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21 May 2024

British police probe 'suspicious' death of Georgian tycoon

By Agencies

British police launched an investigation on Wednesday into the "suspicious" death of a wealthy Georgian opposition leader accused of fomenting a coup in the ex-Soviet republic.


Badri Patarkatsishvili, 52, who had claimed there were plans to assassinate him, collapsed and died late Tuesday at his plush mansion outside Leatherhead, a leafy suburban commuter town south-west of London, police confirmed.


"As with all unexpected deaths it is being treated as suspicious," police said in a statement, adding that a post-mortem was expected to be carried out later on Wednesday.


London is home to a large number of businessmen from Russia and other ex-Soviet republics - including Kremlin opponent Alexander Litvinenko, whose death by radiation poisoning in 2006 triggered a deep diplomatic chill with Moscow.


Nona Gaprindashvili, a political ally of Patarkatsishvili in Tbilisi, was cited by Georgian television as saying he died of heart failure but expressed surprise at this, saying "he felt very well as far as I know".


A police spokeswoman said: "We need to await the result of the post mortem... before we can confirm what he died of."


Patarkatsishvili had not reported medical problems. His family was told by his London doctor that recent tests showed no signs of heart disease, according to Georgian Mze television.


The flamboyant businessman, instantly recognisable by his big white moustache, was Georgia's richest man.


He was a major force behind an opposition movement that took to the streets in the Georgian capital Tbilisi last November, prompting a violent police crackdown.


Pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili's government accused Patarkatsishvili, who lived mostly in Britain and Israel, of attempting to mount a coup.


Patarkatsishvili hit back claiming he was the victim of an assassination plot. In a snap presidential poll in January, which saw Saakashvili re-elected, Patarkatsishvili got seven per cent of the vote.


"Badri was worried deeply about the recent events in Georgia. I think this might have been the reason for his death," Patarkatsishvili's ex-campaign chief Rati Shartava said on Georgia's Rustavi 2 television.


"Badri's remains will be brought to Georgia," she added.


In December, British newspaper The Sunday Times published extracts from a taped conversation said to be between a Georgian government official and a possible hitman, discussing options for making Patarkatsishvili "disappear".


The tycoon said: "I know about this tape and I was told it was very serious. I have 120 bodyguards, but I know that's not enough. I don't feel safe anywhere and that is why I'm particularly not going to Georgia."


A Georgian of Jewish descent, Patarkatsishvili cut his political teeth as a member of the Soviet-era Komsomol youth organisation, where he met many of his future business contacts.


He made his fortune working with Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky in Moscow in the early 1990s, when Berezovsky was known as the "grey cardinal of the Kremlin" for his close links with then-president Boris Yeltsin.


He returned to Georgia in 2001, just as Russian prosecutors were pursuing him and other associates of Berezovsky, who had fallen out with Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, and is now also in exile in London.


In June 2001, Patarkatsishvili was charged with attempting to organise the escape of Berezovsky associate Nikolai Glushkov from prison. In October 2002, he was charged with large-scale fraud.


After supporting Saakashvili in the 2003 peaceful uprising dubbed the Rose Revolution, Patarkatsishvili subsequently turned against the president.


In a statement in November, Patarkatsishvili said: "Let no-one have doubts that all my forces, all my financial resources until the last tetri will be used to liberate Georgia from this fascist regime."


According to local people in Leatherhead, Patarkatsishvili bought his home, Downside Manor, for £10 million-£15 million (Dh73m-Dh110m) from the Qatari ambassador last year. Actor Michael Caine lives across the road.


Neighbour Maureen Fyson, 71, told AFP she believed Patarkatsishvili was "well covered" for security, while another nearby resident said that bodyguards could be seen arriving and leaving the property regularly. (AFP)