Allegations made against Marsha Lazareva suggest that sexism and racism may have played a role in her incarceration.
To quote Amnesty International, 2018 was a “particularly brutal year” for human rights activists, journalists and dissidents in the Gulf. The killing of Jamal Khashoggi in particular called attention to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record at home and in Yemen, but all Gulf states continue to restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly. Recent summits involving Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, which includes Kuwait, have been noticeable for the absence of human rights on the agenda.
A trend that began last year has so far continued unabated. Marsha Lazareva is, arguably, the most successful businesswoman in the Middle East. For the past 13 years, as the CEO and vice president of KGL Investment, she has developed and managed private equity funds in Kuwait, creating hundreds of jobs in the process. But was it in the spite of all this, or because of it, that she was sentenced to 10 years’ hard labor last year for misappropriating funds and thrown in jail?
Her case has become one of global humanitarian interest. Since Lazareva’s arrest and incarceration in May 2018, high-profile officials and human rights groups have called vociferously for her immediate release. According to legal experts, the charges on which she was convicted were baseless. And what’s worse, there are murmurings that her detention and conviction were motivated by sexism, racism and envy.
Lazareva’s own record of her trial would seem to bear this out. According to Lazareva, a Russian citizen who studied at the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, she was “singled out” because she was a woman. Many “racist comments” were allegedly made against her. “In spite of numerous requests by my lawyers,” she said, “the judge denied me full access to all accusatory documents and also denied my calling of all my witnesses.” She further claimed that having told the judge she was feeling unwell, she was instructed to “vomit in the corner at the back of the room.”
Lazareva now shares a cell with seven other woman in the notorious Sulaibiya prison, which has an official capacity of 2,500 prisoners but houses more than 6,000. Her mother has traveled from the US to Kuwait to care for her 4-year-old son, whom she has been prevented from seeing. Her health is in decline. Indeed, Louis Freeh, the former director of the FBI who has joined the appeal for her release, told The Daily Caller that “she’s deteriorating both physically and mentally in this condition, and there’s no reason for it.”
A series of hearings held since her trial have proved inconclusive or been abandoned entirely. A £50 million cash bail put up by Lazareva and Saeed Dashti, who was incarcerated on similar charges of embezzlement, has failed to secure even a temporary reprieve. Lord Carlile of Berriew, QC, who is senior counsel for Lazareva, has since made it known that the “expert auditor” on whose testimony much of the evidence relied has since been charged with the forgery of the three documents on which he depended during the case.
According to Lazareva’s legal team, her success in Kuwait generated enemies. It was after the lucrative sale of a real estate project in the Philippines to Udenna, a Davao City-based holding company, that the arrest finally came. Though Kuwaiti women are among the most emancipated in the Middle East — Kuwait was ranked first among Arab countries in the Global Gender Gap Report for 2014 and 2015 — the allegations made against Marsha Lazareva, as well as the comments purportedly made by the judge, suggest that sexism and racism may have played a role in her incarceration.
The upshot of this is that relations between Kuwait and the US, a close ally, may be overshadowed. Neil Bush, son of the late former president, has taken a personal interest in Lazareva’s plight, suggesting Congress must “take steps to sanction the individuals responsible” if the Kuwaiti leadership does not correct the injustice. Louis Freeh has added that Lazareva is “probably one of the most, if not the most, prominent female business executives in the mid-East just completely run roughshod over in terms of her basic rights.” In the UK, the US and Russia, the consensus is clear: Marsha Lazareva’s jailing was unjust.
The ball, it seems, is now very much in Kuwait’s court. There are 5,000 international students of Kuwaiti origin in higher education in the United States. Relations have been largely untroubled since the Gulf War. On paper, Kuwait remains a major non-NATO ally of the US and the UK. Now the team of political and legal heavyweights working for Lazareva’s release warn that Kuwait risks losing its support. Equally, it risks losing international investment at a time when it is actively seeking foreign direct investment. And all this, it seems, because Marsha Lazareva was a woman who was too successful.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.