Former employee of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank, Zaure Akpenbetova may face extradition to Kazakhstan in connection with the charges she has been presented with in the criminal case of a prominent opposition politician, Mukhtar Ablyazov. Zaure Akpenbetova’s counsels underline the political implications of the case. Hungarian authorities are considering the possibility of granting her political asylum.
FOLLOWING THE POLITICAL CONFLICT BETWEEN NURSULTAN NAZARBAYEV AND MUKHTAR ABLYAZOV, BTA BANK’S FORMER EMPLOYEES HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF FINANCIAL CRIMES
A citizen of Kazakhstan, Zaure Akpenbetova (maiden name – Dzhunusova) worked in a number of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s enterprises as an economist and accountant from 1994. From 2005 to 2009, she worked in BTA Bank as a specialist, head of department, deputy head of corporate banking in the Almaty branch. Zaure Akpenbetova is also a distant relative of Mukhtar Ablyazov.
Zaure Akpenbetova was among the employees of BTA Bank, against whom in 2009, criminal cases were instituted following the escalation of the political conflict between Mukhtar Ablyazov and President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 2009, the Chairman of the Board of Directors of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov once again fell out of favour with the president due to the continuation of his opposition activities. As a consequence, on the orders of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, on 2 February, 2009, at a Cabinet meeting, it was stated that the government was taking control of two systemic banks – BTA Bank and Alliance. Formally, these actions were caused by the statements of public financial supervisory bodies concerning gross violations in BTA Bank’s operational activities, although prior to the conflict between the President and Mukhtar Ablyazov, no violations in the bank had previously been mentioned. On 2 February, 2009, the Chairman of the Board of Directors, Mukhtar Ablyazov and his first deputy Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov were removed from their positions.
Soon after that, the investigation team, which included representatives of the General Prosecutor’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the financial police, instituted criminal cases against Mukhtar Ablyazov and his former colleagues from BTA Bank. Zaure Akpenbetova was classified as ‘accused’ on 1 July, 2009. In September 2009, the General Prosecutor’s Office announced that an international arrest warrant was issued with regard to Zaure Akpenbetova and other former managers and employees of BTA Bank, namely: Mukhtar Ablyazov, Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov, Roman Solodchenko, Rifat Rizoyev, Bulat Karimov, Tatiana Paraskevich, Kairat Sadykov, Veronika Yefimova, Zhaiybek Burkitbayev, Svetlana Nachinkina, Yerlan Kosarev, Zhanna Akhmedyarova, Eleonora Sergo, Anara Abdikaimova. They, along with some of the other former employees of BTA Bank, were labelled ‘members of an organised criminal group’ (OCG). All of them have been charged under the following articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Kazakhstan (CC):
– Article 176, section 3, subparagraphs ‘a’, ‘b’ (‘misappropriation or embezzlement of entrusted property’);
– Article 193, section 3, subparagraphs ‘b’, ‘v’ (‘legalisation of illicitly acquired funds’).
According to investigators, at the direction of Mukhtar Ablyazov, BTA Bank’s Credit Committee provided loans to front companies on the basis of simplified conditions. To justify these loans, the companies were granted collateral, the value of which was greatly overstated; at the same time, the properties could be presented as assets of different companies. Zaure Akpenbetova faced accusations that on 30 January, 2009, she, as part of an organised criminal group, embezzled funds of ‘Temirbank’ (a subsidiary of BTA Bank) by the means of transfer to the account of the ‘Kazakhstanskoye Kollektornoye Agentstvo’ of almost 9.5 billion (46.5 million) tenge under the guise of giving a refund. The defence argues that Zaure Akpenbetova, whilst working in BTA Bank, did not have the authority to transfer the funds of ‘Temirbank’. In addition, investigators believe that Zaure Akpenbetova registered resident companies and provided assistance in obtaining powers of attorney for representatives of offshore companies.
Having been charged, the former chairman of BTA Bank, Mukhtar Ablyazov left for the UK. On 29 January, 2011, a UK police officer informed Mukhtar Ablyazov of the risk that he may be kidnapped or be subjected to physical harm which may be politically motivated. Given the politically motivated criminal prosecution of former employees of BTA Bank, fearing for her freedom and security, Zaure Akpenbetova along with her three small children, sought refuge in the Russian Federation in 2009. Eventually, she moved to Ukraine, where she lived from April 2009 to September 2012. In October 2012, together with her husband (a citizen of Ukraine) and their children she moved to Hungary, where she obtained a residence permit.
On 25 December, 2009, 12 managers of BTA Bank, remaining in Kazakhstan, were sentenced to terms of 2 to 8 years’ imprisonment.On 24 May, 2012, the Medeuskiy District Court of the city of Almaty sentenced 21 former employees of BTA Bank to prison terms ranging from 5 to 8 years with confiscation of property.One of the defendants in the case of BTA Bank, Zhanna Akhmedyarova, returned to Kazakhstan from Moscow at the end of 2009. For her cooperation with law enforcement authorities in the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov, she was released from criminal prosecution ‘in connection with active repentance’ on the basis of Art. 65 of the Criminal Code of the RK. However, the General Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan later reversed its decision, resulting in the sentencing of Zhanna Akhmedyarova on 24 May, 2012 to five years in prison on charges of ‘embezzlement or misappropriation of entrusted property’.
For her cooperation with the law enforcement organs on the Mukhtar Ablyazov case, she was excluded from the criminal investigation “due to remorse shown in the course of the investigation” on the basis of par. 65 Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (CC RF). However, the Prosecutor General of Kazakhstan later withdrew this ruling, as a result of which, on 24th May 2013 Zhanna Akhmedyarova was sentenced to 5 years’ imprisonment on charges of “appropriation or embezzlement of entrusted third-party property”.
On 4th May 2013, the Agency of the Republic of Kazakhstan for the Fight against Economic and Corruption Crimes (financial police) announced the initiation of a criminal search for Mukhtar Ablyazov and Zaure Akpenbetova. In July 2013, the financial police threatened and persecuted dozens of civil activists, summoning them for interrogations in connection with the criminal case against Mukhtar Ablyazov.
23rd July 2013 Zaure Akpenbetova addressed the Budapest immigration office in order to notify them of her official place of residence. The immigration office informed her that Interpol had issued a warrant of arrest having been prompted by a request made by Kazakh authorities. On the same day, Hungarian police detained Zaure Akpenbetova. On 25th July 2013, a court session was held on the issue of Zaure Akpenbetova’s extradition; the presiding judge told the court that in order for further proceedings in the case to take place, the Kazakh authorities are to submit additional documentation by 3rd September 2013. Until that time, Zaure Akpenbetova shall remain in detention in Budapest.
ZAURE AKPENBETOVA FEARS FOR HER LIFE SHOULD SHE BE EXTRADITED TO KAZAKHSTAN. SHE IS THEREFORE ASKING HUNGARIAN AUTHORITIES FOR POLITICAL ASYLUM.
25th July 2013 Zaure Akpenbetova submitted a request for political asylum to the Immigration office in Budapest. As long as the political asylum request is being reviewed, Zaure Akpenbetova may not be extradited to Kazakhstan. Political asylum in Europe had been granted to other former managers of BTA-Bank before. On 7th July 2011, the authorities in Great Britain, having considered the possible political motivation of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s criminal prosecution, granted him political asylum in the UK.In January 2012, political asylum in the US was also granted to Zhaksylyk Zharimbetov and Roman Solodchenko. It is worth mentioning that the latter two have never been involved in politics; however, the UK Immigration Court deemed the charges levied against them to be politically motivated. By the same token, the UK authorities noted that Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime may not only threaten the oppositionist Mukhtar Ablyazov directly, but also his colleagues, partners, friends or relatives, completely uninvolved in political activity.
Moreover, the procedure of granting political asylum in Europe is also underway for other partners of Mukhtar Ablyazov. In April 2013, political asylum request in the Czech Republic was submitted by Tatyana Paraskevich, bookkeeper and former colleague of Mukhtar Ablyazov, detained by Czech police upon a request from Interpol. The Kazakhstan prosecutor’s office is working in close cooperation with the Russian and Czech prosecutors, having initiated criminal cases on BTA-Bank cases against her.On 10th January 2013, the Kazakhstan opposition politician, Muratbek Ketebaev made an application for political asylum in Poland. Kazakhstan announced an international criminal search for him upon charges of attempts to stage a coup to overthrow the constitutional system of government. The district prosecutor’s office of Lublin dubbed such allegations ‘politically motivated’.The polish prosecutor’s office is expecting additional documents from Kazakhstan on the case of extradition of Muratbek Ketebaev. The opposition politician suspects that, in all probability, there are additional charges against him being prepared, particularly connected with the BTA-Bank case. On 24th July 2013, Aleksandr Pavlov, the former head of security for Mukhtar Ablyazov, submitted his request for political asylum in Spain; however, the application was declined on 5th July 2013 after first instance review.The barristers are considering the possibility of appealing against the ruling. Kazakhstan has initiated an international criminal search for Pavlov on charges conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. On 22nd July 2013, the Supreme National Court of Spain (Audiencia Nacional) sanctioned the extradition of Aleksandr Pavlov to Kazakhstan, but his barrister lodged an appeal against the decision.
According to the procedure of granting political asylum, the Hungarian authorities are obliged to verify whether Zaure Akpenbetova could be granted political asylum in a ‘safe third-party country’, through which she had reached Hungary.In her case, these countries are the Russian Federation and Ukraine. However, Zaure Akpenbetova’s barristers have underlined that Ukraine and the Russian Federation are not to be considered safe countries for political asylum seekers. On 19th July 2013, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees stated that Ukraine does not guarantee sufficient safety from forced expulsion, nor does it provide an effective and just review in the procedures of granting asylum: “Therefore, Ukraine should not be considered as a safe third-party country and UNHCR further urges States not to return asylum-seekers to Ukraine on these grounds”.
On 3rd July 2013 Amnesty International stated that the authorities in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Russian Federation practice unlawful deportation, exposing asylum seekers to the dangers of torture and harsh treatment: “Incidents of abductions and attempted abductions of asylum-seekers, refugees or other nationals of Central Asian countries by Central Asian security services operating freely on one another’s territory and in Russia and Ukraine, have continued unabated over the last few years“.Rachel Denber, Deputy Director of the Europe and Central Asia Division for Human Rights Watch, remarked: “There are a number of examples where persons who were seeking asylum in Ukraine simply disappeared without a trace. Take the story of Leonid Razvozhaev, for example: During the time when he was seeking political asylum in Ukraine, he was simply abducted from Ukraine and after a few days he subsequently turned up in Russia, where criminal persecution against him continued”.After the case of Leonid Razvozhaev gained wide publicity, on 25th October 2012 representative of Ukrainian MFA stated that the capture did indeed take place, but “it was no criminal case, but an issue of cooperation between law enforcement agencies I know nothing of“.
Therefore, should Zaure Akpenbetova find herself in the territory of the Russian Federation or Ukraine, she would risk being handed over to Kazakh law enforcement authorities. On 9th July 2013 the European Court for Human Rights obliged the Russian Federation to withhold the extradition of the former BTA-Bank employee Veronika Efimova to Kazakhstan, as well as to pay her compensation of 20 thousand euros. The court ruled that the Russian law enforcement authorities did infringe the norms of proceeding while detaining Veronika Efimova upon a request issued by Kazakhstan.
There are all the grounds necessary to presume that the Kazakhstan authorities are attempting to extradite Zaure Akpenbetova and other associates of Mukhtar Ablyazov in order to extract testimonies against him, from them. The US Department of State, the Polish Bar Counciland Freedom Housedrew attention to the lack of independent judiciary and fair and just legal conduct in Kazakhstan. Therefore, should persons from Mukhtar Ablyazov’s circles be extradited to Kazakhstan, they will fall victim to biased criminal persecution.
Moreover, the Open Dialog Foundation shares the concern of other international organisations with regard to the systematic employment of torture and others forms of ill-treatment subjected upon persons arrested and convicted in Kazakhstan. Article 3 of UN Convention on Torture forbids the expulsion of persons to states where the subject may face the risk of torture. The UN Convention on Refugee Status (art. 33) also protects persons from expulsion, should they face the risk of persecution on the basis of their political beliefs.
The Open Dialog Foundation hereby petitions the Minister of Justice of Hungary Tibor Navraksis, pleading that he does not allow the extradition of Zaure Akpenbetova to Kazakhstan, which may put her health and life at risk. We also call upon Sandor Balazs, Czech representative of the Immigration office in Budapest, to assist Zaure Akpenbetova in her quest to obtain political refugee status in Hungary.
All interested persons may support our appeals by writing to the following addresses:
- Hungarian Ministry of Public Administration and Justice – 1357 Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 2-4. tel.: +36-1-795-1000, fax: +36-1-795-0002, e-mail: email@example.com
- Office of Immigration and Citizenship, Directorate for Budapest and Pest County – 1117 Budapest, Budafoki út 60. Telephone: +36-1-463-91-62 Fax: 36-1-463-48-45, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org