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December 10, 2016

PARIS (AP) — A top French court refused to hand over a Kazakh banker-turned-dissident to Russia despite accusations he embezzled millions, saying it considered the extradition request from Moscow to be “politically motivated.”

Hours after Friday’s 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.

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 have “repeatedly” held consultations on Ablyazov’s case. Requests for the return of criminal suspects can be rejected if they are judged to be politically motivated.

A former energy minister who founded an opposition party in Kazakhstan, he was charged by Kazakh authorities with stealing billions of tenge from a bank he founded, BTA. Russia, a close ally of Kazakhstan, says its citizens were also defrauded in the collapse of the bank.

There was no immediate reaction to the ruling from BTA or Russian or Kazakh authorities. “We are thrilled with the result today,” Ablyazov’s lawyer, Peter Sahlas, told The Associated Press. “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, had approved Ablyazov’s extradition. The French government signed an extradition decree in September 2015, but Ablyazov appealed to the Council of State, France’s highest administrative body.

Ablyazov didn’t speak about his ordeal after being released from the Fleury-Merogis prison outside Paris late Friday night. His 24-year-old son Madiyar couldn’t contain his emotions. “Oh wow, we just feel so great. It is so unexpected today,” he said. “We are so glad to have Dad back finally … It’s the best New Year’s present.”

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 nationalization of BTA Bank. 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.

Schaeffer reported from Fleury-Merogis.

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