Fugitive Kazakhstani oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov should be extradited to Russia or Ukraine to face charges of fraud and embezzlement, a French court ruled on January 9, effectively rejecting his argument that long-standing corruption charges are politically motivated.
The ruling deals a major blow to the flamboyant former banker. The court dismissed arguments from Ablyazov’s lawyers that sending him to Russia or Ukraine (both close allies of Kazakhstan) would endanger him and expose him to onward extradition to Kazakhstan, where they believe he would not face a fair trial.
The court ruled that Russia should be given priority for extradition over Ukraine, ITAR-TASS news agency reported. (Kazakhstan has also lodged an extradition bid for Ablyazov but has no extradition treaty with France.) Ablyazov’s lawyer immediately said he would appeal the ruling.
In the last five years Ablyazov has turned from successful billionaire businessman to fugitive, pursued across Europe by private detectives and arrested in a dramatic raid on a luxury mansion on the French Riviera last July.
The corruption charges against Ablyazov center on his management of BTA Bank, which he headed and – as he told EurasiaNet.org in a 2009 interview – owned through an undeclared stake. He fled Kazakhstan when the government forcibly nationalized the bank at the height of the global financial crisis. He denies wrongdoing.
BTA later sued Ablyazov in the London High Court, claiming he had defrauded it of $6 billion. His attempts to fight the case floundered after he fled the UK – which had granted him political asylum – to escape a jail sentence for contempt of court in 2012. He was later debarred from fighting the fraud case, and BTA is now involved in a costly assets recovery procedure.
In an e-mailed statement BTA hailed the extradition ruling as “a landmark decision which will help the Bank’s efforts to recover over $6 billion in assets which were misappropriated by Mr. Ablyazov.”
The ruling “demonstrates once again that Mr. Ablyazov's repeated attempts to portray himself as being pursued by the bank for political reasons are groundless; he is merely being required to answer for the billions of dollars that were taken from BTA and its creditors,” Chris Hardman of BTA’s legal consultants Hogan Lovells said.
Ablyazov’s legal team has argued that the charges against him are politically motivated because of his support for Kazakhstan’s opposition and his antagonistic relationship with President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Ablyazov has a track record of standing up to the authoritarian regime, co-founding an opposition movement in 2001, after which he served a prison sentence in Kazakhstan on corruption charges that he says were politically motivated. More recently the government accused him of bankrolling fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011, for which his supporters say he has already been subjected to trial by media.
Human rights campaigners have expressed concern over Ablyazov’s case. “The French authorities should protect Ablyazov from being forced back to Kazakhstan or to any other country where he faces a real risk of forced return to Kazakhstan,” Jean-Marie Fardeau of Human Rights Watch said in August. “Kazakhstan is known for imprisoning critics after unfair trials and for ill-treatment of people in detention.”