Fugitive Kazakh oligarch Ablyazov arrested in France

By bne IntelliNews August 1, 2013

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The former head of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov, has been arrested in the south of France, more than four years after he fled Kazakhstan to avoid fraud charges.

Ablyazov was arrested by French special forces at Mouans-Sartoux, a village near Cannes, on the afternoon of July 31. A lawyer for the fugitive banker told the Financial Times he had been arrested following an extradition request from Russia, where he is wanted on embezzlement charges. Meanwhile, French a official told the press Ablyazov is facing an extradition request from the Ukraine, where BTA also had operations.

A series of claims amounting to around $6bn have been launched through the English High Court of Justice in an attempt to recover assets that the Kazakh government and BTA's new managers say were embezzled from the bank by Ablyazov and his associates. Formerly Kazakhstan's largest bank by assets, BTA was nationalised in February 2009, with the government providing an emergency cash injection to prevent its collapse.

Ablyazov has consistently denied the charges against him and says that the state takeover of BTA was politically motivated. He has also accused top Kazakh officials of masterminding the takeover of BTA in a project he calls "SuperKhan" - an argument that was dismissed by the British courts.

In addition to the accusations surrounding his actions at BTA, Ablyazov has also been accused by Kazakh officials of stirring up and financing opposition to the government in west Kazakhstan during the Zhanaozen oilworkers' strike in 2011.

The Kazakh oligarch has been on the run since February 2012, when the UK Supreme Court sentenced him to a 22-month prison sentence for contempt of court and other charges. Ablyazov is believed to have escaped to France by coach, travelling on a false passport, and his whereabouts have since been unknown.

Closing in

However, the net had clearly been closing recently. His wife Alma Shalabayeva was detained by Italian police during a raid on her home near Rome on May 29. Along with the couple's six-year-old daughter, she was flown to Kazakhstan on a private jet.

Writing on his Facebook page following the deportation, Ablyazov accused Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev of "kidnapping" his wife and daughter and holding them hostage. Shortly afterwards, Shalabayeva was given a non-custodial sentence for using a fake passport, and has been ordered to remain in Almaty.

The deportation also triggered a diplomatic crisis between Kazakhstan and Italy, bringing Italy's fragile government coalition under increasing pressure. Italian opposition leaders on July 15 called on Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Angelino Alfano - an ally of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi - to resign. Although Alfano denies advance knowledge of the deportation, opposition leaders claim he allowed the deportation to go ahead despite Kazakhstan's dubious record on human rights and treatment of prisoners.

Since it was nationalised, BTA has gone through two rounds of debt restructuring. The government now hopes to offload it to fellow Kazakh lender Halyk Bank.

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