AIX-EN-PROVENCE, France (Reuters) - Dissident Kazakh oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov, accused at home of embezzling more than $5 billion, was told by a French judge on Thursday that he faced extradition, but his family vowed to fight an expulsion it said was politically motivated.
The 50-year-old businessman, an outspoken critic of Kazakhstan’s long-time leader Nursultan Nazarbayev, has been in custody in France since his arrest on Wednesday near the French Riviera resort of Cannes.
“The judge will notify him that he is the object of an extradition request,” said a spokesperson for the appeals court in Aix-en-Provence, where he was taken after armed police wearing balaclavas stormed the villa in which he was staying.
Ablyazov, who told Reuters in December he would run for president if fair Kazakh elections were called, was arrested under a warrant issued by Kiev, and so was most likely to be sent to Ukraine, the local prosecutor’s office said.
He cannot be extradited to Kazakhstan, because it is not part of a Council of Europe extradition convention.
A lawyer close to the family said he suspected Ablyazov would be sent from Ukraine to Kazakhstan, which are former Soviet republics that have maintained close ties.
Two of Ablyazov’s children, Madina and Madiyar, urged France not to extradite their father.
“We beg the French authorities not to grant Kazakhstan our father,” they said in the statement. “Kazakhstan’s pursuit of him is purely political. We are afraid for his life.”
The hearing wrapped up by around 1 p.m. (1100 GMT/ 7:00 a.m. EDT), and Ablyazov was placed in provisional custody, his lawyer Bruno Rebstock told Reuters.
French legal sources said the extradition proceedings could take several months as judges would require proof from Ukraine that it had grounds for filing charges against him.
In Kiev, a police spokesman said: “The criminal case (against Ablyazov) was launched over ... fraud.”
The prosecutor general’s office in Kazakhstan - ruled for more than two decades by Nazarbayev, who critics call an autocrat who brooks no dissent - said it had been informed of Ablyazov’s arrest by Interpol, which had him on a “Red Notice”.
It said he was accused in Kazakhstan of “creating a criminal group which defrauded BTA Bank of more than $5 billion and of laundering illegally gained proceeds”, and noted he was also wanted by law enforcers in Russia and Ukraine.
Ablyazov used to run BTA. He is wanted in Russia on fraud and forgery charges connected to a subsidiary of the bank, which also has a unit in Ukraine.
Kazakhstan, together with Russia and Ukraine, brought the charges after BTA went bankrupt in 2009 and was nationalized.
Ablyazov fled the oil-rich Central Asian state after BTA was declared insolvent. He won political asylum in Britain in 2011 but left the country in 2012 after being sentenced to jail for contempt of court and has been in hiding ever since.
Ablyazov has said his life has been in danger since he left Kazakhstan and that he feared for his safety in a British jail.
His wife, Alma Shalabayeva, and their six-year-old daughter Alua were hurriedly deported from Rome to Kazakhstan in May in a case that caused a furor in Italian politics.
The move was seen by some as a favor to Nazarbayev, in whose country Italy’s energy giant Eni has invested billions of dollars.
Both are living with relatives in Kazakhstan’s commercial capital Almaty, and Shalabayeva has given police a written undertaking not to leave the city as law enforcers probe her possible involvement in a crime.
Interpol said on its website that Ablyazov, who spent time in Russia between 2003 and 2005, was wanted by Moscow on charges of “large scale fraud”, money laundering and document forgery.
In a rare display of dissent, a dozen Ablyazov supporters went to the French consulate in Almaty with a letter asking Paris not to send Ablyazov to Kazakhstan.
Additional reporting by Jean-Francois Rosnoblet in Marseille; Kirstin Ridley in London; Natalie Huet and Alexandria Sage in Paris; Raushan Nurshayeva in Astana, Dmitry Solovyov and Mariya Gordeyeva in Almaty and Olzhas Auyezov in Kiev; Writing by Catherine Bremer; editing by Mike Collett-White