father’s role in the country’s 1991 liberation. Other prominent supporters include human rights attorney Cherie Blair, former FBI Director Louis Freeh, former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi, and former Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson, and most recently, actress and humanitarian advocate Amber Heard. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov have been reported to have independently raised the issue with senior Kuwaiti diplomats.

It remains unclear how engaged the Amir has been in discussions of Lazareva’s case. To be sure, there is no suggestion that he bears any responsibility for her denial of justice. That said, a number of Kuwaiti officials have been identified as playing a direct role in Lazareva’s persecution, a fact that risks threatening Kuwaiti interests.

So far, four members of the U.S. Congress have written letters urging Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to initiate Global Magnitsky Act investigations into six Kuwaitis, including two members of the royal family. This includes Sheikh Khaled Abdullah S. N. Al-Sabah, the Chief of Amir Protocol and Chamberlain; Sheikh Youssef Al-Sabah, General Manager of the Kuwait Port Authority; Dherar Ali Al-Asousi, Kuwait’s Attorney General; Homood Al-Shamy and Metab Al-Ardi, the prosecutor and judge in Lazareva’s trial; and finally, Hamad Al-Allayan, the State Audit Bureau official who was convicted of forging the documents in Lazareva’s case.

This has apparently angered some officials in Kuwait, who have accused certain American and Russian officials of interference in Kuwait judicial proceedings. The head of the Kuwait Port Authority went so far as to threaten some of the U.S. officials with criminal prosecution.

Yet this backlash is perhaps unsurprising given what is at stake. Magnitsky sanctions freeze bank accounts and ban travel of human rights violators. In this case, they would not only implicate people close to the Amir – but they could also damage Kuwait’s international reputation at a time in which the Kuwaiti economy needs more foreign investment for diversification plans to succeed as the country prepares for the post-oil future.

Kuwaiti authorities will need to make important decisions about how to handle Lazareva’s file, especially given the case’s high international stakes. With additional hearings scheduled in her case over the next few weeks, those decisions have taken on even greater urgency.

News of the recent hospitalization of the Amir sparked discussion among observers of Gulf politics. While all were pleased to see the speedy recovery of a leader who has served as a respected leader, statesmen, and diplomat for decades, the incident provided an opportunity to consider the Amir’s record that will one day shape his legacy.