Kazakhstan says oligarch's wife could return to Italy: newspaper

ROME Tue Jul 23, 2013 5:58am EDT

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ROME (Reuters) - Kazakhstan will let a dissident oligarch's wife return to Italy as long as she is returned for trial if necessary, an Italian newspaper reported on Tuesday, the latest twist in a case that has strained relations in Italy's fragile coalition.

Alma Shalabayeva was expelled on May 31 along with her six-year-old daughter after police, under pressure from the Kazakh embassy, sought to arrest and deport her husband, who they did not find. The Italian government later revoked its expulsion order saying it had been abnormal.

Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta severely criticized senior officials for succumbing to pressure from the Kazakh ambassador, and one was forced to resign.

The case threatened to bring down Letta's coalition last week when opposition parties brought a no-confidence vote against Interior Minister Angelino Alfano. He survived.

"From a legal point of view, the possibility of a return of Alma Shalabayeva and her daughter in Italy is not excluded," the Kazakh government said in written answers to questions from Corriere della Sera newspaper published on Tuesday.

Alfano said he was not informed that the wife of Muktar Ablyazov, a banker and ex-energy minister turned critic of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, had been deported even though his ministry oversees all expulsions. He said on July 16 he would work "tirelessly" to defend her human rights.

Nazarbayev has overseen market reforms and investments that have ensured rapid growth in Kazakhstan during his two-decade rule, but he has tolerated no dissent and faces criticism from groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

The Kazakh government said she would have to make an official request to it to return to Italy, and then she could be granted permission with "guarantees from Rome" that "in the future she will be present before a court of criminal prosecution in Kazakhstan should it be necessary".

Corriere said it sent questions to Kazakh Prime Minister Serik Akhmetov, but received answers from the foreign ministry.

Asked if Shalabayeva could indeed be allowed to return to Italy, Altai Abibullayev, a spokesman for the Kazakh presidency, told a briefing in the Kazakh capital Astana on Tuesday: "This question must be addressed to our country's law enforcers".

UNDER INVESTIGATION

Since her return to Kazakhstan, Shalabayeva has been put under criminal investigation for her involvement in bribes paid to immigration officials to obtain false passports, including for herself and her daughter, according to Corriere.

While she is required not to leave Almaty, she can move freely within the city and communicate with whoever she likes. She also is subject to legal treatment "in line with international norms", the Kazakh government said.

The incident has strained relations between the two countries, which have significant economic ties, especially in the energy sector. Italian oil giant Eni has pumped billions of dollars into large Kazakh oil and gas projects.

In Astana, spokesman Abibullayev said Kazakhstan was confident that "we will able to overcome this episode".

"In general, Italy is a major commercial, economic and political partner of Kazakhstan in Europe, and after 20 years of partnership our relations are now reaching a level of more dynamic integration," he said.

Shalabayeva was taken into custody by police on May 29 when they raided a villa on the outskirts of Rome looking for her husband. She was put on a private plane to Kazakhstan with her daughter two days later in an extraordinarily fast expulsion.

Ablyazov, who fled Kazakhstan after his bank BTA was declared insolvent and nationalized in 2009, has accused the Kazakh government of arranging the "kidnapping" of his family.

The bank has brought fraud charges against him and his allies, accusing them of embezzling $6 billion. Ablyazov fled Britain last year after missing a contempt of court hearing at which he was due to be jailed for 22 months.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana and Dmitry Solovyov in Almaty; editing by Barry Moody and Elizabeth Piper)

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