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Kazakhstan: Russian Detention Of Opposition Leader Ends

Russian authorities yesterday freed Akezhan Kazhegeldin, Kazakhstan's former prime minister, after detaining him for three days at the request of the Kazakh government. RFE/RL correspondent Beatrice Hogan looks at the circumstances surrounding the arrest of Kazakhstan's leading opposition figure, the head of the Republican People's Party.

Prague, 16 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Last Friday (Sept. 10), Akezhan Kazhegeldin was flying to Kazakhstan to attend his father-in-law's funeral -- and, not incidentally, to campaign for members of his opposition party. During a lay-over stop in Moscow, he was detained by two Russian police officers. After hours of interrogation, the 47-year-old Kazakh opposition leader complained of heart pains and was taken to a Kremlin hospital for treatment. He was held there until Tuesday, when he was transferred to an elite convalescence center sometimes used by President Boris Yeltsin.

Kazakh authorities had asked Russia to extradite Kazhegeldin so that he could face outstanding charges of tax evasion and contempt of court in his home country. Some analysts say his arrest in Moscow was just the latest in a series of attempts by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to thwart his political foe.

A former KGB official, Kazhegeldin rose from obscurity after the Soviet Union broke up. He became prime minister in 1994, and since leaving power three years later he has been a major figure in the opposition.

On Tuesday, Kazhegeldin's lawyers filed a wrongful detention suit against Russia. According to Russian law, a person can only be held for three days without being charged. RFE/RL spoke to Kazhegeldin's lawyer, Andrey Rakhmilovich, about his client's case:

"The Kazakh Procuror General's demand, sent to the Russian Procurator-General, on Akezhan Kazhegeldin's arrest is illegal from the point of view of all international law as well as the Minsk convention [among 12 CIS states that prescribes rules for extradition]."

Rakhmilovich says the charges the Kazakh authorities submitted as cause for extradition have not been substantiated:

"We think that the Kazakh authorities hoped to get Kazhegeldin at the airport in Moscow first and then to start proving his 'being guilty,' but it did not work."

This was not the first time Kazhegeldin has run into trouble with the Kazakh government. Last January, he was accused of participating in an unauthorized political gathering and was barred from the presidential election. Western observers criticized the election process.

And last Thursday (Sept. 9), the Kazakh Electoral Commission disqualified Kazhegeldin from the October parliamentary elections. The commission said the opposition leader was not eligible to run because the outstanding tax evasion and contempt-of-court charges against him. The next day, he flew to Moscow, where he was immediately taken in hand by the two Russian security officers.

But Kazhegeldin has not been easy to get rid of. He has amassed a considerable fortune and many powerful friends. During his detention at the Moscow hospital, several Russian Duma members visited him, and he received a phone call from former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko.

Kazhegeldin, however, refused to see any well-wishers from Kazakhstan. Russian guards blocked Kazakh Prosecutor-General Yuri Khitrin and other officials from seeing Kazhegeldin. Khitrin ended up phoning Kazhegeldin to tell him that he could return to Kazakhstan "voluntarily."

Kazhegeldin has reason to suspect Kazakhstan's sincerity. In a telephone interview given from his hospital bed last Saturday, Kazhegeldin told our correspondent that taking up one such Kazakh offer is what landed him in detention in the first place.

"Our ambassador to the U.S., Mr. [Bolat] Nurgaliev, wrote an article for the 'Washington Times' daily about three days ago, saying that I could return to Kazakhstan freely, without any fears of being arrested. That is why I decided to come to Kazakhstan. I was planning to visit the cities of Atyrau, Aqmola, Oral and Qostanay in order to support our party's candidates to the Kazakh parliament, but ... I was stopped here in Moscow." Late Tuesday, Kazhegeldin's press secretary announced that Russia had freed the opposition leader and recalled the Russian guards from his room. He is now free to leave Russia.

After Kazhegeldin's release was announced, the Kazakh government said it was considering levying new charges against him. This time, Kazakh officials said, he would be charged with alleged involvement in a burgeoning scandal over the illegal sale of MiG planes to North Korea.