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Ablyazov’s case may become an obstacle to the signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU

The oppression of Mukhtar Ablyazov, one of the leaders of the democratic opposition in Kazakhstan and his associates includes a strong political component, as evidenced by the findings of international human rights organizations.The recent illegal deportation of the wife and daughter of Mukhtar Ablyazov from Italy prompted a political crisis in the country and has received widespread publicity across the European Union. If the political order in Ukraine’s request for the extradition of Mukhtar Ablyazov from France is uncovered, ‘Ablyazov’s case’ may become another obstacle to the signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU in November 2013. 

On 31 July, 2013, the French bureau of Interpol reported that in the south of France, near the city of Cannes, the police had arrested the former head of Kazakhstan’s BTA Bank and renowned opposition leader, Mukhtar Ablyazov. The detention took place on the basis of the request of Ukrainian law enforcement bodies to extradite the Kazakh politician. On 1 August, 2013, the first hearing in the case of Mukhtar Ablyazov was held in the nearby town of Aix-en-Provants. At the moment, Mukhtar Ablyazov is being remanded in custody while the French Prosecutor’s Office  is examining Ukraine’s request to extradite him.

Over the past few years, Mukhtar Ablyazov, who is currently in exile, has become known as the chief political opponent of the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In 2001, Mukhtar Ablyazov was one of the organisers and leaders of the social movement ‘Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan’, which formed the  most serious challenge to the authoritarian ruler  during his 24-year tenure. As a result of his political activity, he was sentenced to six years in prison on the basis of falsified criminal charges of corruption. The European Union, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty Internationaldeemed the court sentence: ‘politically motivated’. A year later, thanks to a broad international campaign in defence of Mukhtar Ablyazov, he was pardoned by the president of Kazakhstan. One of the conditions of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s early release was his cessation of political activity.

New criminal prosecution of the disgraced Kazakh oppositionist bears all the traits of a political order. From 2005, Mukhtar Ablyazov was the chairman of the Board of Directors of BTA Bank, which in 2009 became one of the largest private banks in the CIS, an influential creditor of the economy of Kazakhstan. According to Mukhtar Ablyazov, it was due to the success and high profitability of the bank, that in 2008, Nursultan Nazarbayev and his family members demanded the transfer of a significant stake in BTA Bank to themselves at a price below the market value. Mukhtar Ablyazov refused to conform to the terms of Nursultan Nazarbayev, after which, under the pretext of fighting the economic crisis, the Kazakh president insisted that the government fully nationalise and take control of BTA Bank; an order which was subsequently carried out on 2 February, 2009. Formally, these actions were undertaken due to the statements of public financial supervisory bodies, claiming the presence of gross violations in the working practices of BTA Bank, although prior to the conflict between the president and Mukhtar Ablyazov, no violations relating to the bank had been recorded.

Subsequently, on 20 March, 2009, the Prosecutor’s Office of Kazakhstan alleged that Mukhtar Ablyazov and other former executives of the bank that, had, during the period of 2005 to 2008, misappropriated approx. $ 6 billion belonging to BTA Bank having transferred it through shell companies. The same charges (money laundering and embezzlement) were applied in the institution of criminal cases against Mukhtar Ablyazov in Ukraine and Russia, where offices of BTA Bank were located.

On 7 July, 2011, the UK government, taking into consideration the possible political motives of the persecution of Mukhtar Ablyazov, granted him political asylum. On 23 November, 2012, the new management of BTA Bank recovered from Mukhtar Ablyazov the amount of 2.1 billion through the High Court in London. In his testimony to the High Court, he argued that the lawsuits, initiated by the management of BTA Bank, were purely political attacks by the President of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev, which have been ongoing for several years. On 16 February, 2012, Judge Nigel Teare handed down a ruling, sentencing Mukhtar Ablyazov to 22 months’ incarceration for contempt of court as a result of him violating of a court order regarding the full disclosure of his assets (Mukhtar Ablyazov has substantiated this by potential threats from the regime of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, which such a disclosure carries to third parties). Shortly afterwards Mukhtar Ablyazov fled the UK; his whereabouts were unknown at that time.

The Kazakh government accused Mukhtar Ablyazov of providing financial support during the Zhanaozen events in 2011, on the basis of which, the opposition leader, Vladimir Kozlov (who was the head of the ‘Alga!’ opposition party, the successor of DCK), was subsequently convicted, the activities of 34 independent media outlets were suspended due to charges of extremism, and the opposition party ‘Alga!’ was banned. International human rights organisations have sharply criticised these decisions as a gross violation of civil and political rights in Kazakhstan.

On 29 May, 2013, Alma Shalabayeva, the wife of Mukhtar Ablyazov, was arrested in the suburbs of Rome. The reason for the arrest was the police’s suspicion that her Central African Republic issued passport was a forgery (later the Minister of Justice confirmed the authenticity of the CAR passport). During the night of 1 June, 2013, Alma Shalabayeva along with her 6-year-old daughter was illegally deported by chartered jet to Kazakhstan. Upon arrival at the airport, representatives of special services informed Alma Shalabayeva that she was accused of possessing a forged Kazakh passport. The international organisation ‘UN Watch’, members of the European Parliament and Amnesty International announced that the deportation of Mukhtar Ablyazov’s wife and daughter to Kazakhstan was illegal.

The ‘urgent’ expulsion of Alma Shalabayeva caused a political crisis in Italy. Prime Minister Enrico Letta stated that he had not been informed of the circumstances of the case. On 12 July, 2013, a meeting of relevant ministers was convened, on which the decision to deport the wife and daughter of Mukhtar Ablyazov was annulled. The Italian media labelled the Minister of Internal Affairs and concurrently the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, Angelino Alfano, involved in the illegal deportation.  On 19 July, 2013, the lower house of the Italian parliament considered the issue of the resignation of Angelino Alfano. Senators voted against the declaration of no confidence in Angelino Alfano. On 15 July, 2013, following the political scandal, Giuseppe Prokachini, the head of the cabinet of the Minister of the Interior, resigned. On 17 July, 2013, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Emma Bonino expressed her dissatisfaction with the actions of the Kazakhstan ambassador, who failed to inform the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the deportation. President Giorgio Napolitano strongly condemned the deportation of the family of Mukhtar Ablyazov.

If the presence of political reasons in Ukraine’s request for the extradition of Mukhtar Ablyazov from France are confirmed, the case could become another obstacle to the signing of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the EU in November 2013. 

Human Rights Watch