France approves extradition of Kazakh tycoon
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France - Agence France-PresseA French court Thursday approved the extradition of exiled Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, an opposition figure wanted on embezzlement charges by Russia and Ukraine.
The former Kazakh energy and trade minister, who was arrested on the French Riviera in July, is accused of having stolen billions of dollars in state and investor funds while leading the Kazakh BTA Bank, which also had interests in Ukraine and Russia.
The judge approved the extradition requests from both Russia and Ukraine but ruled that Russia's should take priority as the scale of the embezzlement alleged by Moscow ($5 billion) is far greater than that alleged by Ukraine ($400 million).
Ablyazov's lawyers announced they would appeal Thursday's decision and he will not be extradited pending its outcome.
"This decision shames the French judicial system," the tycoon's daughter Madina said after the ruling.
Ablyazov argues that the allegations against him were fabricated by Kazakhstan as a result of him falling out of favour with the oil-rich country's rulers.
His lawyers had warned that an extradition to either Russia or Ukraine could ultimately result in him being deported to face an uncertain fate in his home country.
"Extraditing him means condemning him to death," said Alma Shalabayeva, Ablyazov's wife who was herself controversially deported from Italy to Kazakhstan last year before finally being allowed to return to Rome last month.
Prosecutors argued at a hearing in December that there was no realistic possibility of Russia or Ukraine re-extradicting the tycoon back to Kazakhstan as that would be in breach of their extradition agreements with France.
Once close to Kazakhstan's elite, Ablyazov fell out of favour and became a foe of strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the former Soviet country for 22 years.
He was jailed in 2002 for abuse of power and illegal business activities after co-founding and leading an opposition party, in a move widely seen as a bid to silence him.
He was quickly pardoned and released, however, and worked in finance until fleeing to Britain in 2009 amid accusations of embezzlement.
He is believed to have stayed there until he was sentenced to 22 months in jail for contempt of court.
He did not surrender to the British authorities and is then thought to have moved to Italy before taking up residence in the south of France.
French police were so worried he would try to flee they deployed a squad of 15 officers backed up by a helicopter to arrest him at the villa he was renting in Mouans-Sartoux, just outside Cannes.
Ablyazov's lawyer, Bruno Rebstock, described Thursday's ruling as incomprehensible.
"French justice has not covered itself in glory with this decision," he said. "Either it is displaying enormous naievete in relation to the word of states that the entire world regards as corrupt, or it is a sign of political influence on the judiciary, which is extremely worrying for a democratic state."