Dissident Kazakh banker accused of embezzlement detained in France
Published Thursday, August 1, 2013 9:21AM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, August 1, 2013 9:22AM EDT
PARIS -- French special police forces backed by an airplane and armoured vehicles seized a Kazakh dissident businessman accused of embezzling billions of dollars from the country's BTA Bank, a French prosecutor said Thursday.
The Wednesday arrest of Mukhtar Ablyazov, a fugitive former Kazakh energy minister and head of the pre-nationalized BTA Bank, came after the deportation of his wife and young daughter from Italy to Kazakhstan caused a political crisis in Rome last month.
He is to go before a French judge Thursday on allegations of fraud and organized crime, according to the chief prosecutor.
Ablyazov, 50, had dropped out of sight just before he was sentenced in Britain in February 2012 for contempt of court during a financial fraud trial. After leaving his government post, Ablyazov emerged as a prominent opponent of Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the energy-rich Central Asian nation since before the Soviet collapse.
Solange Legras, chief prosecutor at an appeals court in Aix-en-Provence, France, told The Associated Press that French special police forces, backed by an airplane and armoured vehicles, swept into a rental home in the town of Mouans Sartoux on Wednesday to detain Ablyazov.
The police used "powerful means" because Ablyazov was known to have a "private militia" at his disposal, said Legras, whose office also focuses on international cases. No shots were fired or any physical damage caused during the operation.
Ablyazov, who has been sought since 2009 through an Interpol request, was detained on allegations of "large-scale fraud in an organized group" and was appearing in court, Legras said by phone, shortly after meeting with Ablyazov to explain the possible extradition process.
Shortly after setting up a pro-reform party in 2001, Ablyazov was sentenced to six years in prison for abuse of public office. He was pardoned by Nazarbayev and released in 2003, vowing to stay out of politics -- a promise he broke by funneling money to the opposition.
Kazakhstan's prosecutors have described Ablyazov as the head of an extremist, criminal conspiracy bent on "seizing power by inciting civil strife and hatred." The prosecutor in Astana, the Kazakh capital, said Interpol had informed the government of Ablyazov's arrest, which was carried out at the request of Ukraine.
Ablyazov in sought by Russia in connection with embezzlement charges that involved BTA bank and a Russian company. Ukraine is seeking him on charges stemming from alleged embezzlement of funds from a local branch of the BTA bank.
In a statement on his Facebook page, Madiyar Ablyazov, the former banker's son, said he feared what would happen if his father were deported to Kazakhstan.
"We beg the French authorities not to grant Kazakhstan our father. He is a man of honour, who has been fighting all his life, and sacrificed so much, for freedom and democracy in Kazakhstan," the younger Ablyazov wrote. "We are afraid for his life."
Efforts to contact him directly were not immediately successful.
Ablyazov is wanted by Kazakhstan authorities on charges of siphoning off billions of dollars from BTA Bank, which is based in the country's business capital, Almaty. A British court last year upheld a 22-month prison sentence imposed on Ablyazov for contempt of court for breaching an asset-freezing order.
Ablyazov denies wrongdoing and says the allegations are politically motivated.
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.