A French court on Thursday approved the extradition of a Kazakh banker-turned-dissident who is accused by his government of siphoning off billions of dollars before fleeing. His lawyers say the charges are politically tainted and promised an immediate appeal of the extradition order, potentially delaying the case for months if not longer.
French police special forces detained Mukhtar Ablyazov, Kazakhstan's former energy minister, in July in southern France. That was more than a year after he disappeared from Britain, where he had received political asylum in 2011. He has been jailed since he was detained, despite efforts by his lawyers to free him.
The banker, who has been involved in legal troubles with BTA Bank, left Britain just before he was convicted there of contempt of court over a dispute over his frozen assets. He, his wife and their two youngest children spent the next year wandering, going first to Latvia, then shuttling between Italy and Switzerland, where his oldest daughter lives, according to the family.
Despite being a former minister, Ablyazov turned against Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has led the Central Asian nation since 1989. Imprisoned in Kazakhstan and then freed, Ablyazov continued to be a major financial and philosophical backer for an opposition movement that has gained little traction in the oil- and gas-rich country.
The French court in Aix-en-Provence agreed Thursday to extradition requests from Russia and Ukraine, which both had BTA branches. France has no extradition agreement with Kazakhstan, but his family and lawyers say they fear he will ultimately be returned to his homeland via Russia or Ukraine, which do have extradition deals with Kazakhstan.
Peter Sahlas, a lawyer for Ablyazov, condemned the French decision as flawed.
"This court wants to send Ablyazov, a refugee, straight to the very people he should be protected from," he said.
The banker's wife, Alma Shalabayeva, agreed.
"For my husband, extradition is a death sentence. If he is extradited, he will never see me or our four children ever again," she said in a statement.
Amnesty International called on France to reconsider the decision, saying Ablyazov was unlikely to get a fair trial in either Ukraine or Russia, which was given priority in Thursday's ruling.
BTA welcomed the French decision, saying it "demonstrates once again that Mr. Ablyazov's repeated attempts to portray himself as being pursued by the bank for political reasons are groundless."
Legal troubles have followed Ablyazov since BTA Bank was nationalized and he left Kazakhstan. The bank says there's at least $6 billion missing and accuses Ablyazov of misappropriating the money. Ablyazov denies the allegations. In his absence, BTA has won multiple judgments against him in British courts.
Shalabayeva, the banker's wife, was recently permitted to return to Western Europe after being forcibly removed from Italy along with their 6-year-old daughter. The expulsion of Shalabayeva to Kazakhstan roiled Italy's government, which acknowledged it had botched the operation and then pressed quietly for her return.