Tue, Nov 20, 2007 - Page 18 News List

Arsenal's suitor denies allegations of unsavory past

INSINUATION Alisher Usmanov, the billionaire who spent six years in jail, was accused by the Russian media of being connected to murder

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

The Uzbek-born billionaire who has bought almost a quarter of Arsenal FC has spoken frankly about serious allegations over his personal and business life in a remarkable e-mail exchange with the Guardian.

Alisher Usmanov, a Moscow-based steel and mining magnate, has denied that he was ever convicted of rape and dismissed suggestions that he was connected with the death of a Russian journalist whose body was found at the foot of an apartment block earlier this year. He also talked of his relationship with a man alleged to be a major drug trafficker and was frank about his connections with a number of former KGB officers.

Usmanov, 54, spent six years in jail in the 80s for embezzlement and fraud, although his convictions were overturned on appeal. Some sections of the Russian media have alleged he was also convicted of rape, a claim repeated on several Web sites after he purchased his first tranche of Arsenal shares 10 weeks ago.

In his email exchange, Usmanov protested: "All the charges in my case were fabricated. I will give you a copy of the verdict if you need to know what were the crimes I was charged with and you'll see that rape is not one of them. This is a mean lie spread by small-minded people naive to think that I was their competitor."

He also addressed an insinuation made by an MEP during a debate in the European parliament that he was in some way connected to the death of a Russian journalist, Ivan Safronov, whose body was found at a Moscow apartment block last March.

"The Safronov allegation is a startling and unbelievable insinuation with no basis in truth, as are the other allegations that have been made of me," he said. "I consider any insinuation on this as an untruth of a highly provocative nature."

"I take this matter very seriously and I only wish I had time to bring to court all those who propagate this wicked and false story. I insist that this should be treated seriously, with clear understanding that reprinting and spinning the slander is slander as well," he said.

The Guardian has seen no credible evidence that supports either allegation.

Asked about his relationship with Gafur Rakhimov, a man who has been named as an Uzbek mafia boss and who was once banned from entering Australia because of his alleged connections to organized crime, Usmanov said: "I only knew him since he was a neighbor of my parents. I have never had, nor do I have, any business dealings with him."

The billionaire acknowledged close contacts with officers of the KGB and its successor organizations, but said: "You make these statements as if it is criminal for me to know someone in the KGB. There is nothing criminal about any of this. You are trying to turn the acquaintance of any Russian with members of the KGB into a crime. This is simply not appropriate."

Asked whether he had ever served in the KGB or any other Russian or Uzbek intelligence agencies, he replied simply: "No."

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