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Fugitive Kazakh Banker Arrested In France

Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)
Mukhtar Ablyazov (file photo)
A lawyer for fugitive Kazakh banker Mukhtar Ablyazov says his client has been arrested in southern France.

The lawyer told RFE/RL that Ablyazov was taken into custody by "heavily armed" French special forces in a house in the town of Mouans-Sartoux, some eight kilometers from Cannes.

The lawyer said there was an extradition request for the banker, but he added that it was not yet clear if the request was filed by Russia, Ukraine, or directly by Kazakhstan.

Ablyazov, a wealthy former banker and influential opposition figure, fled Kazakhstan in 2009 when the BTA bank he headed was nationalized and declared insolvent. Ablyazov obtained political asylum in Britain in 2011 but he fled the country in 2012 after he was sentenced to 22 months in jail for contempt of court.

He faces embezzlement charges in Kazakhstan, which he says are politically motivated.

Ablyazov is one of the most vocal critics of Kazakhstan's longtime President Nursultan Nazarbaev.

A number of opposition and independent media outlets in Kazakhstan, including the "Respublika" publication, and the K-Plus television channel that focuses on Central Asia, have been linked to Ablyazov.

Pressure On Associates, Family

Several close associates and family members of Ablyazov have been arrested on Astana's request in the European Union in recent months.

Ablyazov's wife and his 6-year-old daughter were extradited from Italy to Kazakhstan in May despite having valid residence permits.

A senior Italian civil servant resigned over the wrongful deportation.

Last week, a Madrid court ruled in favor of extraditing Aleksandr Pavlov, a former bodyguard and close associate of Ablyazov, to Kazakhstan. Pavlov is sought by Astana on bank-fraud and terrorism charges.

Pavlov's defense team says it's appealing the court's decision. He denies the charges, saying they are politically motivated and aimed at obtaining information on Ablyazov.

Another Ablyazov associate, Kazakh opposition activist Muratbek Ketebaev, was briefly arrested in Poland in June. Polish authorities rejected Astana's request to extradite Ketebaev to Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports that several Kazakh opposition activists were summoned by Almaty's Financial Police and questioned regarding their possible connections to Ablyazov.

Kazakh opposition activist Zhasaral Kuanyshalin expressed disappointment at the news of Ablyazov's arrest.

"It is not good thing in any event," he said. "What Europe does lately to the Kazakh opposition, especially to Ablyazov [and his family] is sad. This [the arrest] will weaken opposition in Kazakhstan.”

Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov suggested that Ablyazov's possible extradition to Kazakhstan would be a disaster for the country's opposition.

“It will cause irreparable damage to the entire Kazakh opposition if he is extradited," he said. "Because these days, Ablyazov is one of the leading players on the opposition political scene. He is the one who opposes the Akorda [the presidential palace] most radically. And this (his possible extradition) is a very serious blow against democratic forces in Kazakhstan.”

Duvanov said he doubted France would extradite Ablyazov to Russia or Ukraine since those countries would be likely to send the former banker back to Kazakhstan. Duvanov pointed out that Ablyazov still technically has asylum status in Britain.

However, Ablyazov no longer has a place to live in Britain after a court there ordered that his property, worth some $90 million, should be sold and the money given to BTA creditors.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Kazakh Service
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