Taivanchik Hearing Ordered to Stay Put
Published: August 13, 2002 (Issue # 794)
ROME - An Italian court ruled that extradition hearings for Alimzhan Tokhtakhounov, an alleged Russian mobster accused on U.S. charges of fixing Olympic ice skating, will not be moved from Venice to Tuscany, the suspect's lawyer said Saturday.
Lawyer Luca Saldarelli had requested the move, saying that his client had been picked up by police in the Tuscan seaside resort of Forte dei Marmi and should be processed there.
Prosecutors noted that the suspect was formally arrested in Venice and they argue that the attempted move was a stalling tactic.
"The Venice court decided [Friday]," Saldarelli said by phone from his home in Tuscany. "But I'm still awaiting word from a high court in Rome regarding a request I made challenging the initial arrest. They should decide on that next month."
This legal challenge is based on Saldarelli's argument that authorities illegally transported Tokhtakhounov from his Forte dei Marmi home to Venice before officially arresting him.
Court officials and prosecutors were unavailable for comment Saturday.
U.S. prosecutors say Tokhtakhounov, who is nicknamed "Taivanchik," because of his asian appearance, persuaded a French judge to vote for the Russian pairs team at the Salt Lake Olympics, and a Russian to vote in turn for the French ice-dancing team.
Italian police have released limited - and sometimes unclear - transcripts from wiretapped conversations between Tokhtakhounov and various callers including alleged discussions of fixing.
A scandal broke out after Russians Yelena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze won Olympic gold by the slimmest of margins in pairs figure skating on Feb. 11, defeating Canadians Jamie Sale and David Pelletier. A week after the pairs competition, the ice-dancing team of Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat won France's first gold in figure skating since 1932.
A day after the Russians won, French judge Marie-Reine le Gougne said she had been pressured to vote for them. She insists she had nothing to do with any fixing scheme.
The judging flap, resulted in a duplicate set of gold medals being awarded to the Canadian pairs team.
Italian police say they came across Tokhtakhounov during a wide Russian- mafia investigation. His representatives say he was merely a successful businessman who enjoyed spending time with celebrities and athletes.
Russian sports officials have denied any wrongdoing, and denounced what they called "groundless attacks" on their athletes. French skater Anissina, who Italian police say appears on some of the wiretaps, denies all involvement in corruption and insists it is not her voice on the tapes.
Meanwhile, French newspaper Le Figaro reported Friday that the French Skating Federation chief Didier Gailhaguet believes the FBI may have orchestrated the scandal to have grounds to extradite the reputed mobster.
Gailhaguet said he was questioned by an FBI agent during the Salt Lake City competition, but said in an interview with Le Figaro that he was not asked about Tokhtakhounov.
The affair for which he was being questioned dates from "a while back," he quoted the agent as saying.
"I have to talk to you about the influence of the mob in figure skating, which has existed for a long time," Gailhaguet quoted the agent as saying, Figaro reported. He did not identify the agent by name.
"We talked about money laundering, arms trafficking, maybe terrorism," Gailhaguet told the newspaper.
"But to seek his [Tokhtakhounov's] extradition, a complaint needed to be lodged on American territory. Today, i wonder whether the affair started in Salt Lake wasn't orchestrated for that purpose," he said.
In New York, FBI spokesperson Joseph Valiquette said: "It's absolutely not true."
Gailhaguet said Anissina was introduced into the Russian jet-set in France by Tokhtakhounov and had befriended his daughter, a Bolshoi dancer.