Exiled Kazakh oligarch awaits France extradition decision

Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled oligarch and fierce critic of Kazakhstan`s regime, was being held in France as he awaited potential extradition.

Aix-en-Provence: Mukhtar Ablyazov, an exiled oligarch and fierce critic of Kazakhstan`s regime, was being held in France on Thursday as he awaited potential extradition after his high-profile arrest, prosecutors said.

The former Kazakh energy and trade minister, who became an opposition leader before fleeing the country over accusations he embezzled billions of dollars, was arrested on Wednesday near the French Riviera resort of Cannes on a warrant issued by Ukraine.

Solange Legras, prosecutor at the local court handling his case, told a news agency that Ablyazov would likely be put in prison as authorities examine extradition requests against him and decide whether or not to send him away -- a process that will take at least 40 days.

Once close to the Kazakh elite, Ablyazov was jailed in 2002 for abuse of power and illegal business activities after co-founding and leading an opposition party, in a move widely seen as a bid to silence him.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has been at the helm of the ex-Soviet country for almost 22 years, bringing economic reforms and prosperity to the energy-rich nation but cracking down on political opponents and drawing accusations of rights violations.

Upon his release, Ablyazov returned to finance and led the Kazakh BTA Bank, but fled to Britain in 2009 amid accusations he stole billions of dollars in state and investor funds.

He later left London and his whereabouts had been unknown ever since.

Three countries -- Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine -- have demanded his extradition.

Legras said France and Kazakhstan do not have an extradition agreement, and added Russia may no longer want to pursue him.

"So we are examining the extradition demand of Ukraine, where the BTA Bank also had some interests," she said.

Ablyazov was arrested on Wednesday in his home in Mouans-Sartoux, around 10 kilometres (six miles) outside Cannes.

"There was no violence. There had been some risks (of violence) as he is protected by a kind of private militia," Legras said, adding police had previously flown over his home to prepare the arrest.

Ablyazov`s wife and six-year-old daughter were deported back to Kazakhstan from Italy in May without being given the right to appeal, sparking a huge scandal in the country.