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Kazakh banker walks free after French court blocks extradition to Russia

A top French court has refused to hand over a Kazakh banker-turned-dissident to Russia despite accusations that he embezzled millions, saying it considered the extradition request from Moscow to be "politically motivated".

Hours after the ruling, Mukhtar Ablyazov walked free from a French prison, hugging his son, brother and lawyer. It was a surprise twist in a winding legal saga that has lasted years and spanned several countries.

Mr Ablyazov's lawyers had asked France's Council of State to block his extradition, fearing Russia would quickly send him back to Kazakhstan.

The Council of State noted in its decision that the Kazakh and Russian authorities had "repeatedly" held consultations on the case. Requests for the return of criminal suspects can be rejected if they are judged to be politically motivated.

Mr Ablyazov, a former energy minister who founded an opposition party in Kazakhstan, was charged by Kazakh authorities with stealing millions from a bank he founded, BTA.

Russia, a close ally of Kazakhstan, says its citizens were defrauded in the collapse of the bank.

"We are thrilled with the result today," Mr Ablyazov's lawyer Peter Sahlas said. "This is a huge step forward for human rights law in France and Europe."

Last year, France's top appeals court, the Court of Cassation, approved the extradition. The French government signed an extradition decree in September 2015, but he appealed to the Council of State, France's highest administrative body.

He did not speak about the case after being released from Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris late on Friday night, but h is 24-year-old son Madiyar could not contain his emotions: "Oh wow, we just feel so great. It is so unexpected today. We are so glad to have Dad back finally. It's the best New Year's present."

Mr Ablyazov's lawyers argued he was being pursued because of his activities as an opposition leader in autocratic Kazakhstan, and feared he would not get a fair trial in Russia or Ukraine. They also suspected he could be eventually transferred to Kazakhstan.

The banker fled Kazakhstan amid the nationalisation of BTA Bank, and he was arrested in southern France in 2013 on embezzlement allegations. Both Russia and Ukraine have requested his extradition. France has no extradition agreement with Kazakhstan.

AP

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