A French court has dropped money-laundering charges against Russian businessman and lawmaker Suleiman Kerimov, allowing the billionaire to leave the country.
"The legal arguments which we raised for dropping the charges against Mr. Kerimov were welcomed and the indictment for laundering the proceeds of tax evasion was canceled," lawyers Pierre Haik, Jacqueline Laffont, and Nikita Sychyov said in a statement on June 28, according to the AFP news agency.
Kerimov, a member of Russia's upper house of parliament, was arrested in Nice in November 2017 and accused of laundering money obtained through tax fraud in deals to buy four luxury villas on the Riviera worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
French authorities released Kerimov in December on a multibillion-dollar bail and banned him from leaving the Alpes-Maritimes department, where Nice is located, until the investigation is over.
His defense team said they managed to convince the court in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence that the allegations against Kerimov did not qualify as money-laundering.
"The allegations, which are contested, are those of tax fraud and not laundering," their statement read.
Separately, Sychyov told the Russian news agencies Interfax and TASS that his client will soon have his passport and bail deposit returned to him.
Swiss businessman Alexander Studhalter, who was accused of helping Kerimov to buy the properties illicitly, also saw his charges dropped.
Nice Prosecutor Jean-Michel Pretre admitted that the rulings, which can be appealed to a higher court, came as “a surprise,” Bloomberg reported.
Kerimov, whose fortune was most recently estimated at $6.3 billion by Forbes magazine, was awarded last year the country’s Order of Merit to the Fatherland by President Vladimir Putin.
His family controls Polyus Gold, Russia’s largest gold producer.
Kerimov’s arrest by French authorities angered Moscow, which claims that the lawmaker was entitled to diplomatic immunity.