PARIS — He was a favorite of Kazakhstan's longtime leader as the energy-rich nation emerged from decades of Soviet rule, but he turned against his mentor and used his vast wealth to bankroll a nascent opposition. He was granted asylum in Britain, then became a fugitive from the government that had promised to protect him.
Wanted by Britain, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine, Mukhtar Ablyazov carried a diplomatic passport from the Central African Republic when he was arrested on suspicion of embezzlement at a rented villa in the south of France.
French police special forces had asked for backup from aircraft and armored vehicles, fearing a rumored private militia. There was none. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, the former banker who became one of Kazakhstan's most prominent dissidents went quietly.
Ablyazov, a former Kazakh energy minister and head of the pre-nationalized BTA Bank, was transferred to a temporary holding facility Thursday after appearing before judicial authorities in southeast France.
Ablyazov is wanted by Kazakhstan authorities on charges of siphoning off at least $5 billion from Kazakhstan's BTA Bank. In Russia, he's being sought in connection with embezzlement charges involving BTA and a Russian company. Ukraine is seeking Ablyazov on charges linked to alleged embezzlement of funds from a local BTA branch.
He and many in the Kazakh opposition community say the charges are clearly politically motivated.
Kazakh prosecutors have described Ablyazov as the head of an extremist, criminal conspiracy bent on "seizing power by inciting civil strife and hatred." The prosecutor in Astana, the Kazakh capital, said Interpol had informed the government of the arrest, which was carried out at the request of Ukraine.
He was wanted under an Interpol red notice – the equivalent of an international arrest warrant – on allegations of "fraud in a large scale infliction of damage on property by deceit or breach of trust, money laundering, abuse of authority, document forgery," the international police body's website says.
The arrest comes after Italy's shaky coalition government came under fire but survived a no-confidence vote over its handling of the deportation of his wife and daughter from their Rome home to Kazakhstan in May – under pressure from Kazakh diplomats.
In a statement on their father's website, Ablyazov's son and older daughter said they feared what would happen if their father were deported to Kazakhstan.
"We beg the French authorities not to grant Kazakhstan our father. He is a man of honor who has been fighting all his life and sacrificed so much for freedom and democracy in Kazakhstan," wrote Madina and Madiyar Ablyazov. "We are afraid for his life."
After the Soviet collapse, Ablyazov became a close ally of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev before gradually emerging as a prominent opponent.
The flurry of action in Ablyazov's case is testament to his continued influence in the opposition and the government's unease as Nazarbayev ages, said Yevgeniy A. Zhovtis, chairman of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law.
Ablyazov, he said, was once one of the country's wealthiest and best-connected businessmen in the wild days after the fall of Communism. Like some Russian oligarchs, he grew disillusioned with what he saw as an autocratic rule and used his money – riches the government says were obtained illegally – to try to jumpstart democracy.
He landed in prison in 2002 and spent a year there until promising to stay out of politics in exchange for a pardon from Nazarbayev. Instead, his influence in the opposition grew and he eventually fled to London, where Kazakh acolytes traveled to seek his guidance, Zhovtis said.
He had dropped out of sight just before he was sentenced in Britain in February last year for contempt of court during a financial fraud trial related to BTA.
Solange Legras, chief state prosecutor for international cases at an appeals court in the southeastern French town of Aix-en-Provence, held a hearing with Ablyazov on Thursday. She told The Associated Press that special police forces, backed by an airplane and armored vehicles, swept into a rental home in the town of Mouans Sartoux on Wednesday to detain him.
The police used "powerful means" because Ablyazov was known to have a "private militia" at his disposal, said Legras. No shots were fired or any physical damage caused in the operation. She said Ablyazov has been sought through Interpol since 2009, and was likely to remain in French custody for weeks – at the very least.
Picked up "in shorts and a T-shirt, "Ablyazov had in his possession a diplomatic passport from Central African Republic that was "probably false," Legras said. Police were only authorized to detain him, not search the site.
Ablyazov's lawyer countered that the diplomatic passport was valid and said his client clearly had no militia at his disposal. The lawyer, Bruno Rebstock, said Kazakhstan's authoritarian government was behind the international effort to track him down.
"It's becoming a real political and personal vengeance against the family and against their supporters," Rebstock said. "If he weren't a significant member of the opposition he wouldn't be pursued so diligently."
During their hearing, which lasted no more than a half-hour and took place with three lawyers present, Ablyazov insisted he had political refugee status in Britain and said he was the victim of a smear campaign, Legras said. She said her role was to explain the possible extradition process, not delve into the case. Afterward, Ablyazov was taken to a detention center in the neighboring town of Luynes.
Rebstock said he would appeal the detention: Ablyazov is "combative, forthcoming and prepared to defend himself against the charges."
Zhovtis said he did not believe the French would send him to Ukraine or Kazakhstan, saying western European governments rightly lack confidence that either country will give him a free trial. Both are known to prosecute members of the political opposition, and the European Court on Human Rights has come down strongly against Ukraine for its treatment of a former prime minister jailed on similar charges.
Legras, the prosecutor, said French judicial authorities only know of extradition requests from Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. For now, Legras said she was focusing on the extradition request from Ukraine because France has no bilateral extradition accord with Kazakhstan.
Under the extradition process, the requesting country has 40 days to send its legal dossier to French authorities. Once that is received, French prosecutors will have five days to present Ablyazov to investigating magistrates. As a result, Legras said she expected that Ablyazov would remain in French custody at least through the end of August.
Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.