Clare Nuttall in Astana -
Kazakhstan is among several countries trying to secure the extradition of fugitive oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov. With months to wait until the French courts decide whether - and where - to extradite Ablyazov, his arrest and the deportation of his family have thrown the spotlight onto Kazakhstan's justice system and Astana's relationship with several European governments.
Ablyazov, the former head of Kazakhstan's BTA Bank, was arrested by French special forces at Mouans-Sartoux, a village near Cannes, on the afternoon of July 31, following an extradition request from Ukraine. Kazakhstan issued its own request three days after the arrest.
Although Kazakhstan does not have an extradition treaty with France, Kazakhstani officials are still hopeful that they can obtain Ablyazov's extradition. A spokesman for Kazakhstan's prosecutor general's office, Nurdaulet Suindikov, pointed out to a press conference on August 6 that there had been an increase in extraditions between Kazakhstan and EU member states despite the lack of a treaty, giving Astana hope that Ablyazov, who fled Kazakhstan in 2009, might stand trial in his home country. "[It] should be noted that recently there has been a positive tendency of extradition of accused persons from European countries on the basis of reciprocity, that is, even in the absence of bilateral agreements," Suindikov told journalists.
Meanwhile, Kazakhstan's financial police, the Agency for Economic and Corruption-Related Crimes, said the following day that it has launched eight new criminal cases against Ablyazov and his associates. If returned to Kazakhstan, he could face a prison sentence of up to 13 years.
Ablyazov left Kazakhstan for the UK shortly after BTA, Kazakhstan's largest bank by assets before the financial crisis hit in 2009, was nationalised and put under the control of Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna. BTA's new management have been pursuing him through the British court system, launching a series of claims worth over $5bn through the English High Court of Justice in an attempt to recover assets they say were embezzled by Ablyazov and his associates.
The Kazakh oligarch has been on the run since February 2012, when the UK Supreme Court sentenced him to 22 months in prison 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 since then had been unknown.
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, accompanied by Kazakhstani diplomats.
Writing on his Facebook page following the deportation, Ablyazov accused Kazakhstani 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.
Ablyazov has a tumultuous relationship with the Kazakhstani elite. After a brief stint as energy trade minister, he co-founded the opposition Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan movement. Shortly afterwards, he was sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of power, but pardoned by Nazarbayev in 2003 after just a few months in jail. For the next five years, his financial support for the opposition Alga! DVK party and media such as Respublika newspaper and the K+ television channel were allowed to pass, in part because the level of support for the opposition was relatively low and never became a large-scale challenge to the government.
This changed dramatically after the December 2011 Zhanaozen tragedy, when at least 14 rioting oil workers were shot dead by police following a seven-month strike. Ablyazov, who is accused of supporting the striking miners and enabling opposition leaders to stir up the situation, became, as Aleksandra Jarosiewicz of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW) points out, "public enemy number one" in Kazakhstan. While BTA had been keen to bring him to justice in order to recover lost assets, pursuing Ablyazov has now become a political, rather than merely a financial, issue.
Trial by media
Ablyazov and the Kazakhstani government have been fighting a PR war since the takeover of BTA. Ablyazov has always denied the fraud charges against him, and claimed the bank's nationalisation was unnecessary. As part of his defence in the UK courts, Ablyazov accused top Kazakhstani officials of masterminding the takeover in a project dubbed "SuperKhan" - an argument that was dismissed by the court.
"In the confrontation between the ruling elite (and President Nursultan Nazarbayev personally) and Ablyazov, both sides are trying to disparage their opponents and gain the sympathy of European public opinion," writes Aleksandra Jarosiewicz of the Center for Eastern Studies (OSW). "The results of the fight is a worsening of Kazakhstan's international image, Astana's increasing assertiveness towards the West's demands for democratisation, and also Ablyazov's increasingly effective image-building as a political refugee fighting the regime in Astana."
The deportation of Ablyzov's family 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 PM Silvio Berlusconi - to resign. Although Alfano denies advance knowledge of the deportation, the opposition claims he allowed it to go ahead despite Kazakhstan's dubious record on the treatment of prisoners.
International human rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also weighed into the debate. "The Kazakhstani authorities want Mukhtar Ablyazov at all costs... The French authorities must carefully consider all the angles to Ablyazov's case and make absolutely sure that he is not sent to any country where he will be at risk of harm or of subsequently being loaded on to a plane to Kazakhstan," said the director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia programme John Dalhuisen in an August 1 statement.
Astana is now waiting for a decision from the French courts, which is expected in early 2014, that will determine Ablyazov's fate. Both sides are expected to step up efforts to sway European public opinion in the coming months.
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