Lord Goldsmith caught up in "oligarch riddle"

Dominic Kennedy and Mark Hollingsworth

Lord Goldsmith, the former Attorney-General, has become embroiled in a suspected sting that resulted in a top anti-mafia lawyer being put on trial in secret in Belarus today.

Emanuel Zeltser, who once testified on Capitol Hill about the Russian mob, is a key character in a wrangle over the $12billion (?6billion) fortune of a Georgian oligarch found dead at his country home in Surrey. He was arrested after flying to Belarus and accused of possessing false documents. According to Amnesty International, he has been tortured in custody.

Quite how Mr Zeltser ended up in Belarus is a mystery. The lawyer flew there on a private aircraft owned by the exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky - even though Mr Zeltser and Mr Berezovsky are on opposite sides in the fight for the fortune of the dead Georgian, Arkadi Patarkatsishvili.

A law firm representing Mr Berezovsky had already tipped off the authorities in Minsk that the lawyer might be carrying bogus material on his laptop. Lord Goldsmith, now a private lawyer and representing Mr Patarkatsishvili's widow in the case, e-mailed the Belarus ProsecutorGeneral's office to support its investigation of Mr Zeltser and offering to swap information. His spokesman has insisted that, after mistreatment allegations were made, he urged that Mr Zeltser be dealt with properly and withdrew the offer to help.

Today's trial - to be held behind closed doors - is the latest twist arising from the death of Mr Patarkatsishvili, who was found dead at home in Leatherhead in February. A post-mortem examination showed that he had severe heart disease.

Mr Berezovsky wants half of the $12billion legacy, since he and Mr Patarkatsishvili were business partners as well as close friends. The widow, Inna Gudanadze, is also seeking a share. However, Josef Kay, Mr Patarkatsishvili's adviser, claims that he controls the estate. Mr Zeltser, a New York lawyer, said that he was Mr Kay's lawyer and produced a laptop computer with scanned documents dated last November purporting to be a will appointing Mr Kay as executor.

On March 3 a letter was sent by Cadwalader, at that time acting for the widow and coincidentally Mr Berezovsky's law firm, to the Belarus Prosecutor-General alerting him to the alleged forgeries. There was no mention of any forthcoming visit by Mr Zeltser to Belarus.

On March 12 Mr Zeltser and his secretary boarded Mr Berezovsky's aircraft in London and flew to Minsk, where they were arrested. Lord Goldsmith sent his e-mail on March 19, saying that he now represented the widow and proposing co-operation.

Mr Zeltser has been accused of use of false documents and industrial espionage. He has also been charged with drug trafficking in relation to the prescription painkillers he takes for gout and arthritis, which contain codeine. He faces seven years in jail.

The US has demanded Mr Zeltser's release on humanitarian grounds, saying that his health may suffer irreversibly and that he may die. Friends of Mr Berezovsky denied he had anything to do with the arrest.