French prosecutor urges extradition of Kazakh tycoon
AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (Reuters) - A French public prosecutor recommended on Thursday that Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, accused of embezzling up to $6 billion from his former bank, be extradited to Ukraine or to Russia, which wants to put him on trial.
The 50-year-old, who denies fraud charges, has been in custody at the Aix-Luynes jail in southern France since he was arrested near the Riviera resort of Cannes in July after 18 months as a fugitive.
The court adjourned a ruling until January 9, when it will also rule on the Russian extradition request.
Advocate-General Solange Legras, speaking on behalf of the French state, said Ablyazov, a former minister, should be seen as a "criminal on a grand scale" rather than as a dissident opposed to Kazakhstan's veteran strongman, President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
"When you have so much money, you can buy everything," she told the court. "But you cannot buy the French justice system. You will have to submit to its rules."
The court favored extradition to Russia because it had suffered a greater financial loss, at $5 billion, rather than Ukraine, which lost $400 million, as a result of Ablyazov's alleged embezzlement, Solange Legras said.
"The budget of the French justice system is less than the sum diverted by Mr. Ablyazov from the Russian Federation alone," she added.
Defense lawyers said Ukraine and Russia were acting as the "long arm" of Kazakhstan, which does not have an extradition treaty with France but wants him sent home indirectly.
Ablyazov is accused of having embezzled the money from BTA, the Kazakh bank he once controlled but which was seized by Kazakh authorities and declared insolvent in 2009. Prosecutors said he made loans to front companies which he controlled and which were never paid back.
"Everything is untrue. Everything has been fabricated in Kazakhstan," the former oligarch told the court. "There is no proof of this diversion. This money is still in the bank's accounts. It was never stolen.
"I'm convinced I am being persecuted for political reasons."
His lawyers said a convention among Kazakhstan, Ukraine and Russia obliged each country to transfer wanted nationals to their home country.
However, the French prosecutor said both Kiev and Moscow were bound by the Geneva Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights which barred returning a political refugee to his home country, or transferring him to a third country without the agreement of the extraditing power, in this case France.
"It's easy to be an opponent to hide one's true nature as a fraudster," she said.
Ablyazov was granted political asylum by Britain after he moved there in 2009, but he fled London last year after being sentenced to 22 months in prison for contempt of court.
He was jailed in Kazakhstan in 2002, a year after founding an opposition party. His wife, Alma Chaalabayeva, and their six-year-old daughter were expelled from Italy to Kazakhstan last May, prompting a political furor in Rome.
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Ralph Boulton)