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By John Helmer, Moscow

Vladimir Kekhman, the controlling shareholder of Joint Fruit Company (JFC), Russia’s biggest banana trader, has received a summons to appear in the UK High Court to face charges of contempt of court. If he is found culpable, he may be jailed. If he doesn’t appear and is convicted, he may be arrested on warrants exercisable at the frontiers of almost every country Kekhman likes to visit, especially on the tours planned this year for the Mikhailovsky Theatre and Ballet Company which Kekhman also directs.

It is unprecedented for a major Russian business figure to undergo a contempt of court proceeding in the British courts, and to date none has been sent to prison. But the case of Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov is a warning and omen for Kekhman. Ablyazov, the former controlling shareholder of BTA Bank, was convicted last month and sentenced to 22 months in prison for contempt in relation to High Court asset freeze orders. He is now on the run.

With Kekhman on the receiving end of the High Court order, issued in London on March 9, and of summonses to answer the contempt of court claims, are six other directors and senior executives of St. Petersburg-based JFC. These include Andrei Afanasyev and Dmitry Kasatkin, senior operational executives in the company, and Tatiana Litvinova, Kekhman’s wife. Until very recently, she was a director on the company board. For the time being, JFC is declining to confirm that Litvinova is married to Kekhman because to do so would be, according to JFC, “a law violation relating to Kekhman’s private life.”

The order and summonses were decided after a hearing on Friday by High Court judge, Colin Edelman QC, of an application by Star Reefers, an Oslo and London fleet company, which owned three refrigerated cargo vessels on charter to JFC to carry bananas from Ecuador to St. Petersburg, as well as to other ports in between. Last August the UK court awarded Star $16.3 million in compensation for JFC’s actions to break its fleet chartering contract and stop the fleet operations. After JFC refused to pay, Star secured from the High Court a worldwide freeze order requiring Kekhman and his group to disclose assets and income, wherever they are stashed; and to notify the court in advance of any transaction of over $25,000 in value.

Judge Edelman has now ruled there is evidence that Kekhman and his JFC group have continued to make transactions in violation of the freeze order. Earlier episodes of the tale can be read here. The new order refers to three documents which are not publicly available, but have now been delivered to Kekhman and his colleagues.

These documents are identified in the order as an application notice, a draft order and an expert affidavit. They set out the grounds of the alleged contempt of court violations so far. Kekhman has been told to appear at the next court session on May 23 to show cause why he shouldn’t be locked up. Alternatively, should Kekhman agree to settle his debts to Star, that would put an end to his exposure.

JFC’s law firm in last week’s hearing was Swinnerton Moore. Holman Fenwick Willan attended the hearing to represent the interests of several of the JFC directors. Kekhman’s spokesman, Andrei Semyonov, declined to confirm that Kekhman and the others have received the court documents from London, or if they intend to appear in the London court on May 23. Nor would he say whether the bankruptcy application lodged by JFC in a St.Petersburg court last month is understood by Kekhman as shielding him from enforcement of the London award to Star.

According to a statement before the hearing by Star’s chief executive Simon Stevens, “Star believes that Mr Kekhman and the Directors of JFC have breached the conditions set out in the English High Court’s world wide freezing order granted in December 2011, placing them in contempt of court and liable for court sanctions.”

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