Russia has protested about the arrest of a billionaire playboy close to the Kremlin on suspicion of tax fraud on the French Riviera, raising the threat of a diplomatic spat between Moscow and Paris.
Police arrested 51-year-old Suleiman Kerimov, who has a net worth of nearly $7bn and has been called the “Russian Gatsby,” in the Nice airport on Tuesday. He was taken to court on Wednesday evening, and placed under formal investigation, prosecutors said.
French authorities reportedly suspect Mr Kerimov of secretly purchasing luxury mansions on the Cap d'Antibes and failing to pay tens of millions of euros in taxes. Money laundering is also believed to figure in the allegations.
Among the properties reportedly linked to Mr Kerimov was the Villa Hier, where Michael Caine and Steve Martin filmed the 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Tax authorities seized the residence in September.
Mr Kerimov has reportedly denied the accusations. His net worth shrunk by $117 million in the day after his arrest, Russian Forbes reported, and shares in Russia's largest gold producer Polyus, which he controls, fell by 5%.
But if the markets haven't stood by him, the Kremlin has. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that Russia was conducting “intensive work” to assist Mr Kerimov.
“We will do everything in our power to protect his lawful interests,” Mr Peskov said.
The Russian foreign ministry has sent a note of protest to the French authorities arguing that as a high-ranking official Mr Kerimov has immunity from prosecution abroad, according to Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament. He added that Mr Kerimov is a diplomatic passport holder.
But state news agency RIA Novosti reported that Mr Kerimov had entered France on his private passport and often only diplomatic couriers and embassy and consulate employees enjoy diplomatic immunity under an international agreement.
Leonid Slutsky, the foreign affairs head in the lower house of parliament, said he hoped the arrest was a “misunderstanding” and not a “planned provocation”.
Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house, called Mr Kerimov's arrest “unprecedented” and “inexcusable”, arguing that France should have first made a complaint against him to Russian law enforcement.
“If there would have been concrete grievances, he probably would have thought twice about whether he should go to France or not,” she explained.
Once an impoverished economist at a Soviet electrical plant, Mr Kerimov made and lost several fortunes in the decades after the breakup of the USSR, often with the help of huge loans from state banks. In March, Mr Putin gave Mr Kerimov an award “For Services to the Fatherland, second class”.
In Russia, he is known for his extravagant spending and love of fast cars. His VIP-packed parties can cost millions of pounds and have featured top entertainers like Amy Winehouse.
In 2006, he crashed his $650,000 Ferrari Enzo on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice with the glamourous TV host Tina Kandelaki riding shotgun, leaving them both with serious burns.
He became better known internationally in 2011, when he bought the football club Anzhi Makhachkala, which represents his restive home region of Dagestan, and hired Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o for a record £21.8m. He once gave Brazilian defender Roberto Carlos a $3m Bugatti Veyron as a birthday gift.
Mr Kerimov's arrest follows several other raids and investigations into suspected money laundering cases focused around the Cap d'Antibes, which is popular with Russian billionaires.