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Kazakhstan Targets Associates In Hunt For Fugitive Tycoon

  • Farangis Najibullah

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) seems determined to punish former minister and banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (right) seems determined to punish former minister and banker Mukhtar Ablyazov.

The Kazakh authorities appear willing to go to great lengths to lure one of the country's most-wanted fugitives out of hiding.

The location of banking tycoon and opposition politician Mukhtar Ablyazov, who fled Kazakhstan in 2009 after running afoul of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, remains unknown. But allies and close associates of the former BTA Bank chairman are being rounded up wherever they may be.

The globe-trotting tale of intrigue now shifts to Spain, where Ablyazov's former security chief faces an extradition hearing this month. The bodyguard, Aleksandr Pavlov, has applied for political asylum in Spain but was arrested at Astana's request in June and is being sought by Kazakh authorities on charges of bank fraud and terrorism.

The developments follow the June 12 detention in Poland of Ablyazov political associate Muratbek Ketebaev. Ketebaev was released after questioning and Kazakhstan's official extradition request was denied.

Earlier the same month, Ablyazov's wife and 6-year-old daughter were deported from Italy in a case that an Italian court has determined was littered with serious procedural violations and that has led to calls for a probe by the Italian prime minister.

Kazakh investigators say Pavlov, along with Ketebaev, masterminded a series of terrorist attacks in March 2012, allegedly targeting parks and administrative buildings in Almaty. Prosecutors claim the huge plot was thwarted by security forces.

Terrorism Charges

Pavlov's defense team, however, insists the charges are baseless and solely aimed at obtaining information on Ablyazov, arguably the most influential opponent of President Nazarbaev.

Poland has denied Kazakhstan's extradition request for Muratbek Ketebaev.

Poland has denied Kazakhstan's extradition request for Muratbek Ketebaev.

"It appears to me that everything in this is linked to politics," says Maria Costa Nuche, a member of the Madrid-based legal team that represents Pavlov. "As [authorities in] Kazakhstan cannot reach Mukhtar Ablyazov, they are trying to reach all the people around him, which include his wife and daughter, which include Muratbek Ketebaev, which include especially his former bodyguard [Pavlov], who I think is the weakest victims of all these because he is not enough well-known, he is not a politician."

Pavlov, 37, began working for Ablyazov in 1995 and eventually served as his personal bodyguard during his stint as Kazakhstan's minister of energy, industry, and trade in the late 1990s.

Ablyazov was convicted of abuse of his ministerial powers in 2002 and served 10 months in prison before being given early release on the condition he quit politics. After Ablyazov reemerged as chairman of BTA Bank, Pavlov continued to serve as his head of security. When the bank was seized in 2009 and Kazakh authorities launched embezzlement investigations, Ablyazov fled to Britain and Pavlov followed.

Pavlov's legal team says he would be at high risk of torture if extradited to Kazakhstan, as the authorities believe the former bodyguard could provide valuable information about Ablyazov and his whereabouts.

As Pavlov awaits an extradition decision in Spain, Ketebaev in Poland is confident that Warsaw will resist any potential extradition requests by Astana. "I think there will be more efforts [by Astana] to achieve my extradition to Kazakhstan," he says.

Casting A Wide Net

Along with the pending cases involving Ablyazov's associates, a leading member of the unregistered Algha (Forward) party co-founded by Ablyazov has been accused of inciting social unrest and seeking to overthrow the government in relation to the unrest in the western Kazakh city of Zhanaozen in December 2011.

In Italy, Prime Minister Enrico Letta this week in parliament ordered a probe into the unusually speedy deportation of Ablyazov's wife, Alma Shalabaeva, and their daughter Aula.

They were taken during a police raid to the family villa outside Rome on May 29 and were sent to Kazakhstan the following day for allegedly carrying falsified documents.

Lawyers representing the family say the mother and daughter possess valid residency permits issued by European Union countries.